When I first came to Panama from Oregon, my Spanish was limited to numbers from 1-10 and a very gringa sounding “Cómo estás?”
Lucky for me, most of the upper crust Panamanians I met during that first year spoke perfect English. They’d gone to excellent private schools like St. Mary’s or to U.S. Department of Defense schools. I got by just fine.
But I soon learned that I would need to pick up Spanish if I wanted to have a full life here. Outside of the office—at dinners and social events—people tried to speak English for my benefit. But naturally, they’d eventually end up lapsing into Spanish. When they did, the conversation got louder and (as evidenced by raucous laughter) funnier.
Rather than give up and hang out with North Americans all the time, I decided I wanted in. So I took classes…just enough to learn the basics. I even accepted a friend’s invitation to live with her and her family for a while. (That’s just how Panamanians are…welcoming and hospitable.)
Eventually I began to think in Spanish. One day, a Spanish word popped out of my mouth. A local was sharing some gossip, and I cried out: Mentira! (“You lie!”). Everyone burst out laughing. There was plenty of good-natured teasing and even more choruses of “well done” and pats on the back. And though I was embarrassed, I laughed, too. And that was it…I was no longer afraid to try.
Not without incident, though. I once accidentally wrote feliz cumpleanos or “happy anuses” instead of feliz cumpleaños. (“Happy birthday”…that squiggle over the “n” is important). My Spanish teacher spit out her coffee when she read that one. Another day I asked the grocer an outrageous question. I meant to say: “Where are these pears from?” But instead of peras (pears) I said perra (a female dog…also slang for “prostitute”).
I learned plenty from my mistakes, though. For example, if you try to say you’re embarrassed, people may think you’re pregnant (embarazada). I also learned that soap is not sopa (soup) and rope is not ropa (clothing). A parade is a desfile, not a parada. And salada means salty, so to order salad, say ensalada.
The funniest incidents, were, of course, the most potentially offensive. Thank God Panamanians love to laugh. I think a few of my new friends actually cried tears of mirth when I tried telling them how jazzed I was about an upcoming carnival party. It came out: “I am really excited that they’ll be throwing homosexuals.”
You see, Panamanian carnivals feature culecos—that’s what it’s called when people toss or spray water onto the masses as they dance under the hot summer sun. The word I used sounds similar…but is a derogatory term for gay men.
Panamanians are notoriously difficult to offend, thankfully. If you are able to laugh at yourself and take a ribbing, they will love you forever. They’ll help and correct you even as they’re teasing you. All you have to do is try.
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