Emily Hwang - Ecuador

May 8, 2013

Today is April 6th, which means that in two weeks time, I will be home.  And I wonder what will remain of all this when I’m in my own house with my own family, lying on my own bed at night, struggling to see the stars through the LA smog.  In two weeks time, I’ll be back where I started and I might even wonder if all of this was just an insane dream.  All that I’ll have to assure myself that it wasn’t are these alpaca sweaters, bug bite scars, and the vacant space where half of my heart used to be.

My experience in Ecuador was by no means easy.  It was defined by a slow and painful stripping of the layers and layers of privilege that I wasn’t even aware were cushioning me from the sharp edges of the real world.  I took for granted creature comforts, emotional support, an effortless handle on language that allowed me the manipulation of social dynamics, and a culture that encourages and provides us with the resources to be whoever it is that we want to be.  When those things were taken from me, something extraordinary happened- the rawest, most fundamental aspects of the human being I am were revealed to me.

First of all, it showed me what truly matters.  I belief the significance of someone or something’s existence in one’s life is only truly acknowledged and appreciated to its fullest extent in its absence.  Without seven months of a diet featuring potatoes and oil as its principal stars, I would never have come to value Trader Joe’s as much as I do today.  And quite frankly, it is through a lack of cultural diversity and gender equality that I came to fully understand the value of tolerance, community, and empowerment.  7 months ago, I was desperate for a break from my mother and an adventure outside of my hometown.  Less than a week later, I was blubbering like a baby, curled over my phone in the fetal position, asking my mommy for news from Cerritos and if she missed me.  Needless to say, I was humbled by the roles played by these entities in contributing to my happiness, which were larger than I suspected and grateful for the insight that it provided me in leading the right life for me.

Next, this experience showed me the remarkable power of love, the kind that you graciously receive, the kind that you give yourself, and the kind that you generously project outward.

In some way, shape, or form, we were all recipients of care and love this year.  Whether it was from host families, friends, members of the cohort, team leaders, street dogs, what have you, the amount of generosity and love that we have been beneficiaries of this year is just astounding.

My host mom is a woman that barely stands at five feet tall, but every pore on her body is constantly bubbling over with emotion and carino and she makes a much bigger impression than her small stature would suggest.  Near Christmas-time, I was peeling potatoes with my family in preparation for lunch and despite being surrounded by people, I felt very isolated and lonely.  I burst into tears mid-potato and raced upstairs.  It all seems very dramatic, in retrospect, but it was a turning point in my experience.  When my mom followed me upstairs and silently wrapped her arms around my hyperventilating body and sat with me for close to an hour, I realized that everybody, no matter what you look like or what language you speak or how much you weigh or how much gel you wear in your hair, responds to kindness.

Thus, commenced a cycle of understanding about the value of compassion and love that was next directed inwards.  The incredible freedom that we enjoyed during this year was a massive blessing, but a huge responsibility as well.  For the first time in my life, I was allowed the time to reflect on my own definition of happiness and success and the responsible to manifest it for myself.  And this was key.  Taking responsible and ownership of my life, mistakes, choices, and emotions was pivotal in constructing self-respect and self-love.  After learning to forgive, accept, and take care of myself, I learned how I can support others through love, which perhaps was the greatest lesson of all and the one that I’ll indefinitely carry with me forever.

I am approaching the end and am ready for it.  And in two weeks time, when I’m lying in my own bed, thousands of miles away from my new home in Ecuador, all of this will still feel real.  I trust that it will.  My spirit will be teeming with self-respect and courage and my bodies will still be warm from the intensity of the love I have received and given here.  Ecuador, I will definitely never forget you.  And if I ever come close, I’ll always have my alpacas and bug bite scars as reminders.

Emily Hwang