For the past few weeks, I have been trying very hard to boil down my experience to a blogpost which is both concise and accurately describes my time in Ecuador without glorifying it or omitting my struggles with adjusting to being here and loving Ecuador. So for the moment, I will abandon this attempt and instead focus on some thoughts I have regarding language barriers and integrating into a new culture as a foreigner.
Perhaps, one of the reasons why I have had such difficulty adjusting to my community in the province of Cañar, southern Ecuador, is that I come from the privileged background of never having been negatively defined because of my appearance or nationality. And all the workshops and preparation in the world could not have prepared me for coming to a small town in Ecuador where I can count the numbers of foreigners I have encountered on one hand (four of them are other Global Citizen Year-fellows…), and the consequences that would have on every interaction I have had so far.
I wasn’t prepared for the comments, looks and unwanted attention by men that I inevitably receive when I move in the city. I wasn’t prepared for being stared by strangers, talked about more than talked to and for dealing with the stereotype that foreigners are unable and perhaps a bit stupid. I was not prepared for having defend myself for my religious beliefs, and for my appearance and (non-existing) love life being the most interesting things that there are about me. Going from being an independent, pretty out-spoken and open person to being not much more than my foreign nationally or skin color to most people I encounter (with exceptions I shall write about another time) has been a hard, frustrating and incredibly isolating experience, which I am still trying to make sense of.
At the same time as I’m often overwhelmed by the frustration of my experience here, it has caused me to realize how lucky I have been to have grown up without ever having to think about how my appearance would cause me to treat me. As hard as it is to be not taken seriously because of my limited Spanish knowledge, I speak three other languages fluently and will return to a country where I can express myself and be around people that love me, within a few months’ time. To me, this is temporary. At the same time, the number of displaced people and refugees in the world, people that may have permanently lost their homes, is at its peak in humanity’s recent history. I came to Ecuador by choice, which is more than can be said about most of the people that risk their lives to escape things no human should ever have to experience. And I am thinking of all the people that came to my country, Sweden, in these past two years, and that experience a similar feeling but multiplied by factors which I cannot even imagine. People for whom the attempt to assimilate to the new culture is not a temporary “cultural immersion” experience, but the only way of having a future in the new place they are in.
And I have mixed feelings of frustration and gratitude. On one hand, I’m thinking why in the world I’m putting myself through this. Meanwhile I also realize that this is a very empathy-building situation to be in, one that reinforces many of the ideas and ideals that I feel very strongly about. Such as the significance of integration initiatives in my own home community. Availability of language classes and opportunities to work or engage in other meaningful activities. Mental health support and networks for newly arrived immigrants, because I cannot imagine the difficulty of going through culture shock and social isolation in combination with a baggage of traumatic experience and on top of that a whole different level of suspicion and prejudice. Compassion and open arms.
I am still figuring out the meaning of this experience, trying to make sense of how I feel towards the place I am and what it has taught me so far. One thing I know for sure is that the true culture shock has not been the bucket showers, eating guinea pig for breakfast, the bus system or washing my clothes by hand. It has been being redefined, and having to adjust myself to how I am being perceived in a place where being a foreigner is associated with assumptions, stereotypes and ideas that I have yet to understand. And so I guess, patience is a virtue and sometimes all I can do is taking a deep breath and a step back. Reminding myself that a lot of what feels so hard about living here neither is about me, nor about some sort of ill-intention from the people whose paths I cross on my Global Citizen Year-journey. Sometimes though, that is easier said than done, but then again, this year was not supposed to be easy.