GoAbroad.com asked me to answer some questions about the Expat lifestyle. It was a lot of fun and brought back some great memories. Here is the result.
1. You have an extensive career background, having worked in different positions as well as different countries. Can you tell us which country had the most different office culture?
I guess I should preface this with the fact that I have been in the office environment in Australia, Japan and Panama – both as an executive and an employee. If you are asking about differences as compared to the U.S., it would definitely be Japan. Before I continue, let me preface by saying I lived in Japan from 1989 to 1995. Some of what I observed was changing but I’m sure the basics are the same.
The Japanese work culture is dominated by the “Salaryman” concept. Lower and non-management workers are expected to do exactly what their bosses decree, and without much or any input. This includes going out and drinking after work every night until you have to catch the last train home. Promotions are another big difference. Management is chosen by seniority, not ability. It was frustrating to many business personnel that most upper management contributed very little. As an American working for Japanese companies – mainly entertainment and publishing based – I was given a lot more leeway. I really appreciated that.
2. You worked for some time in Japan and are now living in Panama. What are some of the differences in the culture of Japan and Panama from the US that shocked you the most?
First, no insult intended, neither the Japanese or Panamanian cultures are known to be very creative. If you look closely, the Japanese are not famous for coming up with new ideas. Instead, they take an existing one and go to great lengths to improve-perfect it over the long term. The Panamanians suffer from an antiquated and disfunctional educational system so they simply aren’t aware that creative opportunities exist. “But that’s the way it has always been done,” rules here, though there are now programs to change this and modernize the average person’s thinking.
Second, in Japan consensus is the by-word, individuals are quietly ostracized or put in line. Probably the thing that shocked me most was the power-role of parents. In Japan, teachers and family elders hold the power to sway young minds. What they tell a child to do, the child has to do, whether the parents agree or not. This doesn’t seem to be a problem though, since the parents were raised under the same circumstances.
Third, Panamanians are much more relaxed than the average American. They take their time doing just about anything. Being late is not an issue. They will stand in line without fidgeting. Having the extended family all living under one roof is no problem. One thing I find interesting is that there a lot of laws designed to regulate daily life in Panama but they are seldom enforced.
3. What are the things you miss most about the US?
It’s surprising to me that this question was the most difficult to answer. I have been away a long time and am not really in touch with daily life in US, except what I learn from the news or friends. So, let me flip this and talk about what I don’t miss? Excessive government regulation of every aspect of my life. The IRS and other agencies trying to take the money and other assets I spent hours of my life accumulating. The cost of living and surviving. And since I grew up in Iowa, I will take a year-round tropical climate over snow any day!
4. Were you ready for what Panama had to offer before moving to the country? Could you let us in on things you wish you did before moving?
Honestly, coming to Panama was a complete accident and I sometimes still can’t believe that I live here. I had left Japan and was finishing a book in Costa Rica. I needed to get my tourist visa renewed so a friend suggested Panama. I went to the islands of Bocas del Toro, and basically never left Panama after that. As per prior knowledge, nothing really comes to mind. I’ve had it pretty easy here overall.
Yes. I have a Private license. When I studied and practiced, licensing required 20 hours of flight with an instructor and 20 solo. I passed my test just a month or so before I decided to leave the States so I flew a few more hours to improve my flight book during that time. I haven’t flown much since. My next goal is to get a helicopter pilot license.
6. You have been living in Panama for many years now, what is one thing people should do when they visit Panama?
See the sites. It’s amazing what you can experience in such a small country. It’s famous for its nature and there are a lot historic options as well. Some things you can’t do anywhere else, like swim-dive in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on the same day.
7. Being an expat in a foreign country has its challenges. Please tell us about your most challenging experience in Panama.
This one is easy. Keeping my mouth shut! I tend to be impatient and deep-down I still think like an American in many ways. And sometimes the frustration or lack of understanding of “why” is just too much. This makes me want say what it’s not wise or useful to say. Having a Panamanian wife helps because she helps me understand how things work, but I still have to watch myself.
8. What are the top three things that you think every future expat should know before moving to Panama?
Don’t try to change how Panama and Panamanians operate. I have seen many, many foreigners who tried to live and make it here. The ones that choose to adapt tend to stay and be happy. Those who want to change everything often leave screaming in frustration – sometimes after losing everything they had. If you want Panama to be like home, stay home.
There is some subtle prejudice regarding foreigners here – though it is not often obvious. One of the majors is that to the everyday Panamanian, all foreigners are automatically considered to be rich. This can lead to pricing and other discriminations. Another is that Panamanians tend to be shy around foreigners. This can result in you being told “Yes” with a straight face, when the answer is really “No”, but the speaker wants to avoid confrontation.
Do your Due Diligence. If you want to invest or do business here check everyone and everything extensively. Then when you are satisfied, check it all again. If you are considering relocating here full time or for extended periods, visit here a few times first. These tips make good sense for any country you may want to take up the Expat lifestyle in actually.
9. What made you choose to stay in Panama instead of another Central American or even a European country?
I have made short trips to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Colombia. And I would like to see Peru and Ecuador eventually. Europe is simply not a favorite option for me. I still prefer Panama. All things considered, it’s easy to live in this country. To get in trouble, you really have to work at it. People leave you alone and let you get on with your life. I appreciate these things.
dennis.dean.smith @ gmail.com