Disrespectful Foreigners

Ana Gvozdic - Ecuador


March 15, 2017

During our Global Citizen Year training we were encouraged to change our mindset towards mistake. Instead of seeing them as something negative, we were supposed to see them as learning opportunities. Although I agreed with this approach, I wanted to minimize the amount and the impact of my mistakes/learning opportunities, which hurt others. With that in mind, I observed the behavior of foreigners in Ecuador, to learn what to do, and what not.

I have seen two examples of foreigner behavior that annoyed me a lot because I found it disrespectful. The first one was in Vilcabamba, also known as the valley of longevity, where I was talking to a laundry lady in order to better understand the relations between the locals, many US American retirees and the hippies (mostly European or Latin American backpackers who sell jewelry). She explained to us that the “Casa de la Comunidad” is mostly used by foreigners for yoga retreats and similar events, ideologically and financially absolutely unattractive to the local population. And I really hope you noticed the irony with all of that happening in the Community House.The second event was the Women’s March held in Cuenca. I was already questioning whether I should go, because I was reading the criticisms for the original march in Washington, but the call of the march in Cuenca seemed intersectionally feminist and inclusive. Inclusive, except for the local population. The entire march was in English, except for my friend’s poster in Spanish and my speech in Spanish, pointing out the universality of the struggle for gender equality and the necessity for unity.

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I have spent a lot of time thinking about these events, trying to analyze why my emotional response to them was frustration. I was thinking about refugees, as the group of foreigners people mostly demand integration from. Although I completely support and find it necessary to ease the process of integration for the refugees, I don’t feel comfortable saying that I would only accept refugees under the condition that they integrate, since this statement makes the lives of e.g. Germans more important than the lives of refugees, and with my lack of a nationalist mindset, I simply find it difficult to accept this approach. So, why do I then want to demand integration from the type of foreigners that come to Ecuador? The difference is that they have a choice, and the refugees don’t. Most of them are also economically benefitting from their stay here, and having the history of the relations in mind, it simply feels wrong, and again, disrespectful. As a foreigner in Ecuador, I definitely want to integrate, and even though our program is already structured to enable exactly that, there are small things I can do to facilitate that – e.g. join events with locals, speak Spanish etc.

However, integration needs to have its limit. During our training, we also talked about cultural appropriation a lot, and although many find this topic entirely useless, I find it important and want to relate it to people living abroad. During my experience in Ecuador, I ate cuy, colada morada and pan de guagua; I danced the Kichwa shuffle, cumbia, merengue and salsa; I started craving  rice after one day of not eating it; I added -ito to all of the words and spoke “cantando” like a real Cuencano; I got used to always getting to places on time without ever knowing the time or the bus schedule; I got to know so many things about Ecuador and its culture, I got engaged with its feminist and environmental movements, I was up to date during the elections, but I am not Ecuadorian and I will never be. I will never be the person that was born in Ecuador. I will never be the person that lived in Ecuador (and most probably just Ecuador) their entire life. I have a connection to many parts of Ecuadorian culture and life, but it would be unfair to call myself Ecuadorian. Would I want to be Ecuadorian if that meant that Canadian mining companies would  threaten to contaminate my water? Would I want to be Ecuadorian if that meant I will never see my father because he illegally migrated to the US to provide for my family? I don’t get to appropriate the parts of its culture I find interesting, and completely neglect the privilege that I have, because that’s just disrespectful. Since I can’t take the bad parts, I don’t get to have the good ones as my own either (and by this, I am not criticizing the appreciation of culture).
Additionally, sometimes the community doesn’t want me either. Coming out of UWC, where appreciation for cultural diversity is almost taken for granted, I have received a very useful reality check – not everyone is as interested and open to foreigners. I have met those who were super excited about meeting a foreigner, a European, but also those who found absolutely nothing fascinating about it and might have even resented me. It was a hard, but an important lesson, considering I might possibly go into international careers.

I learned from these experiences and wanted to share them, but my ultimate tip still is simply to think before we act, listen to the locals and try to understand their background.

Ana Gvozdic