The origin of the word ‘Gringo’ has many theories. In Panama, however, it normally equates with ‘American’. Being an American in Panama is definitely a love-hate relationship. We are admired yet feared. We are accepted but yet not. I speak from first-hand experience and here is my bias. I have lived here for 18 years, have a Panamanian wife, have had businesses and have had a variety of experiences – good and not so good. Enough of my history.
Time to get to what I hope is the helpful stuff. In short, in Panama, I sometimes feel like John Irving’s performing bear or a Kiplingish great white Bhawna.
Let’s start with the usage of Gringo. Panamanians are basically non confrontive and they will use the word Gringo to define we Americans, but that doesn’t go both ways. Often someone will ask me where I am from and I answer that I am a Gringo. Usually a shocked silence or nervous laugh follows. Then I laugh and the moment passes. Enough on that.
Then there are social interactions. In many situations, a person may want to speak to you in English but is embarrassed to try it since they are not fluent. I try to get around this by using ‘Spanglish’, a combination of both languages, even though I do speak Spanish. And as a Gringo, you may face what I call the protection factor. If you want to go to the local ‘Chinito’ (Panama’s version of a 24-hour store) to buy food or booze, everyone in the room will demand to go with you. Nice but can be a little inconvenient, but take no offence, in general Panamanians are friendly and helpful to Gringos and this is one example. Enough on that.
Back to the issue of going to the Chinito. Don’t expect anyone in your entourage to help you pay. The money thing can be very real and very annoying in several ways. If you are a Gringo, you are rich ‐ period. And in a country where over 50% of the population is listed as below international poverty standards and the average person works 42+ hours a week for $350 per two weeks, you can see where the perception comes from. It is not uncommon for we Gringos to be charged more than a Panamanian for the same goods or services. The government loves us and will give us retirement, resident or investor status if we commit a substantial amount of cash. Enough on that.
Let’s talk about cultural adaptation. Panama in general is a very easy and safe place to live if you are willing to learn and live by the rules. Here are some examples. Do not get impatient while standing in line. Don’t yell at someone for what in our country is considered inefficiency or inadequacy – this will get you nowhere. As in any adopted country, prejudice does rear its ugly head at times – don’t get offended if no one is comfortable taking the last empty seat on a bus if it is next to you. When Panamanians visit you, common courtesy is to feed them – no matter how many come. Enough on that.
To wrap this up, let me say that for me, living in Panama is uncomplicated and peaceful. I have lived in several countries and my favorite piece of Panama advice is if you want to get in trouble, you really have to work at it! And if you don’t like Panama, you can always leave. Never enough on that…
If you like, read more on Expat life in Panama.