What I Learned: A Culture of Relationship

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Malana Ganz, writing about relationships in Panama and realizing how cultural her understanding of her faith had been.


About two years ago my husband Steve and I were visiting Panama for the second time.  We had come to teach, at the invitation of friends from Oregon, where we live. While there, Steve had a dream of Jesus standing over the map of Panama, arms outstretched, saying,  “I want you to teach in Panama.”

Not being a man to whom dreams come, his reaction was to ask for counsel. When I responded positively, our hosts did, our pastor did…well, then we asked our six adult children for their input. Although they were not as quick to agree, we reminded them that we had supported all of their life decisions. What could they do? Other than requesting that we remain in good communication for the sake of our grandchildren, they gave their blessing.

What a whirlwind of activity it took to close two businesses, get on social security, and move out of a 2400 square foot house and 2400 square foot shop. My organizational skills, for which I am legendary in the family, were severely challenged. But we did it! Eight months after the dream, we were here.

As part of our service here, we ended up being in their first training school at this location as students.

When we started school we had been here a year. My Spanish was improving, my husband was still struggling with simple phrases but making some headway. He told everyone that it goes in one ear and out the other. They suggested that he hold the exit ear shut! But he explained that then the words come out his nose.  Pretty funny conversation in sign language!

Our understanding of the people was also improving. We thought we had a good handle on the differences between our American Christian culture and jungle tribal culture. When Steve teaches, the interpreter has few cultural corrections to make, mostly about keeping examples pertinent to their experiences. We were making friends and enjoying our classes.

However, our cultural differences really hit home to me one day in class, when our teacher was discussing the scripture, “The devil comes to steal, kill, and destroy.” His point was, that if we do the opposite of what the devil is trying to accomplish, we will thwart his plans and he will have no control over us. The class was asked to identify the opposite of “steal, kill, and destroy.”

My thoughts instantly went to “to support yourself (let those who stole steal no more, but work with their own hands), bear life (no abortion), and to build (a wise woman builds her house, a foolish one tears it down with her own hands). Where would your thoughts go to? Self-sufficiency, social responsibility, personal responsibility, that is the American mantra. I’ve learned it well.

I sat in silence to listen as my Wounaan friends and classmates answered the question. We try to let them speak first, because their parents taught them to listen before speaking. If we jump in too quickly, they won’t participate in the discussion. The first response was from an 18-year old girl:

“When I was little my father left some money on the table. I was tempted to steal it and go buy candy. Then I remembered that he always told me, ‘If you want something, ask me for it.’ I decided not to steal the money, but to ask my father for enough to buy candy. He gave it to me gladly. The opposite of steal, is to ask.”

Then someone started throwing out antonyms for “kill” – “resurrect, grow.”

And the opposite of “destroy” that they decided on?  “Include.”

What I have always seen as words of responsibility and guilt, my Wounaan friends saw as words of relationship. If you ask, you will receive and not need to steal. If you encounter death, bring resurrection life. If you have a temptation to destroy a relationship, include the person in your life and rebuild the friendship.

I was completely floored and humbled as I understood the limitations of how I view scripture.  I was unaware that I had been locked into a narrow cultural interpretation. As I meditated on this class, I remembered that Jesus comes from a rural relational culture more similar to Wounaan than American. I felt like I was hearing His heart.

Worldview is usually our silent partner, until it is challenged. I am so glad that my worldview was exposed, so that the light of truth can shine more deeply into my heart.


malana ganzMalana Ganz and her husband have 6 married children and 14 grandchildren. They ran a piano restoration business for 38 years and pastored a small church for 10 years. They work with youth in Panama and happily refer to themselves as Geezers for God.

Painting Pictures: Reflections from a Father and His TCK Daughter

painting pictures2Today’s Painting Pictures post comes from Trey Morrison, our first dad to post in the series. I am excited to offer you his words, experiences, and also the words of his 11-year old daughter. What a sweet idea, to interview her and present her own thoughts on the experience of living in Panama. Together they cover a lot of TCK territory and the conclusion is one of peace and transformation and an expanded worldview. My words to Trey though are that he is indeed raising TCKs, just TCKS that have now returned to their home country. He says he failed but from what I can see, he is succeeding, is a great dad, and I’m glad there are good fathers like him, giving their children the best that they can of the whole wide world.

Reflections from a Father and His TCK Daughter

I tried to raise two third-culture kids.  I failed, but I think this is a good thing.

When I grew up my family did a lot of traveling.   My father worked for Delta, so flying was normal life.   By seven, I was allowed to travel solo to visit relatives.  By the time I reached double digits I had memorized the security codes for the “Authorized Personal Only” airport doors in Dallas, Denver, Cincinnati, and Atlanta.  I knew where I could get cheap food and a nap while waiting for a flight under the normal airport.  I had been to all 50 states by the time I was a teenager and I had been to Europe numerous times.  My father constantly pushed us out of our comfort zones and I was equally comfortable building a log cabin in the North Georgia mountains with a toothless 70 year-old mountain man as I was choosing the proper fork at a the Cincinnati country club.  Okay, maybe I was a little more comfortable in the mountains.

Despite this upbringing, I found myself married and working as a realtor raising two children in a small town with a white picket fence.  Ughhh!  I saw my kids growing up in complete homogeny and it drove me crazy.

