My first culture shock probably has nothing to do with culture. I’d say it has more to do with what we call the economic class or perhaps the distance from a city. Either way, I will refer to it as a culture shock, as this is a cultural immersion program, and the concept of culture is broad enough to encompass more than just national costumes and festivals.
My first culture shock started the second I stepped my foot over the doorstep of my new house in Cumbe, a small „parroquia“ in the south of Ecuador. I walked into an old staircase; poorly isolated walls, ceilings surprisingly withstanding rain, humidity stains, old furniture, the absence of any sort of decoration and cement floor kitchen. My brain made an immediate link between my surroundings and lower economic class or poverty. The moment I realized I associated the look of my new house with poverty, I started questioning that concept, and thinking about a way I can write a blog about it in a dignifying manner.
Let me start with the symptoms of my culture shock, which included an uncanny feeling of discomfort in my cold and gloomy environment, and a swift appreciation and recognition of various sorts of luxury, including a hot steamy shower, warmth in my toes and the possibility of taking off a jacket inside. All of a sudden I managed to empathize with Sims characters whose life happiness line went up as you put up a painting on the wall, because I was literally bothered by the look of our house and my presence within it. I was not prepared to see what I diagnosed as poverty since I did not approach this year with such a mindset. A part of me started questioning whether I really wanted to give up on a possibility of living in my apartment in Mostar, with way too many decorations all over, or a university campus in the US, either which for sure have warm water and heating. I couldn’t even entirely phrase the possibility of me quitting the program for a reason as ludicrous as not having a pretty looking house (especially considering that we do have electricity, a fridge, a bad-working-warm-water shower, and even a washing machine) but as I was taking one of my sad showers where the overworked drops of water barely touched my limbs, I literally started thinking if there was a hotel nearby where I could take just one warm shower.
This experience made me contemplate need and luxury. I recalled a human rights workshop I’ve done a multiple times, in which the participants were asked to write down things they can’t live without or things every person has a right to. I never wrote pretty decorations or a newly built house, but simply shelter. I recognized this as double standards or a lack of universality of human rights – I would put shelter as a human right, but just shelter apparently is not satisfying enough for me as a middle-class urban European (an identity I never chose to describe myself before). I also called some of those additional things I would like to have luxury, and started thinking whether the opposite is poverty or simplicity. The distinction makes a big difference, as poverty bares the connotation which makes us want to escape it, while simplicity is a more glorified concept, a choice. Having spent four days here, I have definitely gotten used to the look of my house; however, I can’t really say I would have chosen it too. At times I still wonder how I will “survive” seven months here. I guess what stands between me now and me in 7 months is a bridge of self-growth, building empathy and understanding for different ways of living.
Having said all of that, the biggest reflection resulting from my culture shock was about poverty. Unaware of the classes, poverty lines and standards of living in Ecuador, I realized that what I identified as poverty might not be poverty in Ecuador. Or might not be poverty for my host family. I realized that poverty is a relative concept: they seemed to be poor to me, but maybe not to their neighbors. This made me think about how difficult it must be to define a poverty line, as it seemed impossible to me to find a universal, objective definition of a poverty line, when even a cornerstone, such as the human rights, are very complicated in practice (as seen above). Yet, we use concepts poverty and poverty line so much. How? I think the category is defined by those who would not place themselves in it, as counterintuitive as it.
However, sometimes the identity is internalized by those placed in that category. I definitely did not want to put my family into the box of the poor through my pity, but it was very difficult to respond to their reinforcement of that identity. My host grandma, with a smile reflecting the warmth of her soul and an eye wrinkle of a well-intentioned person (and I am not trying to be poetic here, but do her justice), apologized for the look of her house, which is completely opposite of her presence – cold and uninviting. She said that for me, a European with the most beautiful house, this must not be enough. At first, I referred to this sentence as a sign of self-pity. Then, I realized that she did not tell me anything about her experience of life inside that supposedly cold and uninviting house.