Midpoint Adventure: The Plights and Fortunes of a U.S.-BornImmigrant

Jensine Raihan - Ecuador


December 7, 2016

The other gringa, Svende, who lives in my house enters my room and cries, “I was just at our sister’s wedding!” I sat up straight, “Wait, what? Our sister is married?” Svende nods, her face in exasperation.
Only a few hours ago I saw my sister putting on a very gorgeous blouse that went with the traditional indigenous clothing my family always wears. “Where are you going?” I asked, because she was obviously getting dressed for an event. “Otavalo! I’ll be back,” she responded in Spanish.
“Okay, but why are you going to Otavalo?”
Same response.
“Bueno,” I responded with a shrug and went to my room. As I was getting ready to watch another episode of The Walking Dead, I heard a knock on my door. My youngest host sister, 10, says, “Quieres ir Otavalo?”
“Claro, pero porque nosotros vamos a ir a Otavalo?” I glanced across the hallway and Svende was locking her door, having already agreed to come along.
“Nada. Quieres?” I looked towards Svende, maybe she knew why they were going to Otavalo. Svende just shrugged.
Having come home fairly tired and not getting a clear answer I finally responded with, “Ah gracias, pero quiero descansar.”
Next thing I know, my 18-year old host sister, Jenny, is married. I was frustrated—why didn’t she just tell me that she was going to her wedding? A few weeks before, I suspected something went terribly wrong. I came downstairs to find everyone crying—my host mom and both my sisters. My host mom explained to me what was going on but all I could understand was, “Jenny tiene una problema con un chico.” Perhaps my sister is pregnant? That would be the only thing that would make sense given how devastated the family seemed to be. A few weeks later and it turns out my suspicion was true.
Svende and I were sitting on my bed trying to process the news. My host mother, father, and the closest brother did not attend the wedding but stayed in the house bellowing at what was taking place.
Not being able to have a clear conversation with my host family about this because of my limited Spanish I figured that my sister had unprotected sex with her now-husband, realized she was pregnant, and either felt she had to get married to him or was persuaded by her parents that she had to get married to him.
My reaction when I first heard this was just plain frustration. Frustration at my host sister for not telling me she was going to her wedding—and previously, not telling Svende and me the truth when we asked, at separate times, if she had a boyfriend. But most of my frustration lay in her circumstances. In my mind, I could have very easily been her if I was born and permanently lived in my homestay. In Ecuador, abortions are illegal. Moreover, I remember my host mother disapproving of a mestizo friend of the family who has a child but is not married, and when I was describing my single host mother in Quito, her commenting, “Esto no está bien.” From what I have heard about the health education here, sex is completely ignored if students even are lucky enough to have a health education.
Putting all this together—not having a sex education, living in a family in which it would be blasphemous to have a child without being married, and not having access to even the option of an abortion—I was frustrated by how absolute everything was. There were no options. It could be true that my host sister is perfectly happy with being married at 18 and expecting a child with a very amiable man and that’s something I think I was missing at first—the idea that maybe my sister is absolutely content with everything. That didn’t even come to my mind—because for me, a child and a marriage would mean I would not be able to pursue higher education or do the professional work I want to do in the same way. However, my host sister and I do not share these same desires. Despite this, the reality is that if I was pregnant at this age in New York, I would at least have different options. Sure, I would most likely be disowned by my mom for getting pregnant without getting married, but I would at least have the option of getting an abortion or having the child and giving it to someone who could provide for it while I pursue education and professional opportunities. Why do I get options but my host sister, who is the same as me in age and drive but with perhaps a better work ethic and more talent, doesn’t?
When I first arrived at my current homestay and was trying to get to know my host sister, she told me her passion lies in cooking. I feel as though my sister is good at everything she does—whether that is teaching, embroidering, farming, or cooking. I wonder what else she would be good at if only she had the opportunity to try it.
There are people who have the world at their fingertips— they can try anything they can possibly imagine: learning various languages, horseback riding, sports, computer science, medicine, law, writing, painting. And then there are people who do things because they have to, they don’t have a choice— it’s how they raise and support their family, it is how they live. What makes one more deserving of the world than the other? How good they and their family are in living in capitalism?
December is month 4, and the midpoint, of my time in Ecuador, meaning I only have four more months here, and then the year is over. I fly back to the States. Being in the midpoint is very odd when it comes to reflecting and processing my experiences here, because everything seems normal. My life back home—with a ventilated, decorated, poster-ed, and carpeted room, hot showers, and various spicy Indian food seems almost surreal, like a dream or a life in the past. I imagine the reverse will be true with time. 30 cents bus rides, $2.50 3 course meals, weekends walking in a seemingly deserted city, having dogs for pigeons, being the only adult woman wearing pants and only person with short hair, always being breathless on my walk back home, and meals—and really life—in Spanish and Kichwa will soon be an entirely different world.

