Before leaving the United States, one of my directors told me, “You can pass for Ecuadorian, so you’ll have fewer problems.” Once we all got into the country, we began discussing how to blend in when going around the city. I absorbed these lessons like a sponge, and started observing and copying as instructed.
I did everything I could to seem like a native Quiteño. I altered the way I walked and the way I spoke. I barely spoke at all in public, and never in English. I mumbled one-word answers to questions to mask my accent, and spent my 30 minute bus rides to class analyzing the voices of people around me to copy their accents accurately.
I didn’t realize the futility of my efforts until I went to La Mitad del Mundo (the Ecuator’s theme park) with my Quito host family. The entrance to this museum costs $2 for Ecuadorians and $5 for foreigners. My family bought the cheaper tickets, of course, and as we approached the gate, my host brother whispered, “No digas nada (don’t say anything).” I couldn’t believe that after all of my work on looking and sounding Ecuadorian, my voice could give me away. Afterward, I spent most of the day in silence, communicating with smiles and the occasional “gracias.” That night, I told my host aunt that I wanted to speak without an accent, then she told me, “Your accent is a piece of your country that you’ll always carry with you. Be proud of it!”
I’ve never been one for ostentatious USA pride, so I didn’t really understand until my aunt’s words came back to me in an unexpected way. One day on the bus, I saw a standard-issue American wearing a heavy-duty backpacking pack that looked out of place in the middle of the city, and speaking loudly with a heavy accent to the driver and the person collecting money. At first I felt aversion—the last thing I wanted was to be affiliated with someone so shamelessly foreign. Then I realized that, despite the apparent crudeness, the tourist was connecting with people, something I’d missed in trying to stare expressionlessly out the window and avoid eye contact like everyone else.
It’s okay to be a gring@* sometimes. In trying to observe and fit in, I had to fill in the cultural gaps myself, and I missed out on the real gold Quito had to offer: the stories and personalities of its people. By acknowledging my differences, I’m learning how to learn from others. Now I speak without fear while out and about, in the hopes that someone will catch my accent and teach me a thing or two about Ecuador.
*gringo is a Latino term that can mean “white person” or “foreigner” but most often is used to refer to someone from the United States. Gringa is the gender neutral version of gringo.