Alex Hardy grew up never having experienced or visited the country of his parent’s origin. His only connection to his Panamanian roots were through his grandmother, who would play music and cook food in their New York home. Seeking to reconnect, he took a one-month trip, which turned into two months and then a one-way ticket to professional triumphs and unforgettable experiences.
Hardy, an enterprising English and dance teacher in Panama City, was able to both fulfill his desire to tap into his heritage as well as matching his career with his passion. Learn from his journey how you can too.
BlackEnterprise.com: What led to your choice to move to the country you live to pursue your professional goals?
My mother’s family is Panamanian, but I’ve never been here until now. Sadly, I wasn’t raised speaking Spanish. … Any real knowledge came from overheard tales or personal investigation. I’ve always felt disconnected. Coming here to explore the culture and learn the language has always been on my list of things to do. It was inevitable, something I knew I needed to do.
How did you go about finding work in Panama?
Upon finding temporary lodging, I began placing flyers in the streets and on bulletin boards for my private English classes. I put ads in the local papers. Calls began trickling in over time, and word of mouth helped even more than my own promotional efforts. As for teaching dance, in only my second day here permanently, I happened to be browsing the classifieds in a newspaper while enjoying the free breakfast in Luna’s Castle Hostel and saw an ad for a “dance/aerobic instructor.” I responded to the ad, set up an interview, had a great connection with the owner and got a great job teaching Zumba in the upscale part of town.
What is the work culture like and how are you able to successfully navigate the market?
Some of the more popular, sought-after jobs are call center jobs and anything in tourism. And having English under your belt makes you much more marketable. As an independent contractor offering a service to Panamanian individuals and companies, the biggest requirement one needs is patience. Nothing in Panama happens when you think it should. Nobody moves as quickly as I, as a former New Yorker, expect it to. Buses run on their own schedule. Businesses may or may not open at the posted time. Having services rendered, you’re at the mercy of that individual. If they had other things to do deemed more important than fulfilling your request, you’ll just have to deal. The only thing that happens quickly is the demand for payment.
What differences do you see in working in Panama vs. working in the U.S. in terms of salary and benefits?
The average salary in Panama ranges from $400 to $700 per month, so as an American who doesn’t like to share his living space, I knew it would be up to me to independently create the kind of income I’d need for my lifestyle. All workers in Panama are paid on the 1st and the 15th. Since I offer my English classes as self-employed, I’m paid weekly.I have more flexibility.
One major difference is how openly Panamanians discuss salaries. When I mention that I teach privately, people often ask, “How much do you earn?” or “Do they pay you well?” or “How much do you make in a week?” and so on, without hesitation. Back home, we’re taught, via human resources training, not to discuss or compare salaries in the workplace.
What’s a typical work day like for you?
My day typically begins at 6:45 a.m., when I jump out of bed to teach a Zumba class at the national gym chain Powerclub. I take a diablo rojo (a repurposed and painted yellow school bus) which costs 25 cents and then transfer to a taxi, which should cost no more than $3 within the city (more if you speak no Spanish, less if you’re a flirty pretty girl). After my Zumba class, I grab another taxi or Metrobus to my clients for English lessons. My clients could be average citizens of United Nations employees. One night a week, I teach a hip-hop dance class to teenagers and another night, I do a Cardiodance class for women. Other nights, I rehearse with a dance company or take a jazz or ballet dance class.