Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Resource-Driven Culture

One of the reasons I chose to live in Latin America (and wound up in Panamá), is that unlike in the US, Latin Americans are real people with whom you can have real conversations about real things. While I can sputter with the best gringo over the near-doubling of the price of sand and gravel over the past two years, most Panamanians aren't really concerned about that. They are far more concerned about putting food on the table, clothing their families and digging up enough money to outfit their children for school.

Those are universal basic concerns but how people go about it varies culturally .

We had lunch not too long ago with a Panamanian friend who had an interesting perspective on US culture and those of other "developed" nations. Let's stick with American, since that's the one I know best.

She said that Americans have 4 cultural assumptions: 1) I like it 2) I want it, therefore 3) I need it, so 4) I deserve it.

Read progressively from 1) to 4), I thought she'd hit the mark perfectly from a certain perspective. There are other American cultural attitudes as well, but these are the one seen from the "developing" countries. I've spent a lot of time in Brasil with poor and marginalized people, politically active ones. While they would not have phrased it so succinctly, I guarantee that this is the way they see the US. And they're right. All I have to do is conjure up the knowledge of how my daughter-in-law--a wonderful, hard-working, decent, compassionate woman, dearer to me than my own children, is raising my grandchildren, and there you have the next generation of Americans born, raised, shaped and ready to consume--by right. Whatever they like, they want, they need and by god, they deserve. A few years ago, I was appalled at what they received for Christmas. The cost would have fed a Brasilian family of 6 for nearly a year. They aren't exceptional. I had acquaintances in the US who spent even more on their children. To me, this is obscene.

Intrigued, I asked our friend what the equivalent Panamanian cultural attitudes were. Her reply: a primary cultural attitude was doing what was necessary to get the job done, collectively.

That's very nice, very admirable. The four listed above, frankly, are not. Yet without much trouble I could list several outstanding American cultural attitudes such as the way we open our pocketbooks to pour out aid to those in distress. And often we even do it without our so-called leaders setting political strings on it as the current administration has attempted to do in Myanmar. Certainly we do so as private citizens. Look at what happened with Hurricane Katrina and natural disasters in Honduras and other areas of the world. Not the governmental response, thanks (same administration)--but the outpouring from hundreds of thousands of Americans. It is definitely a cultural attribute and one in which we can take enormous pride.

I made no comment, but it set me to thinking what my equivalent list would be, as an outsider looking at Panamanian culture the way she, as a Panamanian looks at American culture.

The one I have to deal with the most often is called "playing the game". Another name might be "charging all that the traffic will bear", and another might be "cheat whoever and whenever you can, particularly if they're stupid Americans". This is not new for Panamanians. In another post, I reviewed a recently-published book called "Path to Empire:Panama and the California Gold Rush". From the earliest days of crossing this isthmus to get from the Atlantic to the gold fields in California, Americans and others have come up against that Panamanian attitude. For assistance with mules, boats, food, lodgings, and other services, Panamanians did indeed charge all that the traffic would bear. We would call this rampant capitalism and I'm sure that there are many CEOs who in their dreams fantasize fondly about such an atmosphere in the US. Panamanians don't just dream---they do it.

And lest you think I made up that bit about "the stupid Americans", I actually overheard this in David one day while I was getting my hair cut. Panamanians pretty much assume that no American can speak Spanish. My Spanish is rather good, and I had no trouble understanding her along with her contemptuous voice tone. The owners of the shop froze, practically literally, because I always made small talk with them--in Spanish. None of them speak a word of English.

I got mine back without ever saying a word, and left that shop satisfied with the net exchange. I believe she'll think twice before trying that again (soon).

But that's how many of them see us. And, for that matter, each other except that since they're all Panamanians, they all know the rules of the game and my guess is that it's pretty much a stalemate.

I try to deal with fools as little as possible, but it's hard to avoid when so many are immigrating here. I am particularly entertained when they announce solemnly that they truly understand that this is not the US and then proceed to act as if it is--with all the protections, both formal and informal, that US law and custom gives.

