I was going to write this headline, but I got tied up

“I can’t get anything done in this country!”

Are you at the stage where you smile when you hear that comment from a newly arrived disillusioned expat, or do you still mutter this to yourself from time to time?

Something that most of us don’t think about is that our orientation to time is influenced by our culture, and is different in different cultures. It takes a while to learn to look at the ways of our new country in terms of being different, not comparatively better or worse than our own culture — just different. That is a good step forward, but we don’t think of time as being part of a culture.

For Westerners, time is something that is fixed in nature, something we spend, we lose, we gain, we measure and heaven forbid, we might even waste. We value being on time and in time and doing something in a timely fashion. Time orientation is not something we think of as being relative. However, it is, and it takes a while, for a person coming from what I call a market culture who finds herself in a Latin American culture (or an Asian or African culture, for that matter) to begin to realize and accept that others view and use time differently.

We can imagine time being of the essence but not being subject to the will of God (si Dios quiere.) We expect an appointment made for an appointed hour is kept promptly by both parties. If it isn’t, we are insulted or decide that the other person lacks responsibility. We don’t feel that it is acceptable for a doctor or bank president to be late just because he achieved degrees in order to get to his position and we are supplicants for this help.

Nor do we have much patience with the time that is spent just to establish a relationship before the business at hand must be dealt with.

We especially don’t appreciate someone not showing up on time (or ever, until we call again), because something else came up or perhaps Dios didn’t quiere, or perhaps they don’t even acknowledge that they didn’t show up. Maybe to them it is self-evident and should be to us.

Before we reject their interpretation of time, we should remember that stress and pain pills are not sold in such quantities in Costa Rica as they are in the United States. Market cultures are future oriented. (Wall Street even reports on futures.) Maybe the stress and pain comes from trying to be in two places at once.

Perhaps pura vida means enjoy life now, smell the roses. “Que sera sera.” What will be, will be is certainly not a Western concept. Pura vida is more along the Buddhist idea about doing what you are doing with your whole body and mind, or in the words of Ram Das: “”Be here now.”

Sometime during the early months of settling into a new culture, a reaction known as culture shock sets in. Probably nine out of 10 people experience it. The symptoms include suddenly hating the language, finding people purposely devious or misleading, or looking out and seeing “another damn mountain and trees covered in yellow flowers.” Recognizing what you are going through is half the battle, as they say. Then you carefully take yourself back to where you were and figure out just what got you to where you are.

Or do something that is entirely satisfactory wherever you are. I chose to walk to the Tin Jo restaurant and have a lunch of some delicious fresh and perfectly cooked asparagus. I don’t remember what else I had. The asparagus made me feel that where I was, was okay. Smiling at someone I saw on the street brought a smile in return. That queue line waiting for a bus or for a store to open may be stupidly long, but I noticed how patiently and stoically the people waited.

“Well, naturally,” you say. “They have more time than I do.” Or do they?

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