Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Panama

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Panama, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Panama.

Outside of Panama City, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Panama are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Panama, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Panama

The Peace Corps/Panama staff recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Female Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to Panama’s male-dominated society. They may be verbally harassed or even experience physical harassment. They may not be taken seriously intellectually or in their work. They may not be able to socialize with males without giving the impression that they are flirting and may be judged differently than men for behaviors such as smoking, drinking, walking alone, or going out at night. In addition, because they are from the United States, they may be assumed to be sexually promiscuous. Panamanians may consider it strange that female Volunteers do not spend their days cooking, cleaning, and washing.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

African-American Volunteers may be judged as less professionally competent than Caucasian Volunteers. Despite their complexion, they may not be considered black because they come from what is considered a primarily white culture. They may be called negro or chombo, not necessarily as derogatory terms but as the local words used to describe black people. They must be prepared to work and live with individuals who have no experience of African-American culture. And they may not receive, or be able to receive, necessary personal support from other Volunteers.

Hispanic American Volunteers may not be perceived as being North American and may be expected to speak Spanish fluently. They may be labeled el cubano, el mexicano, etc. because of stereotyped perceptions of other Latino cultures. They may be expected to interact in Panamanian society with more ease than other Volunteers. They may not find other Volunteers in Panama with the same ethnic background.

Asian-American Volunteers may be expected to exhibit behavior Panamanians have observed in martial-arts films. Like Hispanic Americans, they may not be considered North Americans. In addition, Panama’s historical involvement with certain Asian countries or the presence of Asian merchants in the community may have an impact on how Asian-American Volunteers are perceived.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

While in Panama, senior Volunteers may not receive necessary personal support from younger Volunteers. They may find that younger Volunteers look to them for advice and support; some seniors find this a very enjoyable part of their Volunteer experience, while others choose not to fill this role. They may not find suitable role models among the Peace Corps/Panama staff.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers who have been “out” in the United States may feel pressure to be less open in Panama because some people view their sexual orientation as deviant or taboo. They may be hassled in the streets or in bars, and their civil liberties may be ignored. They may serve in Panama for two years without ever meeting another gay or lesbian Volunteer. Lesbians have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex (as do all women). Gay men have to deal with machismo: talk of conquest(s), heavy drinking, girl watching, and dirty jokes.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

Volunteers of religions other than Christianity may be challenged or face generalizations about people of their religion. They may not be thought of as real Americans. Jews may occasionally be considered anti-Christian. Thus, some Volunteers may not feel comfortable disclosing their religion to the people in their community. Volunteers may not be able to find a suitable place of worship near their site or may find it difficult to fulfill their religion’s dietary requirements.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

Volunteers with disabilities may encounter people in their community who think that they always require special help and cannot function on their own. They may find that some Panamanians consider them incapable of work that requires physical exertion or less competent in professional situations. They may be faced with frank or inconsiderate remarks concerning their disability.

The Peace Corps Office of Medical Services, as part of the medical clearance process, determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Panama without unreasonable risk to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Panama staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

Possible issues for Married Volunteers

Being a married couple in the Peace Corps has its advantages and its challenges. It helps to have someone by your side to share your experience with, but there are also cultural expectations that can cause stress in a marriage. It is important to remember that you are in a foreign country with new rules and you need to be open-minded about cultural differences. For example, a married man may be encouraged by Panamanians to be the more dominant member in the relationship, be encouraged to make decisions independently of his spouse, or be ridiculed when he performs domestic tasks. A married woman may find herself in a less independent role than she is accustomed to or may be expected to perform “traditional” domestic chores such as cooking or cleaning. She may also experience a more limited social life in the community than single Volunteers (since it may be assumed that she will be busy taking care of her husband). Competition between a couple may become a difficulty, especially if one spouse learns faster than the other (e.g., language skills, job skills). There also may be differences in job satisfaction and/or different needs between spouses. Younger Volunteers may look to couples for advice and support. Married couples also are likely to be treated with more respect because the community sees marriage as a responsibility. They may be asked when they will have children.

Please note that during training, couples may or may not live apart if they are assigned to different projects. Please consult with your placement officer if you have any questions.