We Americans are a people accustomed to obedience to laws. It isn't because the US has laws and Panama, say, or Brasil, doesn't. The best constitution I know of is the Brasilian one but its guarantees in many instances aren't worth the paper they're printed on because there is so little law enforcement. Panama, for one thing, just doesn't have the resources.

Which leads me to the main point.

We all agreed that day at lunch that Panama was a resource-limited economy--and I would argue, culture--but in reality what our friend was talking about was money. Money is in short supply in this relatively poor country (although its per capita income is second only to Costa Rica in Central America, I believe). And so we return to basic survival needs--such as putting food on the table for your family.

I emphasize the family part because Panama's culture, unlike that of the US, is family-based. Oh we Americans give lip service to it but that's all it is. If Americans were ever given the choice of having a real family-based culture but with the knowledge of what the price is, believe me, most if not all would reject it instantly. I've seen the lengths to which all members will go to aid one another in the family in Brasil, for instance. Americans are far too self-centered and too invested in personal privacy to go to such lengths.

As a diversion, I want to mention the not uncommon sight of seeing older American men with young Panamanian wives and sometimes children. I've seen it in David, I've especially seen it in Boquete, and we even have such a couple here in Potrerillos. We're all familiar with the American male mid-life crisis and what he's most likely to do so there's no need to go into it. I don't think it's a bad thing here myself because usually the man has no real idea just exactly what this transaction is going to cost him. If you get married in the US, chances are really good that you can pretty much ignore each other's birth families, if you want to. But if you marry a panameña, you just don't get her--at no extra cost, you get her entire family and you get them for life. Believe me, the woman is perfectly well aware of what she's doing--as is everyone in the community--I've had enlightening talks with Panamanians in Potrerillos on the subject. Hey, so long as everyone is happy.....

So that's one way of charging all the traffic will bear and feeding your family--all of them.

I've seen in Brasil and heard stories here from Panamanians about the daily struggle to get enough money to put that night's dinner on the table. Not next week, not tomorrow--right now, today. It's been going on for a long time in this poor country, and much of it is due to wealthy Panamanians exploiting poor Panamanians. I've had several conversations with people in Potrerillos who really like dealing with Americans--honest chiriqueños who are not out to cheat. Why? Because Americans pay their bills. They pay their workers. That's not always true of Panamanian employers, especially in the construction industry. Boquete is littered with gringos who have been forced to pay the wages of workers who were left high and dry as the contractor went broke or just left without paying them. By the way--that's panamanian law. If the builder can't pay them--you have to. Because they don't have much money and never have had, they don't know how to manage it when they get it, either. And too many construction contractors are notorious crooks. There are so many ways to fleece "the stupid Americans" in construction. What is particularly funny is to see how those Americans who assure you that they know that this isn't Kansas, think that something like a contract is going to protect them. I should be a TV producer of a comedy show--I have material for years with stories like this.

But still, there's that problem of putting food on the table right now, not tomorrow. Your kids are crying with hunger now.

It doesn't matter that better times have come. It doesn't matter that you have more income now than you've ever had, thanks to the latest American invasion of Panama. Culturally, you're resource-limited and resource driven--and that's the way you act. Tomorrow may never come--your deeply-imbedded, unconscious cultural imperative is food on the table today.

One of the interesting consequences of this is with the small Panamanian businessperson, such as a taller or workshop. In the US and Europe, too, I imagine, one of the assumptions businesspeople act on is that if you give good service and charge fair prices, sell quality goods, then you will profit in the long run by returning satisfied customers. I have listened to Americans here rave about how they're going to get even by never going back to that d_____d store, taller, contractor, whatever.

What they don't understand is that for the most part, your individual Panamanian kiosko owner, vendor, workman, whoever--doesn't even remotely think like that. The fruit and vegetable vendor by the side of Via Boquete in Dolega doesn't worry that you won't come back to his stand because you realized when you got home that he charged you 3 times the price for those tomatoes that he charges his Panamanians customers--who are most likely his neighbors. He's not looking for your "return business". He's putting food on the table today and tomorrow will have to take care of itself. Besides, as PT Barnum put it so well, there's a sucker along every minute. There's always the next stupid American who doesn't speak Spanish and who doesn't have a clue as to what prices really are.

