April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Friday, September 5, 2008

Cultural Contrasts

Sometimes I find that I learn about myself from the way I respond to others. I feel like I have learned a lot about our culture in the USA from being here...from the contrasts that I see and from how I respond to those differences.

Kevin will attest that sometimes I ask his opinion and then do whatever I was thinking originally. He says that he doesn’t understand why I bother to ask if it is not going to change what I do. I ask because my emotional response (relief at his agreement or lack of) is very revealing...it helps me to know what I truly want and how strongly that desire is. I don’t just ignore his desires, they become part of the mix too.

Being in Panama has been like a national version of my interactions with Kevin, very revealing of my personal understanding of the world and how it is the same and different elsewhere. I have come to realize some of the cultural norms that I was following in the USA without giving them thought.

For example, think about the last time you were standing in a store waiting for help...say at the bakery counter or meat counter in the grocery. You know, one of those places were more than one person is waiting but there is nothing to tell you to form a line so everyone just lingers with a little bit of personal space. Usually the person waiting the longest is closest to the counter. When the worker is ready for the next person they either know in their head the order of arrivals or they ask "who was next?"...and every one in line also has the general order of who arrived before and after them in line in their mind. Can you imagine it?

People tend to wait patiently (with exceptions for slow service and troublesome customers) in these cluster lines. If someone tries to skip the "line" someone generally points out "They were here first". The self reinforcement of line waiting becomes even more pronounced and direct in those cases were the structure of the line is introduced by the establishment with signs or stanchions.

We even seem to have an unspoken understanding that if you waited in line properly and finished and then found that something wasn’t quite right (thinks like "you didn’t give me a spoon" or "you charged me too much") you don’t have to wait again to get more help on the same transaction...only for new transactions. You have probably had a similar experience.

I don’t think that (without a LOT of thought) I could have clearly described those cultural norms before living abroad. I realized them through realizing the actions here that I found annoying...but no one else seemed to notice. Why were they annoying? Because the rules of the road that I live by are different.

In the above example, I could be waiting patiently for the help of the worker who was with someone else and a new person would walk up to the counter and say "Joven" (young in Spanish and a term similar to "Miss" in it’s use to command attention). The worker would then interrupt what they were doing to help the new person. This usually seems to be related to short transactions...but even so I find it annoying. I was waiting so I should be next, right? Not necessarily by Panama norms.

In the above case I could say something like "I was waiting here first"...and it would get results, but it would be considered forceful of me. Not that they would serve me differently at all, just maybe look at me as not as patient at most people...maybe even not as nice because I am a foreigner.

Other examples:

  • In Panama when you get on a bus you say a general "buenas dias" greeting to all and get a reply from those closest to you. In the USA it seems that buses and public transport are anonymous spaces. There doesn’t seem to be a requirement to do anything more than respect the private space of others.

  • In Panama when a person visits another it is normal to offer a chair and a drink or food. This is similar to the States. However, in Panama it is much more common to be sent on your way with food. This can be food that is prepared or raw ingredients.
    In Panama, when visiting someone’s house there isn’t the same requirement to maintain conversation the whole time. Silences happen and are normal and comfortable to them. In the States long silences can be uncomfortable and indicate that the visit should end. We tend to only have comfortable silences with those that we know really well and can relax with.

  • In Panama everyone is supportive of children. It is common to see a mother of 3 children on a bus put two of them on her lap and accept an offer from a stranger to hold one of her children. If the children are on a lap they don’t have to pay for the ride for them, if they take a seat they pay for a seat. It is normal to see strangers - both men and women- playing with children on the bus. In the States it seems that we are a bit afraid to have someone accuse us of doing something wrong with their children, so we refrain from interactions (or curtail those interactions some what) unless invited.

  • In the USA we have the belief that we are all created equal and thus we refrain from using physical descriptors when possible. When we refer to race and skin tone most of us are careful to do so with respect. Yes, there are derogatory terms used to refer to race and skin tone, but they are derogatory and their use reflects poorly on the person who uses them. In Panama calling a person who looks Asian "chino" is normal accepted practice. Calling me "gringa" is normal as well. They don’t to see a lack of respect in this practice. In this ways it feels like I imagine the States must have felt like just before the civil rights movement.

I have noticed these things because they initially felt strange. I would often feel surprised or uncomfortable or even annoyed depending on the case. It took me a while to realize that these differences were telling me something about who I am, and who we are in the USA. I still feel those things...but I try to match my actions to those around me so that I am the only one uncomfortable.

Next time you are in public take a moment to watch those around you and see if you can see our social norms at work....it took living in Panama for me to see some of them. Have a good time people watching!


Angela said...

Hello! This may sound completely crazy, but I'm a returned PCV from Africa and my friend just moved to Panama for a couple of months. She's there doing social service work through St. Louis University, and doesn't know anyone or anything around the area. When she called me a little overwhelmed, I immediately wondered if there were PCVs there because you guys could be such a nice resource for her. She's in Pamana City right now and I think she's going to be doing work in the City of knowledge? In Mali, we had a Peace Corps house where all the volunteers would get together, etc....do you guys have anything like that? Let me know when you get the chance! I'll check back for replies. Thanks so much- Angela

April Cropper said...

hey angela, feel free to email me at aprilcropper at yahoo dot com or call me at 011-507-6639-1352. would be happy to answer questions as much as we can.