If there is one thing we know, no matter the country we expats live in, we will never be "locals."
We can get legal residence status and even become full-fledged second-passport carrying citizens of any of these countries if we so choose... but we will never ever be Mexican or Ecuadorian or Nicaraguan or Costa Rican or Panamanian...
Just as we'd never expect anyone who didn't grow up in Nebraska to know what GBR means or to share our home-grown affinity for Nebraska football, there will always be part of the culture in our overseas communities that we don't completely understand, because we didn't grow up immersed in it.
Photo: Hugo Ghiara, InternationalLiving.com
That doesn't mean we shouldn't try our hardest to learn their ways... to understand some of the local proverbs, colloquial sayings and slang. (In Ecuador where we live, for example, we know pluto means "drunk" and chuchaqui is a Quechua word for "hangover.") But it will take us a lifetime to learn all the nursery rhymes and folk tales that have shaped the Ecuadorian national psyche for generations.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't try our best to adapt to the cultural differences and better fit in to our new communities.
Here are some tips to help new expats do just that:
Give yourself time. Don't expect to feel immediately comfortable in your new surroundings. Observe, watch and learn how everyone else behaves. In many ways, the Latin culture is a more formal society than we are used to -- even though in many aspects they are more open and accepting than we are. This may make you uncomfortable at first. For instance, breastfeeding is not something to be hidden. You'll see men urinating (usually somewhat discreetly) in public. It's not wrong, it's just different.
Always be friendly and courteous. Say hello to people you pass on the street and greet people you know warmly. Acknowledge the clerk when you walk into a store and always say "por favor" and "gracias" just like your mother taught you.
Learn Spanish... or whatever the local language is. You may never be fluent, but you should try to be functional. It shows respect and only makes sense. If you want to do thrive instead of just survive, you must at least learn the basics.
Make a few trusted local friends, but don't feel you have to be friends with everyone. Having local friends, and not just other expats, will enrich your experience living overseas and will help you better understand the cultural differences. But just like back home, you needn't trust everyone you meet. In every culture there are those who will take advantage of your newbie vulnerabilities. Be open and patient, but not naïve.
Avoid stereotyping. That local merchant... he may have studied in London for all you know. Your taxi driver may have been a schoolteacher at one time. Your tour guide may speak five languages. (All these have happened to us.) Try to separate cultural tendencies from individual identities.
Be aware of the way you're being seen and the impact you have on the community. Your attitudes and behaviors affect how North Americans are perceived, so be an ambassador. Try not to be loud and brash or quick to anger or get frustrated.
Try not to judge or compare. Avoid making comparative statements like: "In the U.S., that would be illegal," or "Canada was like that 50 years ago." No one really cares. Things are the way they are and no matter how well your intentions, you shouldn't try to force changes.
Share. Show photos of your kids, pets, and so on, and explain why you are here.
Give. Teach and share your traditions, and share your skills, hobbies, and interests.
Integrate into your community and give back. Contribute. Volunteer.
Buy from local restaurants and shops, not just those that are gringo-owned.
Hang out with the locals. If there is a community event, be part of it.
Understand that money isn't always the answer. Don't overpay. Don't over tip.
But be generous with kindness, patience, and time. Be fair.