Even relatively large operations will do the same, especially when the target is a gringa, but any American who looks dumb enough--or is caught in a fix bad enough--will do. About 6 months or so, there was a flurry of posts on about an auto service and parts store in David that was just outrageous. Anyone will tell you that there is no honest car mechanic in the US as well, but there you have recourse to law--and here you might as well forget it. As my insurance agent told me when I had to appear in court after some idiot driver nearly killed us by ramming into the back of our truck at high speed in his loaded produce truck, totalling ours, you never know who the judge is--could be the guy's brother-in-law. And family being what it is--he recommended that we take advantage of the free lawyer the insurance company provided. I had already decided on a lawyer; I was ecstatic when it was free. It should have been an open-and-shut case since we had two Panamanian witnesses, but it was not routine--the judge--in this case, the mayor of Dolega--questioned each of our witnesses for nearly two hours each. But we had a Panamanian lawyer and Panamanian witnesses and we won the case. I can name two gringos under similar circumstances who lost because they either didn't have the lawyer or didn't have the witnesses.

Some Americans just plain ask for it. I listened in stunned silence as some Boguete gringo told me how, at the gas station, a Panamanian man came up to him, hailed him in broken English, talking about how they had met recently, asked him how he was (but never called him by name)--and then hit him up for a loan because he was in an emergency. His wife was going to the hospital, his car was broken, and he had to get to somewhere--can't remember where--within the next two hours by bus, and he didn't have the bus fare. He wanted $100. The gringo gave him all the money he had in his pocket--only $70, poor thing. Just for your information, the bus fare to Panama City at that time from David was about $12. The Panamanian walked away, promising to repay him that day. The gringo asked me plaintively if I though that this Panamanian, whom he couldn't recall having ever seen before, would pay him back. I stood there, wondering how the guy managed to put his pants on in the morning without a 10 page booklet of instructions and a set of detailed maps. No wonder they call us "stupid Americans".

Our middle-class Panamanian friends certainly don't approve and by no means all Panamanians are dishonest. But to Panamanians, it's just playing the game, and they have to put dinner on the table for their family--all of them--tonight.

Unless you learn Spanish, leave your gated community, make an effort, talk, and listen (and have on hand at least two functioning brain cells)--you're never going to know "them" and they will continue to play the game against "us".


Anonymous said...

The game I believe is called "juega vivo". I heard Presidente Torrijos say on the radio twice that for Panamanians to get ahead they must stop this behavior. I have lived in Boquete for 5 years and I think you abolutely nailed it. Yours is the closest blog to reality and objectivity I have encountered yet. As an aside I am planning on leaving the area for most of the reasons you mentioned. I am tired of watching my back.

Joyce said...

Thanks, Anonymous for your kind comment and for the translation in Spanish for "playing the game", at least the way it's used here in Panamá. I used that particular translation because it's easier to understand and because it is actually a rather common phrase in Latin America--I first heard it in Brasil.

I knew what I was getting into when I moved here. There were a few ugly surprises but I knew there would be and they were relatively minor. I actually wound up being happier here than I thought I would be because Panamanians are rather easy to get along with and a lot more sophisticated than some other nationalities in Latin America. But I am always aware of the price.

I'm sorry to hear that you're leaving. I wish you well. Good luck.

miamisunset said...

The bottom line is and always will be as long as the U.S. survives----It is the best country on God's Green Earth-----(to plagerize a radio host's description) full of caring, compassionate people------and, I venture to opine, the envy of the world for having accomplished what we have as a nation during our nation's short life span.


Joyce said...

Thanks for your comment, Miamisunset (I imagine dawns are beautiful as well). I can't speak for all, but I have read that Europeans, while critical in many areas, admire Americans for their ability to get things done. It's another one of Americans' finest attributes.