Can I have one?

Jordan Lee - Ecuador

January 9, 2013

In case you didn’t know, there is an education crisis in the United States. According to a study published by the education frim Pearson, students from the U.S. rank 17th internationally, while those from Finland, South Korea, and China grabbed the top spots. Experts say that if something is not done soon, the U.S. should expect to lose it’s dominant status in global affairs. However, I think there is a much greater crisis in education that American students falling behind in arithmetic and chemistry. No, there is something much more basic that they are lacking. And to make things worse, they all think they learned it in Kindergarten. That’s right, American students are terribly behind in sharing.

Well, sharing isn’t exactly the right word, it’s really something called collectivism, which is basically a social orientation that favors the good of the community over the good of the individual. Thanks to a wonderful speech made by my friend Emily Hwang (who is currently a fellow in Chimborazo), I know that Ecuador ranks 2nd in the world in terms of collectivism. In fact, Latin America is very rich in collectivist countries: Guatemala is #1 globally, while Colombia, Panama, and El Salvador also rank very high. The U.S. (dissapointingly but not surprisingly) ranks dead last. Now I don’t know all of the factors that go into determining the “collectivism factor” of a country, but if the prevalence of sharing is even considered, Ecuador’s super-star status doesn’t surprise me at all.

Although I am a very big fan of the food here, dessert doesn’t really exist, and sometimes I find myself craving something sweet other than a friend banana. So, I have gotten into the habit, and up until now this has been my little secret, of buying small packs of cookies when I go into the city for Spanish class, hiding them in my suitcase, and only eating them when I am in my room, alone. Now, that might seem selfish/rude/absurd to you, but you are clearly not versed in Ecuadorian sharing policies. If I were to eat said cookies in the light of day, and I happen to see some people that I even just barely know, I would be obligated to share my precious dessert with everyone present. It doesn’t matter if everyone gets half a cookie, sharing is still mandatory. Just the other night I gave away half of my pack of “Ricas” crackers to 4 people I saw on the way home, and those crackers were my dinner since I was playing soccer well into the night. And if you think you can outsmart this system by making sure only a small number of people see you eating, I’m sorry to say, but you are still mistaken. If there is still a significant amount left after you have distributed your food once, you are required to share again. And again. And again until said food is finished. So you can either wolf down whatever you are snacking on or just plan on parting with a good chunk of it.

But although this strict sharing policy was bothersome at first, I have actually grown to really appreciate it, mostly because it is required from both ends: that is, you must share and be shared with. For example, when my friend Sambo tiled his bad of “K-chitos” towards me, and I took just one of the salty, puffy, cheeto-like objects, the others with us began to laugh. Sambo kept the bad held out to me, and only when I took a solid handful of K-chitos did he proceed to share with everyone else. Or how about when I went to the school “Carlos Thomas Rivadeneyra” with my health clinic and a random student that I was talking with offered, and then commanded me to eat a spoonful of his chicken and rice. And then there is the incredible amount of chicha, sarakapi, and local drinks that are shared with me every time I stop by someone’s house (and these drinks are not served in a cup, but rather in a gigantic bowl the size of my head).

And by no means does this generosity only apply to food. Space is also seen as a very communal belonging, as I and the 7 people I once shared a cab with can attest to (and this wasn’t one of those Ford F-150 luxury cabs, more like a Honda Civic size deal). There is also a lot of sharing of culture. I can’t tell you how many Kichwa words my community members have told me (and I have promptly forgotten), or how many ancient stories I have heard from my family. And of course, I am always asked to return the favor by teaching bits of English or talking about my country. But my favorite definitely has to be the sharing of children. I’ve known that Ivan, the worship leader at the “Nueva Vida” church in Pano, had a wife for some time now, but it was just a few weeks ago when I found out who she was because I had seen at least 6 different women caring for his child. In fact, there are a lot of children that, as far as I know, could belong to any number of people, because every time I see them, someone else has them swaddled in their arms.

So if there is any truth in the old adage “sharing is caring”, Ecuadorians, or at least the people in Pano, must care about each other a whole lot. And while at first I saw this as a very light and frivolous aspect of Ecuadorian life, as I was watching the news the other night, I saw a very heavy implication of this observation. It was 8 o’clock, and as the opening montage of the top stories began “Tragedía en los Estados Unidos” or “Tragedy in the United States” was the first headline to roll. Immediately after, an elderly man in Quito was telling me how 26 people had been shot dead in the state where I will be attending college come this August. Of course, it was all in Spanish, but due to my growing comfort with the language and the reporter’s smooth Quiteño accent, I was pretty sure I heard him correctly.

I sat there, the closest one to the T.V., as reporters in Guayaqil and Connecticut continued to explain the story. After about 5 minutes of coverage, they stopped and moved into another segment that was even more devastating than the one before. The “26 dead in the United States” banner was removed from the screen and replaced with one that said “25 in 20”. The segment was explaining how, in the last 20 years, there have been 25 tragedies like this in the United States. I figured that had to be an exaggeration, but as the reporters went through disaster after disaster, the truth set it. After they had reviewed some of America’s worst moments, they began to discuss why this one country would suffer from so many self-inflicted disasters. The ideas were nothign unusual; lack of gun control, mentally unstable youth, etc., but there was no real concensus.

But their discussion got me thinking about the same thing. Why on earth does the U.S. suffer from so many of these tragedies? So I looked up a global timeline of shooting incidents, and the results were frightening to say the least. (And just as a disclaimer, this timeline did not include any of the events concerning the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and things of that sort). Of the 78 major homicidal tragedies that have occured between February 1996 and December 2012, 60 of them occured in the United States. In the other words, the U.S. has had more than 3 times the amount of these tragedies than the rest of the world combined. Now, clearly this count includes many incidents not included by the Ecuadorian news network, and this is because in some only 1 or 2 people were killed, but I think that even that is enough to be considered a tragedy. And of the 18 incidents that occured outside of the U.S., the vast majority were in Europe, with only two in South America. But although these findings were interesting, I still could not find an answer to my question. It could be that the gun laws in the U.S. are too loose, but if the illegal importation of weapons into Ecuador from Colombia is even half as bad as the news made it seem, finding a gun in Ecuador should not be that hard. Or maybe the competitive nature of the U.S. education system breeds more resentment than intelligence in it’s students, although the nearly all-powerful college entrance exams in France, India, and other parts of the world seem pretty competitive too. Or it could be that the U.S. just suffers from an exces of disturbed citizens. Or maybe it’s simply that caring about each other is not a social necessity. And if that’s the case, the answer to these tragedies might not be changing our gun laws or putting more money into psychological health care. It could be something as simple as teaching our kids, and our adults, to share their cookies.


Jordan Lee