Assumptions, obstacles, and other difficulties

Cameron Kaufman - Ecuador


January 12, 2011

I once had a French teacher who told me that humor is the hardest thing to translate. I frequently go back to what she told me, especially when using that awkward fake laughter in order to feign amusement. I know you’ve all been there before. “Haha, I do get your joke!”

Yeah… that was a lie. I really, truly, honestly, did not.

But I’ve found that humor is not the only hard thing to translate. Communication failures have been numerous and frequent during my time here in Ecuador. Not that I expected anything less, but still, it has become a very present reality. Like that time I said “I’ll be home at two,” and nobody was home because they understood “I’ll be home at twelve.” Or (even worse), when I said “I am jealous,” which was interpreted as “I am in heat.” Not very pleasant; my host brothers made fun of me for days.

In many aspects, Ecuador’s cultural borders are very closed to outside influences, which renders communication difficult sometimes. For example, the cuisine hardly ever varies. At every meal, first we eat soup, then proceed to eat rice with a little bit of meat. The few times I cooked for my family, I was met with dubious stares as to my cooking prowess. But, all modesty aside, my pasta with vodka sauce was delicious. I don’t think my family enjoyed it as much as I did though, seeing as afterwards, they politely asked me to stay from the kitchen in the future. So that’s food crossed off our list of possible commonalities (that was a blow- food really does bring people together). More serious are the discussions I sometimes have with my host father about religion, philosophy, and other such subjects. As far as I can tell, the majority of Ecuadorians are of Catholic faith. When I told them I was Jewish, I was pelted with questions such as; “But what about Jesus?” or “Wait- you don’t go to church?” And even though I’ve tried to explain properly, it is still widely assumed that I don’t eat pork because I don’t enjoy the taste (and trust me, that’s not it. I’ve tried bacon before, and I love a good crispy slice just as much as the next person). So I’ve found that the real difficulty in communication is breaking through preconceived notions that are commonly perceived as “right,” or “truth.”

Another food example (my favorite kind!): here, it is almost always prepared the same way, eaten at the set times for said food, with the correct condiments. “Cammie, are you crazy? You can’t drink tea at lunch.” Oops. I broke the sacred tea rule. “Why not?” I ask. “It’s just not done that way. It isn’t right.” Oh well in that case… Many things are just taken to be true, without any critical thinking. The other day my host dad brought home an exotic dish from a faraway land; Kentucky Fried Chicken. He asked me if I liked it, and I explained that I’d never tried it before. “QUE? But you’re from the US! Everybody knows that you guys live off fast food.” Hey, you learn something new every day, right? Or that time I was watching the news with my host mother, and she didn’t believe me when I said that, yes, poverty does, in fact ,exist in the United States. These widespread assumptions are huge obstacles for me in my daily life.

But isn’t that why I’m here? To break down the walls of assumption that separate our cultures? During my stay, I hope to prove many things about the culture of the United States (among which that we are not all KFC guzzlers), but also that we are similar in many respects. Four months left to do it!

Cameron Kaufman