Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Should We Try to Change Panama?

There are always discussions on the Panama Forum between those who feel that new immigrants and residents of Panama have a right to try to effect change; and those who feel that we are guests in the country and should not be so presumptuous as to try to change their culture.

Ronald Davis recently wrote an interest post on this subject, and I'm reprinting it here. Comments are welcome:


"Those who come from far away lands to these Panamanian shores to seek refuge and a new beginning - and who often times spend a whole lot of their money, time, and effort in this new land, and who subsequently see an "evil" in their newly adopted land - once the rosy colored glasses have been removed - are, in my opinion, honor bound to try and achieve change so that such an "evil" does not continue to occur in the future. Whether you succeed or fail in youir endeavor is of secondary consequence.

However, those ex-pats who sit back and do nothing about said "evil", who merely observe the passing landscape as if said landscape were in a book of fiction they were reading should be, in a more just world, consigned to some inner circle of hell.

Complications and Nuances: Clearly there is such a thing as cultural relativity, even situational ethics. And this is something that must, by all means, be taken into account. To wit: What is good or culturally acceptable in Country A is not always considered good or culturally acceptable in Country B. Some examples of this would be female genital mutilation, consigning newly widowed woman to funeral pyres, eating primates or dogs, beating wives and children, keeping slaves [yes, slavery still exists in parts of this world] and so on and on. Of course, there are many other examples of these cultural differences, some important, some not so important - and thus my use of quotes around the word evil.

Sooo . . . if you are living in such a new land and you were to see something that gives you great distress, something that you see as truly wrong, what should you do about it? Just sit back, look the other way, and accept these practices - whatever they may be - as indigenous to a given culture and, therefore, not worthy of public comment or even public action on your part? That's certainly one way to look at it. But if you were to decide to travel down this path, would you not also be complicit - in part or in whole - in what is - by your own definition - an evil? And would it not be condescending, really condescending, if you were to say that a given culture, a given people, has been doing same for a thousand years and, after all, they cannot/will not change, and, so, who are you, one person, to try and change them?


All cultures, all peoples change, evolve, and metamorphize into something new and different over the years. Some from internal, some from external forces. Some quickly, some slowly.

So the only question for me is how to achieve change when you decide change is really neccesary and to what degree can an individual do so? Trying to ram something new down someone's throat rarely, if ever, works. So the method of going about how to change someone/something need - common-sense should always dictate - be one of evolution, not revolution; one that is carried out with great care and greater tact. And it often needs be shown that there are specific benefits - usually economic - to adopting a new way, a new method, if you are to be successful in your endeavors.

On a tiny, even infinitesimal level, as an example, it is showing visible displeasure when a Panamanian worker shows up three hours late for a job you have hired him/her for. But how to express your obvious displeasure is the key to this kind of situation. Humor, anger, sarcasm, even economic sanctions [i.e., firing the bobo/boba on the spot and telling him/her you will only deal with workers in the future who can tell time, and, in addition, that you find it personally insulting that he/she cares so little about you that he or she can needlessly waste your time like he/she already has], all these methods and others have their place in your possible responses to this kind of situation.

But to just sit back and say nothing, except on this forum, or to stew in your own angry juices and do nothing about this kind of a situation, is to my way of thinking, totally unacceptable. To say that the "manana" concept has been and, therefore, will always be a part of Latin culture is also unacceptable and, again, such an approach, I believe, is to treat people in a condescending manner, much like you might treat a retarded child whom you believe is incapable of growth or change. Tell me that kind of attitude here in Panama does not often border on racism?

England like Panama has been a racist society for many years. There were times in Great Britain when an English worker refused at his place of employment to even sit next to a "Packy" and now, years later, the most popular of all foods sold in Great Britain comes from the Indian subcontinent and who you work besides has as much relevance as where your shoes are made or the color of your socks.

The U.S. like Panama has been a racist society for many years. There were times in the U.S. when having a black president was as conceivable as flying to the moon and then . . . ahem . . . things changed.

My wife and I have had many excellent Panamanian workers in our employ since our arrival here four years ago - and some true slackers too. Many of the best of them were trained in the Canal Zone and are proud of their acquired skills and the importance of being on time. There are also companies here in Panama who have spent considerable time, effort, and money in training their workers to be more efficient and proud of their work. If they can do it, so can you, albeit, on a more personal level, IF the desire, patience, and good will is there. Small changes over time can become big changes.

Else, in my opinion, go quietly into the night and dare not criticize your newly adopted country for any reason, for you have no right to do so - at least not within my hearing."

- Ron

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