Finding Love in a Foreign Language, Family, Community, People, and Culture
Jensine Raihan - Ecuador
October 3, 2016
My Quito host mom finally pulled up onto the block I was waiting on. I was the last fellow on the street and I was very nervous. Why is she late? Will it be terribly awkward because I know zip Spanish? (Yes)
When she came out of the car, I approached her and said hesitantly, “Muchu gustu,” because according to someone who actually knows Spanish it means, “Nice to meet you!” I awkwardly put my luggages into the car as my mom was running her tongue rapidly in Spanish with Global Citizen Year staff. One person was making a joke about how similar we look– short hair and olive brown skin and all. I smiled and laughed and got into the car, not knowing what else to do.
It became very clear that I knew zip Spanish and I could see the disappointment on my mom’s face. She was trying so hard to communicate with me and all I could do was shake my head. Eventually she took out her phone and the Pokemon Go app. At home, I constantly made fun of all my friends who played that stupid game but at that moment it was the only common ground we had. I laughed, “Pokemon Go!” She grinned and handed the phone to me. The rest of the car ride was us laughing at the game and trying to find Pokemon.
When I got to the house, I heard really angry, constant barks from dogs that were in the house. My mom made a noise attempting to shut them up. My host brother, 22, and sister, 14, came running up and grabbed my luggages and brought them to my room. My mom jokingly exasperated that I knew nada Spanish. I laughed. I was surprised and enormously grateful to find that my host brother spoke proficient English and my host sister was able to understand and speak quite well. The dogs, one furry with white and the other with black, were so enthusiastic they jumped on me and then went on my bed. Nobody reacted, so I realized that was quite normal behavior. It was very foreign to me because my mom back home was religious and in Islam–you avoid interacting with dogs at all costs.
When I FaceTime’d my mother later that week, I was smiling ear to ear. I was so happy living in Quito with the family I was lucky and privileged enough to be welcomed and hosted by. I spent some evenings agonizingly reading children’s Spanish books with my host sister and translating them into English. Other nights were spent embarrassingly learning bachata and salsa by my amazingly talented sister. I laughed really hard when my mom was trying to talk straight with my brother and he just wasn’t having it and I found myself constantly rolling my eyes as my brother repeatedly tried to start pointless arguments and yell, “WHAT’S THE CRACK?” in a terrible English accent.
I am not religious. Even on religious holidays (which occurs a whopping TWICE a year) I amvery resistant to getting up at 6 AM in the morning to take a cleansing, traditional shower and heading over to the smallest possible two-rhakat prayer. However, I found myself searching for a masjid in Ecuador. I came across an address and after Spanish class I decided to use my lunch hour hunting for this masjid in Quito. I used the public bus system and my GPS on Google Maps to get to the location. There was a big black gate and an object that I made out to be a door bell. I rang it. No answer. I rang it again. No answer. I looked both sides and decided to cross the street, hoping to get a wider view and catch someone’s eyes who would open the door for me. No luck.
I eventually gave up and decided to head back. As I was walking to the community center in Parque Carolina, where our sessions are held, I walked across a glossy, golden brown, dome-shaped building. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Did I just randomly walk into a mosque? The Islamic Center was HUGE–it was larger than the masjid I regularly go to in New York. The gates were open and so I went in and tried opening the door. It was locked. I knocked a couple of times. No answer. Now I know this is definitely mosque. I walked around the front and tried to get a view of the inside through the window by cupping my face with my hands. Eventually I gave up, but I wanted to take a picture of the mosque. As I was about to take a picture, a man opened the door. I was so enthusiastic I couldn’t stop smiling. Luckily, he was able to understand English and I, his Spanish. I inquired about the morning Eid prayer–7 AM Monday morning and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
A few of my friends and I went to the Eid prayer–it was the most amazing experience I had in Ecuador thus far. I met people from every corner of the world–Bangladesh, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Canada, and the list goes on. Unlike the rest of Ecuador most of the languages spoken there were Arabic and English. Most are immigrants fleeing from political crises back home and seeking opportunity here. People were dynamic, fun, curious, lovely, humble, and incredibly generous. I felt welcomed and oddly at home, despite the community being from places completely foreign to me. People greeted everyone with smiles and kisses regardless of whether or not they knew them. They were enthusiastic about meeting new people and I was curious about them. The experience was truly incredible and I greatly appreciated the poetic Arabic recitations, the traditional Muslim clothing, and the welcoming community.
Going around Quito came surprisingly easy to me (New York City thing maybe?). All I needed was a map and my GPS and I was good. I went to the Fundación Guayasamin art museum and it was the most beautiful museum I have ever been to. It has a beautiful view of the city but also is right next to the bosque or forest and so the contrast of the art, the city, and the trees is striking. The art, by itself, is incredible with the color, care, thought, and empathy that obviously went into it. The entire experience was truly breathtaking.
I remember feeling pure joy when I had my first spoon of Indian food in Quito. It was just spicy goodness and my first time having food reminding me of home. I was hunting for an Indian restaurant in Quito and there I met an Indian engineer seeking to immigrate to the States but working in Ecuador as a waiter. Earlier in the week I had Ramen and that itself was wonderful as well. The soup, the shrimp, the soy sauce–ugh everything is 100000x better when your diet is mostly consistent of bread, milk, and coffee.
However, my most precious memory of Quito is my family there. I still don’t quite understand how some people can so readily take a complete stranger into their home and be so incredibly hospitable, kind, and just wonderful. There was definitely a language barrier between my host mom and I but that did nothing to the laughter and constant joy we shared throughout the three weeks. I remember coughing hysterically (because I was stupid and did not take a jacket with me despite the number of times numerouspeople told me about how vital that possession is in Quito) and my mom said that because I came in healthy, I would leave healthy. She would regularly make me a honey and lemon remedy to soothe my cough. Every single morning she would ask, “¿Como te fue?” and every afternoon, “¿Que tal tu día? ¿Qué hiciste?”
Some mornings my mom would look me up and down and say something along the lines of “celinda!” with a hard “k” sound and I would smile and nod because that seemed like the appropriate response. I would constantly try searching up, “cuelinda” or “celinda” or other variations of what I thought I heard, trying to figure out what the hell my mom regularly tells me. This was until one day I heard a GCY staff say the same thing. When I found out she was actually saying, “¡Que linda!” my heart felt all warm and fuzzy. I am still taken aback by the way my mom so graciously and generously cared and showed her love towards me.
Despite the incredibly short time I spent with my host family–not even a month–I know I will cherish all of our moments dearly. From the compliments we shared to the movies we watched to the pizza we ate to the chores we did together, I know I will carry these memories for a lifetime.
Ecuador - 2017
Jensine Raihan is passionate about fighting for justice, equality, and liberation for all oppressed communities regardless of race, class, ethnic background, immigrant status, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. She has been involved in multiple community-based organizations that have been working to build the collective power of the most marginalized communities so they can fight for justice. She has been involved in Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) for the past three years in which she has fought for gender justice, racial and immigrant justice, civil rights, and educational justice. Jensine has and will continue to devote her life to her community so she can help support leaders within her own community to come together, strategize, and fight for a world in which all people are liberated. Her goals for the year are to become fluent in Spanish so she can come back to New York City and be involved in the immigrant justice movement both within the South Asian community and the Latin American community. As well as to form important relationships with people in Ecuador who have been involved in social movements so she can learn from progressive organizations there and bring it back to her work in the United States.