 

 

Experiencing life with people in a completely different reality than I ever will be in and then just leaving and resuming my life back home just as is seems equivalent to spending hours and sweat cooking a multiple course delicacy and then just leaving it untouched. But I will leave the discussion of a waste of this experience without contextualizing it politically for another blog post. I will say this, though,—sure, I do think this experience is transformative and will inform how all fellows interact with and think about other people but this experience has so much more potential than just individual interactions—it exposes systematic problems that is in sore need of conscious people to dismantle, and ignoring that is a true act of neglect and outright disregard of the very visible problems that we all—in a very real way—have touched.

 

 

I am really happy to say that being in Ecuador for a little more than 3 months has done quite astonishingly to my previously non-existing Spanish. Language has constantly been a battleground for me. I seem to always be a foreigner in every language I speak. My first language was Bangla. However, currently my English is undoubtedly 10x better than my Bangla. When I started school—my mother requested that my sister and I strictly speak English at home so our English would improve. While our English did improve, we slowly forgot how to speak Bangla. I didn’t realize this until a couple of years ago when I was applying for an organizing position that required fluent Bangla speakers. As I was growing up, I remember not really caring how good my Bangla was because— well, when would would I ever need Bangla, right? Right.
Before coming to Ecuador my Bangla was improving substantially because I began to speak Bangla at home and as often as I could at work because I was lucky to be working with Bangladeshi people. However, practicing Bangla here is pretty much nonexistent aside from the few Bangla words I manage to get out when I talk to my mom on FaceTime. While I most definitely cannot claim English as mine, I also find it difficult to claim Bangla as mine. A lot of my previous attempts at practicing my broken Bangla found mocking laughter or a condescending, “Tumee ikhaane jomna hoyso, nah?” You were born here, no? among elders and peers alike.
Interestingly enough, practicing my broken Spanish here is very different. Here, people correct incoherent gringo sentences but also encourage foreigners to speak Spanish, however, clumsy it may be. Language is powerful both to communicate ideas and formulate deep relationships but also in deteriorating people’s confidence and perseverance—and the latter is especially true for a hegemonic language like English and a deeply nationalistic language like Bangla.
In my time here I have grown appreciation—and even affection—for things I previously held in contempt, but I also have gained consciousness of how materialist and superficial I can be. I sometimes find myself missing having access to mirrors, choices in shoes and clothes, and wearing makeup everyday. To me, those things gave me a sense of confidence—a confidence I don’t have here. That is not to say I feel more self-conscious or less confident here, but there was something about having those things that made me feel ready to start the day that I don’t have here. The fact that I somehow feel deprived because I do not have a mirror seems irrationally superficial that it is hard for me to fully grasp and come to terms with about myself. I mean, how superfluous can I be? I guess substantially.
But should this really come as a surprise? When you grow up in a highly capitalist country that thrives due to the success of its materialist, superficial propaganda that is so good most people are pretty much addicted to consumer culture, how can I expect anything but? Individual exceptionalism can really go miles.
When we have our week-long training seminars that happen every 2 months, I get a kick out of wearing clothes, shoes, and makeup that I would not be able to in my homestay because it would easily get dirty, make it incredibly hard to walk, or would make me stand out more than I already do. All this may be the result of my own materialism or it may be because I have a greater level of appreciation of the things I used to be accustomed to. Or most likely, it is both.

