Now that I have been in Ecuador for almost 2 months, I think that I have had enough time to recognize and analyze some major cultural differences between the United States and Latin America. There were some differences that I knew to expect, but others that I did not expect, and as a result have been frustrated by, to be perfectly honest. The family I lived with on the farm in Mindo began to somewhat prepare me verbally for some of the things I would experience back in the city, but I definitely did not experience as many cultural differences there as I have since returning to Quito.
On September 1st I returned to the capital, Quito, to begin my program of studies. The first week was orientation to the academics of the program and the culture of the country that we would be living in until December. We had a lovely woman give us an interactive lecture about Ecuadorian lifestyle, and specifically living an Ecuadorian lifestyle as a gringo. (For anyone who doesn’t know, the term “gringo” is used to describe anyone with light skin, obviously of European descent. It is not a derogatory word as I was tempted to think, but just the thing that they call us and can actually be endearing when in the form of “gringito” or “gringuita.”) This lecture was very helpful to me and thought provoking, so I wanted to share it with you all because it has affected the lens through which I see, learn and experience this culture.
First, I want to share a couple of key phrases that the lecturer told us to always remember about Ecuadorian culture:
1. People here tell you what they think you want to hear.
I was not particularly thrilled to hear that this is the case in Ecuador. I am the type of person is very much a fan of honesty and I have a deep appreciation for blunt people who tell things like they are. This is something that you generally do not find here in Ecuador – I have experienced this to be generally true, no matter who I am talking to. Men will tell gringas what they want to hear in order to try and “get lucky” with them. Venders will tell buyers that their products were hand-made by indigenous people in the Amazon, when really from a cheap fabricator in the city. Whatever it is, I generally hear what people think that I want to hear, and that is frustrating at times.
2. If I find myself for a split second trying to convince myself that everything is ok, it’s not.
Honestly, this scared the daylights out of me. This applies to many contexts and situations, but it can never be a good thing. If I am trying to convince myself that I am not sick to my stomach from the water that I drank from the tap yesterday but I still feel like I want to throw up, I am probably sick from the water. If I am trying to convince myself that the man on the trolley that keeps making eye contact with me and is inching closer to me while I look away is just a normal bus-riding citizen like me, then I may be about to get robbed of my things or worse. (Thank God that neither of these things have happened to me, but they are examples of what this means.) I think that it was helpful to have this tid-bit of advice because I believe that it can really keep me out of bad situations. If I am ever trying to rationalize a situation that I am in and convince myself that all is well, after knowing all of the potential dangers to gringas, I know that I should try my best to remove myself from it. This has served me well when making decisions about what food to consume, buses to take, what parts of the city to visit or not in the evenings, and who to surround myself with in rougher areas and times of day. I’ve been safe and healthy so far…
Now I want to share some “gringo stereotypes” that this lady made us aware of during orientation and how this has affected my experiences and interpretation of them:
1. Gringos are rich.
Well, this was news to me. I would have never called myself “Moneybags,” but greedy Ecuadorians do. My eyes have been opened to the disparity between our two countries and it is huge. Everything here is so cheap according to our US American standard, so relatively speaking it does seem like I have a lot of money. This makes me, and all others like me with gringo appearance an immediate target for pickpocketing and mugging. My host mother asks me every time I leave the house how much money I have with me and is always warning me to never carry more than $10 and my cell phone. This is immensely frustrating to me, not because I am overly attached to my possessions, but because I constantly have to be on the lookout for people who want to make an easy buck. This has made me so much more grateful for my homeland, a society that thrives on honesty, where thievery is really looked down upon and severely punished relative to Ecuador. I miss the freedom of not having to worry about my possessions being swiped from under my nose if I take my eyes off of them for a minute.
2. Gringos are loud.
As much as I dislike this one, it is true. You put four or more of us together walking down the street, and you would think we were walking with megaphones at times. I definitely find myself guilty of being the loud gringa with no regard to how that makes me stand out in this culture, and I dislike this when I realize it. Awareness of this stereotype has helped me to be much more mindful of the things that I say and weighing the importance of them before I speak. Also, I have been much more mindful of the amount of noise that I make in my regular living habits like preparing food, going to the bathroom and listening to music. I live in a very quiet household with just a host mom and 25-year-old brother so this is an especially important stereotype to fight in order to be a good family member to Ecuadorians.
3. Gringas are easy.
Thanks Hollywood. This might be my least favorite of the stereotypes because it affects me everyday of my life here in a very shameful way. I cannot get on a bus or walk down the street without receiving stares and the frequent whistle for having light skin and I can honestly say that I despise this. I don’t appreciate this kind of attention at all and I am not happy that I am automatically pegged as easy and quick to go to bed because of movies that come from my own country. In a sense this makes me feel betrayed by my homeland and shows that many movie producers either aren’t aware of or don’t care what kind of message they are sending to the world about our country. Hollywood has a lot of power over the rest of the world, and I am experiencing a personal glimpse of this here in Ecuador.
4. Gringos are naïve.
I know that it is the truth but I don’t like to think this about myself. I think that I am much less naïve than when I first arrived to Ecuador since I am aware of the dangers that I could face, but I still have a lot to learn about the world and Ecuador. I find myself learning more and more everyday, which is exciting but humbling because I know I will still be naïve to an extent. My host brother told me the other day that one of his first impressions of me when he first met me is that I am naïve and inexperienced, that he could see it in my eyes. I appreciated his honesty (as I do like honest people), but I have to admit that I was a little disheartened by it. I thought that I was pretty sophisticated for having traveled alone and lived in Ecuador for a month already and also having traveled to other Latin American countries in the past. He later clarified that he meant that he could tell I was very pure and trusting of people (language barrier problems). My brother had a pretty accurate first impression in that I have not really experienced many horrible things in this world to make me lose all faith in people and their potential to do good. This can be a bad thing in a country such as this one where the police are corrupt and you cannot really trust in them to protect you. However, I think it is probably a good thing to humbly embrace that this stereotype is generally true one way or another and seek to be more culturally aware no matter where you are.
So there you have some of the things that have been on my mind during these last three weeks of life in the city of Quito. The grander take home message that I have from thinking through these things and evaluating the truth and falsity within them, is that stereotypes need not be a crutch and blindly accepted. I have met so many people from all over the world since coming to this country and if I had been navigating conversation based off of preconceived notions about them, I would have missed out on some great relationships and thought provoking conversation. Each and every person is so different and is to be valued for their individuality, not so much for a generalization about the culture from which they come. Also I have been learning how to not be frustrated and so resentful of the stereotypes that others may hold about me because they don’t know any better. Rather, my energy is way better focused on fighting the negative stereotypes and gently showing others how to open their minds to my individuality and cultural differences. My relationships with Ecuadorians, US Americans from other regions, Germans, English, Swiss, and many other types of people have been greatly enriched by efforts in this way and I would encourage people from all walks of life, no matter their nationality or place of residence, to work towards the same. It definitely sweetens one of the sweetest parts of life, relationships with other people.