Thursday, February 8, 2007

My Dinner With Juan

I met Juan a number of years ago when he was the head teller at Banco Popular. At 25 years old, he was half the age of many of those working under his supervision. Juan would help me in English in order to practice. Over time, he would be anticipating my bank stops, saving up lists of words and idioms for translation.

Now he works for Proctor and Gamble in San Jose, a prestigious job in Costa Rica, and during our dinner we both spoke about the challenges of living in two cultures. There are huge and numerous differences that we both see from our outsider vantage point of a foreigner living in another culture.

When he calls Cincinnati, and asks his suppliers how they are, they often respond with, “Not too bad.” There are only two answers for most Ticos to “How are you?” … Todo Bien or Pura Vida. For a Costa Rican to even have the word bad in your answer is socially unacceptable,

Juan was trained at P & G to give great service to “go the extra mile.” This is a new concept for him. In Costa Rica, “No Hay” is the most common response when a worker doesn’t have what you ask for. It is rarely followed by an explanation or a further attempt to find out more specific information.

At Banco Popular, Juan’s co-workers routinely kissed each other on the cheek to say hi and touched each other playfully and jokingly. He learned at P & G that this could be considered sexual harassment at a large U.S. company.

There is no right or wrong here, just 2 different cultural realities and norms. In order to best live in a foreign culture, it helps to understand the paradigm shifts. I’ve seen many non-Costa Ricans here filled with frustration and confusion when situations defy their logic and past experience. It’s been a long journey for me to flow smoothly here and has required a premium of patience and openness…and few shots of Guaro.

My Dinner With Juan was cool for both of us to discuss and laugh about our observations from living in each other’s cultures.

Living in the culture is an expression of eco-tourism.