One of the first differences to hit me between the U.S. and Ecuador was food prices. In the U.S. it is, nearly without exception, cheaper to buy dinner at a MacDonald’s or Taco Bell than to head out and buy fresh ingredients for a homemade meal. Here in Quito however, a small salad from MacDonald’s costs five dollars and change. The most popular hamburger meal is maybe fifty cents less. Now take a trip down to the corner market where farmers bring their fresh produce and vegetables. A head of lettuce is fifty cents. A pound of high quality beef is four dollars, as is thirty fresh eggs. That’s no typo, thirty eggs for less than a burger at MacDonald’s! How can fast food stay in business here?
Well if you’d like to find out, head down to the SuperMaxi on Amazonas Avenue. There you’ll find a two-story mega-MacDonald’s…and it is always packed. I asked my host mother, “Israel, why do people pay so much more for lower quality and quantity?” She agreed it was ridiculous, but didn’t have an answer to my question. Maybe the irresistible flavor of a Big Mac and fries is the culprit. Well, that’s part of it. To me though, it is another example of a detrimental cultural relationship between the United States and Ecuador. This relationship that has so much potential, but instead of dialogue between two cultures, there’s an influx of American cultural garbage that is doing both countries a huge disservice.
This phenomenon is omnipresent here in Quito, and in hundreds of surrounding communities as well. LMFAO blares from the radio on the hour; Pitbull hails drivers from an enormous billboard, offering them an ice-cold Pepsi. Girls walk by with shirts in English that read “I love texting,” a vendor watches over wares of Ben 10 and Garfield backpacks. Ecuador’s connection with United States culture is astounding, and only grows stronger with time. The problem is, what we have here is a cultural monologue. The U.S. is throwing its products, pop icons, and fast food at Ecuador, which in turn gobbles it all up. This type of relationship causes cultural dilution: what we need is cultural collaboration and strengthening. What we need is cultural exchange. There is so much we can learn and appreciate from Ecuador, and so much good we can share. Our connection is strong; we just need to bend it in the right direction.
Ecuador has a lot to show us. Every time I experience something here that I would never have seen in the U.S. it reinforces this fact in my mind. For instance, having to greet everyone with a kiss here is a bit awkward for me and clashes wonderfully with the non-demonstrative handshakes I’m accustomed to in the U.S. It seems a much more personal, human greeting. Speaking of personal, family is also very tight here. The second night in my home stay my family all snuggled into one bed to watch a movie: eighteen year old sister, sixteen year old sister, and mom. I was sitting in a chair thinking, that is so cool, I “grew out” of snuggling with my parents by middle-school!
There is also a stigma around living with one’s parents past a certain age in the U.S. that isn’t present here. I know Ecuadorians who have openly lived with their parents well into their thirties, not out of necessity, but out of a beautiful, shameless family connection.
In working with young students I see how much less adult intervention is present in children’s lives here as well. During my last shift at the elementary school I looked out the classroom window to see a taxi roll up (by the way at least half of taxis in Quito are not licensed, I noticed this one did not have a four digit registration number on it.) Suddenly, the door popped open and out jumped a girl of no more than six. An American parent would probably see abduction written all over that situation, but this girl makes the trip safely every day! She paid the driver (minus a tip, tipping cabs in Ecuador is considered rude) and skipped up to the door to join her arriving classmates. Later on, during a game of fútbol, a scuffle broke out between two kids. One kid struggled as another pinned him down, but with no coddling adults to swoop in, he knew tears wouldn’t solve anything. Instead, when the other kid let him up, a swift kick to the bully’s behind set things straight and everyone resumed playing ball. Oftentimes in the schoolyard things work themselves out even without the watchful eyes of parent and teachers.
Another thing that struck me with these kids was the nicknames. Not cool nicknames like “Zach Attack,” or shortened names like “Billy.” These nicknames were of a more blunt variety, ranging from “Fat One,” to “Black One,” to “Big Nose.” In the U.S. we tend to dodge around describing someone by their physical characteristics, especially if that description may not be flattering. Here, if you happen to be on the heavier side, that’s just a fact that the other kids will recognize and you’d best get used to answering to “Gordo.” In fact, one kid introduced himself to me as “Chino,” (as in “one from China)” a nickname he had garnered because of his small eyes, and how he is known by students and teachers alike. Wow, a name like that would so not have flown in my elementary school in the U.S. I tried to think of what names the kids might be calling me soon: “Tall One,” “Skinny One,” “White One,” “Cuatro Ojos” (four eyes,) probably just “Gringo.” It sounds un-PC but I love it. It shows me that this country has a personality on which bombardments of media and products from the U.S. won’t have any effect.
That’s why I love the blunt interactions of the kids here. Why I love when I reach to shake a woman’s hand and then realize that I have to go in for an awkward kiss on the cheek. I love seeing all of the ways that Ecuador is stretching me outside of my comfort zone and influencing my American mindset.
But the dialogue has to be there too. There is so much I absorb everyday here, I can’t forget to share something American. And I don’t mean American things like The Expendables, WWE, or a burger and fries. I mean values and personal experiences from living in the United States. There are some things that I see that I would give a lot to change, like the treatment of animals in many rural areas, and the lack of waste management on the streets of my community. So I can share my values on animal rights, and I can help to analyze waste management and reduction. I can share things that will have smaller impacts too, like maple syrup, and Frisbee. I can share stories, and jokes, and conversation. And the Ecuadorians will receive these things like I receive the kisses, and the food, and the nicknames: with a little caution at first. But that caution turns into curiosity, then into enthusiasm. The fact is, Ecuadorians don’t need our fast food, our Pepsi, our TV. They want to know what it’s like being a bunch of Gringos up North, what we think, what we feel, what we love, and they want to show their side of the world to us.