Friday, March 29, 2013

A Personal Quest For Independence....

Procrastination is the art of purposely putting things off that we think should be done now, for one reason or another.  Living here in Panama gives us the right to procrastinate even longer due to an added factor called "the language barrier."

For example, a few months ago when I first visited the gynecologist in Coronado he suggested that I have a bone density test done at Clinica Hospital San Fernando in Panama City, and said that I'd have to call for an appointment.  Those last four words filled my head with horror at the thought of talking to someone in Spanish on the phone.  It's hard enough understanding what some one's saying in person, since the use of facial gestures and hand movements can help.  On the phone there's none of that nor is there the option to give the other person that confused, befuddled look of fear that lets them know, I'm lost.

About four months ago we started taking private Spanish lessons with a young Panamanian woman named Jasmine that a friend recommended. One day I mentioned to her that whenever I speak to anyone in Spanish I always lead with, "yo hablo espanol un poquito," meaning "I only speak a little Spanish."  Jasmine was outraged and said, "to a Panamanian that means you only know how to say "hola, adios" and little else."  She said "you know a whole lot more Spanish than that" and went on to say, "from now on I want you to say,'Yo hablo espanol mas or menos,' which means 'I speak Spanish more or less."  She explained that this would tell someone that although I do speak Spanish it's not perfect and I'm still learning, so they would have more patience.

Her comment boosted my self confidence and suddenly I realized that by telling myself I didn't speak Spanish was giving myself negative messages. So instead I began to assure myself that I did indeed speak Spanish and ventured out in public with my head held high.  But I still had the orders for that bone density test staring me in the face and I needed to call for an appointment.  In my head I went over the words I'd need to use and realized that all were currently in my Spanish vocabulary with the exception of the medical terms for the test.  With confidence I picked up the phone and called for an appointment with no problems at all.  In fact it went so well that I called back a second time because I forgot to ask how much the test would cost.

Yesterday we ventured into the city to find Clinica Hospital San Fernando for the test which was nothing more than an x-ray done in a lying down position.  Due to a family history of osteoporosis and the fact that I've had gastric bypass surgery, both put me more at risk for osteoporosis and thus the reason for being tested at this age.  Back in Texas I'd also had a few bone density tests done and the results showed no problems at that time.  San Fernando Hospital seems to be promoting medical tourism on their website enticing foreigners with low prices and claiming to have an English speaking staff.  But my experience proved otherwise as I encountered no one that spoke English.

After registering at the front desk I was sent around the corner to the cashier to pay the bill of $61 for the test.  For some reason they refused to give us our pensionado discount and since it was so little we didn't bother to argue as we just wanted to get it over with.  We sat down in the waiting room and within minutes a young man showed up and called my name.

I followed him down the hall to another room where he handed me a gown to undress.  In the U.S. as long as the patient isn't wearing anything with metal such as zippers, they don't need to disrobe, but things are different here.  The young man stayed in the room while I undressed behind a curtain.  As I made my way out I climbed up onto the table hoping that the paper gown wouldn't rip, as I didn't think this boy wanted to see naked old lady parts.  After the test was done he picked up a clipboard with a sheet of paper on it and began reading the questions to me that inquired about my medical history.  The first time I didn't understand I asked if I could read the questions which made it much easier.  Here in Panama the results are usually picked up by the patient within a few days instead of being sent to the doctor. But since we were far from home I asked him if the results could be given to my doctor since he has an office in Panama City as well as nearby in Coronado, and he said they could.

When we first moved here although we knew some Spanish I was always slightly terrified whenever we went out in public.  In stores I always looked down and away from the sales clerks for fear they'd start talking to me in Spanish and I wouldn't understand.  In restaurants my friendly husband would always place the order for both of us so I never had a chance to use any Spanish.  As time went on this was making me feel like I'd lost my independence. I was afraid to go out without Clyde and something needed to change.  For me getting more comfortable speaking Spanish was the answer and the lessons with Jasmine are certainly helping.  Within the past few months I've gone to the gym, store and dental office alone and even stopped to pay the water bill. And no longer am I afraid of getting stopped by the police for a random license or registration check which are quite common here too.

One misconception about learning a language is that just living among people that speak the language will somehow make one learn it.  As if it would just seep into my brain without having to do a thing and one day I'd just wake up and be fluent in Spanish. Perhaps if I lived with people that only spoke Spanish I'd pick it up faster, but still there has to be some baseline knowledge I think.  Although some words can be learned just by living here for example:  every business has a sign on the front door that reads something like this "Horario....lunes a viernes 9-5, sabado y domindo 10-4."  Even if you know no Spanish you can figure out those are the hours of operation.  "Lunes a viernes" is obviously "Monday through Friday," and the other two days are Saturday and Sunday.  But I've come to realize that learning Spanish takes time, commitment and hard work. It won't magically seep into my brain through osmosis but will continue to improve if I make the choice to speak Spanish every chance I get.  And this includes forcing myself to use it at home in our daily lives whenever talking about those day to day things that couples discuss.

We've met fifty-some blog followers thus far when they visit Panama and we hear similar comments from many of them including "no one here speaks English."  Even in Coronado and the all-inclusive fancy beach resorts, the staff speaks little to no English.  And we think that the reason is because those Panamanians that do learn to speak English are more educated and able to get better paying jobs in Panama City.  Those waiting tables or cleaning hotel rooms at a resort perhaps went through the public school system where English was not taught.  Even our Spanish teacher Jasmine who grew up in Coronado was not taught English in school.  In her early teen years she began to teach herself English by reading the dictionary and looking at English books, practicing over and over again until she understood the language.  Very impressive I think especially since sentence structure is completely opposite in the two languages, and I can't imagine how someone could figure it out on their own,

But choosing to learn Spanish is a personal choice for us, as we know other expats that manage to live here nicely without knowing much if any.  Maybe there's a little part of me that just wants to fit in wherever I go, and speaking the local language helps. And although I'll never look like a Panamanian no matter how dark of a tan I might get, maybe I'll be understood a little more by improving my language skills....along the gringo trail.


  1. Ray and I were saying (as we were leaving El Palmar last week) that we may just take the Latin America dictionary we have and start studying the words (sort of like Jasmine did)! I was quite proud of us though because at Don Saul's Fonda we managed to order without words on a menu in Spanish, ask the waitress to speak slowly and repeat the word for "fried dough" since I had to know what I was eating so I could order it again and again when back in Panama. The amazing thing to us was not that the population in the interior of the country did not speak English (as we knew from our first trip), but that the police don't speak it at all either. Unlike in Spain and Mexico where you can get help from even just one in three policemen in a group, in Panama you need to have some Spanish in you. So we begin the journey of words and sentence structure. Proud of you!

  2. 2 words - "Google Translate" :-)

    Actually, GT is a lot better than most of the robo-translators of yore. By "yore", I mean 3 years ago.

    I found that when we visited Mexico and Ecuador, the best way to learn Spanish was to screw it up with the locals. It's frustrating here in Texas when I tell a waiter that I want to order in Spanish that as soon as I stumble, he switches to English. Maybe I'd have better luck if I tried that at Mexican restaurants rather then Chinese.


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