Friday, December 22, 2006

Second Year as an Expatriate is the Hardest

I think the second year here in Panama, living as an expatriate in a foreign land, is the hardest. The first year you are still excited at the newness and strangeness of it all. Everything is interesting or amusing. Sure there are frustrations, and an inability to speak the language can make you feel like a idiot at times, but taken as a whole the experience is fresh, and disappointments are largely shrugged away.

In the second year the novelty wears off. You begin to take your life here more serously, and the frustrations begin to take on an edge of unpleasantness. The voluminous paperwork required for anything official, the way service and repair people fail to keep appointments, the lack of mail service, the blandness of traditional Panamanian food... all these things begin to grate on your nerves. And in my case in particular, living in a town with no other Muslims can be hard. I try to go to the city for prayer on Fridays, but it would be nice to have some daily interaction with other Muslims.

As for Laura, I can't say. She went through a very difficult period even though she had only been here a matter of months. But she was not taking her medication at that time and it's hard to say how much was culture shock and how much her usual anxieties, not to mention the difficulty of raising a newborn baby for the first time. Once we began filling her prescriptions again, and once we learned to develop a routine with Salma that worked for everyone, Laura seemed to return to her usual well balanced self and even better, taking genuine pleasure in her life here.

Anyway, somewhere in the second year more than one expatriate says, "I'm thinking about going back home."

My friend Tracy is saying just that. His life here is so much richer than what he left behind in Florida, but he is suffering from a bad case of culture shock.

So I think the second year is make-or-break. If you can learn to accept the flow of life here in Panama, and to find workarounds to problems in the ways that Panamanians do, then you can begin to relax and take pleasure and even find joy in the beauty of the country and the warmth of the people.

For example, the power is off right now. Instead of getting upset about the fact that I cannot get online to do my work, I am running my laptop off a battery backup unit that provides up to eight hours of power, and I am writing in my journal, something that does not require an internet connection.

Some Americans in particular - I think the Europeans are generally more relaxed about things - cannot make this adjustment. They become deeply frustrated with the attitudes of Panamanians, and they begin shouting at workers and service people. I mean, literally shouting any of the following:

"You've been telling me for a week that you are coming to fix this! This is B.S.! What kind of Mickey Mouse operation is this?"

"Why should I have to get this document renewed? Nothing has changed since the last time I filed it! And every time I have to pay another fee? This is a scam!"

"What's the matter with you? Why did you tell me you could fix it if you don't know how? Look at this, it's a mess!"


These people don't last here in Panama. By the second year they are gone, back to the rat race and their empty, consumerist lives where everything runs on time but no one actually has any time.

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