Friendship at home vs. friendship abroad

Moving to Ecuador has pushed me to change my definition of the word “friendship”.

I arrived in Ecuador for a bridge year with Global Citizen Year in September, and spent the first few months of my homestay without many close peers in my community, in the sense that there isn’t really anyone here who’s at the same station in life as me. Many of the nineteen year olds in San Bartolomé, the rural Ecuadorian town where I live, have already settled into families, into house payments and children. The students from the high school where I work are nice enough, but, to them, I am their English teacher. The other young adults in my town have vastly different stories from mine- they may work seven days per week, they may be busy raising younger siblings while their parents are away in the United States, or they may already own and operate their own business. I, on the other hand, am spending a year abroad by choice, have never had to support myself financially, and have always taken my education for granted.

At first, all of these differences seemed insurmountable, and I struggled to connect with people because of them. I worried that they would view me as a privileged foreigner who thought she was here to “help” them learn English, and not as someone who only wanted to be included in their community. But, as time went on and I realized that no one in San Bartolomé would exactly mirror my friends from home, I decided that friendships shouldn’t have to be based in common ground. In fact, befriending people who seemingly have nothing in common with me has provided for some of the best and most memorable experiences I’ve had in Ecuador so far. Learning to build friendships out of differences can make your bridge year experience even more meaningful- here are five major differences between friends from home and the friends you make during your bridge year abroad.   

My host-grandpa, another fellow, and I celebrating New Year’s Eve with some Ecuadorian traditions.

  1. It will take you a while to realize that they’re your friend. Even if you talk to your host-grandma every day, you may not realize that she’s your bestie until you find yourself choosing to stop by her store to say hi after work, instead of following the other people your age to the soccer field. While you may not share a lot of similarities with elderly Ecuadorian women on a surface level, you’ll start to notice the things that you do have in common, even if it’s just a shared sense of humor.

  2. Your bridge year friends will teach you how to talk. A good friendship relies on communication, and this can be a barrier if you don’t quite speak the same language yet. Your friends will have to be willing and patient enough to literally teach you how to talk to them, but if they are, you’ll see that learning a new language from someone can make for a stronger friendship- and for some of the funniest moments, when you misuse the new words you’re learning. An example is the time my host sister asked me if I liked tacos; I enthusiastically replied that I did, only to my disappointment when I realized that this meant shoe shopping instead of eating (“tacos” also means high heels in Ecuador).

  3. You will meet these new friends in the most unexpected of places. While waiting at the bus stop, when going to the market to get tortillas, or when walking the dog, social spaces present themselves when you’re least expecting it. I’ve met a good portion of San Bartolomé’s youth just by accompanying my host sister to soccer practice.

My host family’s dog, Ted.

  1. They may not be your age (or even your species). Some of my best friends in Ecuador include my host mom, my host grandpa, our housekeeper Marlene, some of my English students, my 7-year-old neighbor Fernando, and my family’s dog, Ted. My host mom was very quiet at first, but now she cracks jokes all the time, and I know I can always count on her to laugh at my bad jokes as well. My grandpa is the one I talk to when I’m homesick (he speaks English and spent several years in the US, so he knows how it feels to be away from home). Merlene, a neighbor who spends a few days in our house each week helping to clean and take care of the kids, has been the one to show to most interest in my life back home in the States, and is one of the easiest people to talk to. Maritza is a 17-year-old in one of my high school classes. She is really sweet and eager to learn English, and I recently learned that she has a husband and a 1-year-old baby. For some reason, this surprised me, because she seems like such a normal teenager, but it’s caused me to rethink what it means to be an adult. Fernando is a young boy who lives nearby, and while we don’t talk about much other than Transformers and Karate, I somehow always look forward to these conversations. Finally, my family’s dog Ted was my first friend in Ecuador, and is still the one who’s most excited to see me when I come home each day.

Helping Marlene cook (and accidentally burn) the cuy.

  1. They’ll make you rethink your idea of friendship when you return home. I remember during my first several weeks in my host community, it seemed so difficult to connect with people. It was hard to relate to the people my age, and I didn’t really think about making friends with those who were significantly older or younger. But being separated from conventional groups of peers forced me to befriend people who I never would have considered befriending back home. Through these friendships, I’ve learned how to make empanadas, how to speak Spanish (almost), the basics of soccer, who the different Power Rangers are, how indigenous groups are working to preserve their native culture, and how the civil rights issues here mirror many of the same ones playing out in the United States. Each day I learn about Ecuador through the lenses of many different people’s experiences, and this provides for such a wider view of the country than if I were only able to talk to my peers.

My amigo Fernando and I celebrating Christmas with a traditional Pase del Niño parade.

When you take a bridge year abroad, you will realize that friendship as you’ve defined it all your life may be harder to come by, and you will likely notice many differences between the friends you have here and your friends from home. You may also realize that forming these unlikely friendships is one of the best and most surprisingly meaningful parts of your experience. Of all the lessons I’ve realized through my bridge year so far, I think that learning to appreciate the worth and the learning opportunity in spending time with people who think and live differently than I do is the one I’ll value the most.