Something had to change.

So I convinced my wife to move the family to Panamá for 9 months to stir things up a little bit.  I needed the kids to get more exposure than a little mountain town had to offer.

After much arranging, we moved to Panamá with nothing more than eight checked bags and a dog.  When we got there, the home we were supposed to live in was not ready.  There was no power and the pool was green.  It took us months just to get basic furniture and essentials into the house.   All the while trying to raise two small children.

After we settled in, we found schools for the kids.  My daughter Sydney went to a small school with a mix of local and expat children.  She had classmates from China, Russia, Peru, Argentina, England, South Africa, Chile, Australia, Panama, the US and Canada.   My son Michael went to a Panamanian preschool, where he had to wear a uniform and there was no English spoken at all.

classSchool Picture

After the nine-month “gestation” period was over we went back to the States for a few months and then came back to Panamá with another eight checked bags.  We ended up moving back and forth between the US and Panamá for three years.

In order to paint a picture of my daughter’s TCK experience, I interviewed her.    She is now eleven years old and I wanted to know what her memories were, and what struggles and joys she could remember.


Me:  What is your favorite memory about living in Panamá?

Syd:  Everything

Me:  Come on, give me more than that.

Syd:  I loved going on the beach and playing in the pool, just everything, everything, everything.

Me:  OK, what is your worst memory?

Syd:  Um, well, getting stung by a bee on that swing.  But then it was cool how we put mud on it.

Me:   What was good about moving back and forth between Panamá and the U.S.?

Syd:  I had friends in both places I was always glad to move back and forth and see friends I had not seen in a while.

Me:  What was the hardest part of constantly moving between countries?

Syd: When you leave toys behind and you want to play with them you then remember they are in another country.  Also, when we stopped [moving back and forth] I lost touch with my old friends.

Me:  Did you ever feel isolated from other kids because you were not around all the time?

Syd:  I was too young to feel isolation, I just didn’t think about that.

Me:  Tell me some more stories about what you remember.

Syd:  I remember Halloween when both houses and the pool house and the caretaker’s house had candy for us.  And for Christmas we found a real tree, which was hard, and we made ornaments from seashells.  And Easter we had an Easter egg hunt and it was fun and we swam.  I remember hermit crab hill and Shiva Time.

Me:  What was Shiva time?

Syd:  When the sun was setting and you could do whatever you want with your shadow on the wall, and 2, 3 or 4 people could get together so it looked like a four-armed or eight-armed person.  It was especially cool because everything looked pinkish.

Me:  What about food?

Syd:  I loved Tamarindo candies, pineapples, coconuts, maracuyá, and those things with the meat and raisins, what were those called?

Me:  Empanadas?

Syd:  Yeah, empanadas.  I love those.  You should learn to make those!

Me:  What would your friends here think about Panamá if they went there?  What would they think was crazy and different?

Syd:  There are so many less cars there and everyone bikes and walks everywhere.  But there are barely any sidewalks and people wear black and walk in the road at night.  I remember that.  The houses are smaller and shabbier and the roads have more potholes.  There is a lot of trash there, like litter.   It is just third worldy.

Me:  What did you think about living in a Third world country?

Syd:   I always felt a little, not rich, but like I had more money than everyone else.  And half of the nights I was there I couldn’t get to sleep because the music was very loud.  Like loud, loud, loud.

Me:  So was the whole experience worth it?

Syd:  It was a bit stressful but it was worth it.

Me:  What was stressful?

Syd:  Traveling.  Traveling is always a little bit stressful.


After these three years my wife had had enough of the transitions and decided we needed to stay put.  I wanted to continue to live in Panama, but I was willing to see her point, after a few weeks of pouting.  We were always either preparing to move or settling in after a move and that was stressful.

So now I guess my children are no longer TCKs.  For me, the transition to not living abroad has been more difficult than the transition to living abroad.   I miss the chaos, but I know that not everyone thrives on chaos the way I do, especially not children.  They need routine.  When interviewing Sydney I noticed that many of her memories were of the things we tried to do to keep continuity with her life in the U.S.

We created Halloween for them by giving candy to the caretaker and getting friends wait in all the buildings, and out buildings, on the property.  We did an Easter egg hunt and had a Christmas tree.  None of these things were local traditions.

We participated in many local celebrations too.  We went to two Carnival celebrations and one was in a river.  We burned life size effigies on New Years Eve.   We immersed ourselves in numerous Independence Day parades.  There are two independence days in Panamá, one from Columbia and one from Spain.  We celebrated with the Panamanians in all the local holidays we could.  But it is interesting to note that the ones my kids remember are the U.S. ones.

I am grateful the kids had the experience they did and I think it has made them better people.

They are truly colorblind when it comes to race.  They are open to new ideas and new people and they have something in common with me as a child.  They are excellent travelers.

They are patient and great at entertaining themselves without electronic devices.   That is a rare commodity here in the U.S., and is certainly due to their experiences living in other cultures.

Don’t tell anyone, but I secretly hope to do another stint overseas someday, but for now our roots are growing deeper in the mountain soil. 

Trey has written a book: Panama with Kids and you can connect with him at The Resilient Family or Moving Abroad with Children. You can also find links on those pages for contacting Trey, or following on Facebook and Twitter.

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