Life in a fishbowl. How to be the good extranjero, and not the pendejo.

This morning my wife and I made our first official visit to a medical provider here in Medellin Colombia. I had a minor issue that I was sure would dissipate with the ‘tincture of time,’ as health professionals refer to treatment for temporary, innocuous conditions. But we decided to take our health care insurance for a test drive anyway, just to learn how the system works. Not only was it an enlightening visit, introducing us to the health care system in Colombia, but it also gave us a golden opportunity to practice being expats and not pendejos. For those readers unfamiliar with the ‘P’ word, it’s not a compliment. Here are a few ways you can avoid being ‘The P word,’ as you interact with folks in your newly adopted country, wherever it happens to be.
1--It’s different here. Well, no foolin’, Sherlock. We were told this over and over by folks who’d done the expat thing and who knew just how different the various systems are. This morning, at the clinic in Medellin, we realized just how much we’d ignored the advice. After waiting an hour, we found ourselves second guessing the clerks, the staff, the process itself, thinking aloud how ‘this would never fly in the States,’ and ‘why don’t they just?’ and ‘don’t they understand that?’ etc.
When I produced the prescription the doctor had given me, it wasn’t enough. I needed ‘un orden.’ Okay, ‘puedo obtenir un orden, por favor?’ No, not today, she said. I had to make an appointment to receive ‘un orden.’ Then I had to make yet another appointment to have the procedure done. ‘Why can’t they just?’ and ‘don’t they know that?’ and ‘this would never fly in the States.’ Well, it’s their system. It works for them. It’s just different. Live with it. Don’t be a pendejo.
2--In some vague, unaccountable way, we realized once we became expats that we’d be seen as ‘The Americans,’ the gringos living in a fishbowl among the locals. As such, we have a responsibility to be good examples for the image and perception folks in our adopted country see. I’ll refrain here from political and/or current events references, any ideological cant, or references to anyone whose name might possibly start with the letter ‘T’, but here’s why this is important. As U.S. expats, we do carry a fair amount of responsibility just now, a necessity to be kind, and accepting, and to show people in our new country the best face of the country we left.
Put yourself in the position of the Colombiano, the Panamanian, or the Mexican. It’s a simple fact that most of the folks you’ll interact with have much less money than you, less access to consumer goods, cultural events, tourist sites, travel etc. They have far less agency in their personal affairs and in society as a whole. Try not to flaunt your wealth. In the picture above, my wife is chatting with ‘Christian,’ a local chap selling his baked goods in the pueblo of Fredonia. We didn’t need the sugary treats Christian was selling. But we bought them from him anyway, just for the chance to interact, and maybe make a new amigo. It was a win-win for everyone. (Note Christian’s winter coat, Vs Mariah’s light shirt. It was 22 degrees Celsius! I love this country.)
Here in Medellin we don’t wear jewelry, including our wedding rings. It’s not out of fear they’ll be stolen; it’s because we noticed other people don’t wear such things, so we don’t either. We try to dress as they do, avoiding flip-flops in the grocery, the cutoff T-shirts and jeans, the ratty Chicago Cubs caps. Colombians tend to frown on tennis shoes as well, unless you’re playing tennis, so we wear halfway presentable shoes. We avoid wearing sunglasses in public because the shades symbolize a sinister and best-forgotten era that Colombians are striving to put behind them. Speaking of Pablo Escobar, don’t use his name in public unless a Colombiano does. They really don’t miss him. At all. Really.
We try to learn the customs, the culture, the various taboos, the likes and dislikes. For example, in Colombia it’s considered rude to use a toothpick in public, or to point at someone, or to give someone the ‘thumbs up’ sign. Referring to yourself as ‘an American,’ if that’s how you identify, is considered rude because they’re ‘Americans’ too. We do say South America, after all. Never toss something to someone. Hand it to them instead. The standard palm up, fingers flexing ‘come here’ sign equals a crude romantic gesture in parts of Latin America. Open-mouthed yawning is impolite. Don’t complain that your Colombian guests are an hour late. Be glad they’re not two hours late! Stay away from local politics. If invited into someone’s home, gifts are well received, chocolates and roses very much so. In short, good expats understand the need to be aware of cultural artifacts. Pendejos, not so much.
3--Making the effort to be a good example includes learning the language. This is likely the biggest gateway to the hearts and minds of local folks. In Medellin, when we inflict our Dick & Jane Spanish on people, they never criticize, sneer, or laugh. Okay, they laugh sometimes, but mostly they smile and help us. And they’re incredibly grateful for our effort. We know pendejos, er, I mean expats here who express zero interest in learning Espanol. Yet they’re the same folks who demand that immigrants in the U.S. learn English! By the way, if you’re considering a move to Colombia, Spanish is really not an option. Here in Medellin you’ll meet very few people who speak English.
There are many opportunities to learn Espanol, enough that it’s difficult to avoid immersion in Spanish. Taxi drivers, cashiers, the transitos & policia, waiters, service people, they all qualify as teachers of Espanol. Take advantage of their eager outreach; you’ll be glad you did. And don’t assume that they don’t understand you when you’re using English. Speaking in a negative way in English may be the fastest way to turn yourself into a pendejo. Assume they understand every word, and you’ll be a good expat.
Lastly, look for reasons to compliment people on something about their country, either a cultural aspect, a social nuance, a sign of progress, or a structural artifact that you find interesting, meaningful, or particularly important to them. We always mention how clean and litter free Medellin is, how amazing the transit system is (true story), and how friendly and outgoing people are. We talk about the phenomenal beauty of this country, citing the recently released video titled Magia Salvaje (Wild Magic), about Colombia’s astonishing landscapes & biodiversity. (Highly recommended; go to YouTube Magia Salvaje Colombia.) Especially in Colombia, with its history of warfare and drug related chaos, and especially considering the progress that’s been made to change that dreadful reality, and it has been remarkable, mention it in conversation--in Spanish--and you’ll be the good extranjero, not the ‘P’ word. This is a time for us expats to possibly show a different image of the U.S. and other Western, English speaking countries. Let’s show our new neighbors who we really are, and give them an additional reason to welcome us.

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