When I arrived at my homestay I was overjoyed by the surrounding beauty of the Sierra, how friendly my host family was and how great the food was. Life here seemed so different from any other place I had ever visited. It seemed almost too incredulous to believe I’d be spending the next 6 months here, and I couldn’t wait to begin my apprenticeship. At first, I was still nervous about what my community and host family would think of me initially. I didn’t have much of a problem with my host family, they immediately bombarded me with questions about the States and what I used to do before coming here. However since everyone within the communities was so familiar with one another and I was new in town, it was a little difficult for me to start talking with my neighbors. I really wasn’t sure what to say at first. So after the first couple of days I resolved to take a stab at conversation with the people at work.
During my first week my partner Benigno and I went to some of the communities in Quingeo and I met the local members of the project I was working in. After introducing myself during that first week I tried talking to some of the project members, but I found it difficult to understand what they were saying. Most of the people within the communities spoke Quichua as their first language I couldn’t really comprehend much. After answering a question I was usually greeted by laughs because I misinterpreted what was being said, and it discouraged from continuing my resolve.
During my first day of work I was asked what my name was again, because it was difficult to pronounce for the community members. “Neil”, I replied. That only caused more confusion, and eventually the consensus was that my name is “Mio”, which means “mine” in Spanish. I became the butt of many jokes after that and never bothered correcting them because I thought it would be hopeless if I tried again.
For a while I just listened to conversations to get accustomed to their manner of speaking, but even after getting familiar with dialogue I still felt uncomfortable with starting conversation again. I thought that the people here were just different and it wasn’t my fault if I couldn’t understand them. I kept thinking to myself “Why don’t they speak clearly?” I was getting tired of being laughed at. Eventually I started to dread going to work and I avoided communication as much as possible.
The next week I returned to the community I was asked my name again by a lady who wasn’t present at the last meeting.
“My nam is NEIL. It’s difficult to pronounce, I know. It begins with an “N”, not “M.””
“Neo? Ohhh, I thought it started with an M. Why didn’t you say anything?”
I laughed a little too hard after she replied, but then a thought occurred to me. I never bothered correcting them simply because I was scared of making a fool of myself. My own reaction shocked me. I didn’t even care to tell her that it also ended with an ‘L’ because I couldn’t believe that it took so much time to get to this point.
I realized that I was attributing cultural differences to everyone in the communities I worked in which distanced myself from making lasting connections with them. I thought “This is how it probably is for all foreigners, I should just keep my mouth shut.” I found myself searching for excuses not to talk because I was so afraid of conversation. If I wanted to make an impact and establish these connections all I had to do was try, it didn’t matter if I was a foreigner or not. With this perspective shift I established a much richer and fulfilling relationship with the people around me, and I felt like I was making a difference at work just by getting to know the project members better. I still couldn’t understand people very well at that point but I felt more comfortable with just trying to speak and it made a significant difference.
For the most part communication goes a long way, but attitude goes even farther. I was out of my comfort zone and I was afraid of participating in social events and even daily interactions because of this. Even in situations outside of my homestay and apprenticeship I found my reactions very similar when faced with the possibility of social embarrassment, and understand now that it was because I wasn’t comfortable with myself. Through this experience I was able to acknowledge just how much our inhibitions can prevent us from achieving our desires, and how much of a difference a simple change in attitude can make.