 

 

When we were in the beach for our latest training seminar, I was absolutely ecstatic to spend a significant amount of my time in the water—either in the ocean or in the pool—and wear white, flow-y, tan-seducing beach outfits. I felt somehow at home—having access to fresh fish (despite previously having a strong discontent for it) and seafood and being so close to a large body of salt water. It may be because I spent most of my life on an island—always having access to the sea—or having Bangladeshi blood in my veins, the country that distinguishes itself from its other South Asian counterparts in its pride of fish as a cuisine, or at least that is what my mom says to convince my siblings and I that we are meant to love every possible fish dish she cooks up. But nevertheless, there was something about being so close to the water that made me feel like I am never meant to leave it permanently. When coastal people part with the sea, I feel as though they have trouble breathing in the same way.

 

 

I am finding that I do have a greater level of appreciation of the things that I previously took for granted. I remember the first hot shower I took (at a house of a friend of my host family) after moving into my permanent homestay and trying to figure out the cold water situation for a few weeks. I turned it to maximum heat and, out of pure glee, started laughing out loud as the water stung my skin, and when I had my first fro-yo here— the combined Nutella, mango, and coconut flavor made me convinced that I was tasting something from heaven.
I am also, surprisingly, gaining affection towards some aspects of the things that I had previous disdain for. Although I do not shower as regularly with cold water as I did with hot water, there is something really refreshing about cold showers that I now look forward to. Don’t get me wrong—I will take hot showers over cold any day but that doesn’t take away from the exhilaration that brands cold showers. I, additionally, used to absolutely despise the 20 minute walk from the Pan-Americana Highway, where the bus from the main city drops me off, to my house. It is an uphill walk in an already high altitude location with dogs that are very fond of coming really close to you and growling at night. Although the potential of a dog grabbing me or my stuff isn’t particularly appealing, I do look forward to having the time to listen to music, clear my mind, and just walk. Be alone with myself. I also never expected to not mind the usual potato soup it seems like my family has 3 times a day, but I actually really enjoy the taste of it combined with aji. I have even gotten my host parents to take a few drops of aji with their meals!
I am beginning to treasure things here that I would not otherwise know in the same way at home. In my community, most relatives of my host family live across the street or a maximum 5 minute walk away. The furthest distant family is in Quito, which is a 3 hour bus ride. My family sees their extended family very regularly—constantly sharing meals and work with them. This is very much unlike my own extended family, who are spread across the United States and the world—living in Virginia and Michigan and Canada, Australia, and Bangladesh. Holidays are relatively quiet with the occasional family friend visit. Hard times are mostly endured alone. There is a joy and a sense of security in having such close access to extended family. My host mom, for example, is currently spending most of her time at her niece’s house because she is sick—conjuring up remedies and accompanying her while she recuperates in bed. My host father, sister, and I have regularly visited her this past week as well. The closeness and reassurance of having such easy access to family is something I’ve never had as a part of a largely immigrant family and, not ever knowing what that’s like, never particularly desired or missed it. How can you desire or miss something you’ve never known?

 

 

Being here is a gift in more ways than one. Despite this being uniquely difficult, it is a truly transformative and distinct experience. But even beyond that, I haven’t been this mentally healthy in quite a while. High school was a culmination of sleep deprivation and feelings of endless helplessness. My last year was especially saturated with depression, anxiety attacks, and perpetual fear. My life here couldn’t be anything but. I mean, I actually dream here! It is a real privilege to say that I am really, truly having a break and I don’t think I will have this sort of sanity anytime soon after I come back.

 

 

 

Jensine Raihan