Normalcy

Alexandra Lines - Ecuador


March 7, 2014

(Note: I talk about culture in this blog, and my personal observations of it. Please keep in mind that I draw my observations from generalizations and patterns of behavior, and that there is a great amount of personal variety in every country and in every culture, and that not all individuals will fit into the generalizations.)

Ecuador is not “cultural” or “strange” or “different,” at least no more than any other place in the world is. People are just people, and while our normals may be different, one is not more normal than the other. It is all a matter of perception. Of course there are still situations that annoy, shock and surprise me in my life here. But it is not because Ecuador is filled with people who are bizarre – indeed, it is because I have been raised in a culturally different context. There are many things about me and my life I consider normal that many of my friends and family members here consider quite strange. Like the fact that I eat raw carrots, I prefer to walk around barefoot or in socks than with shoes on, or that I love making oatmeal and would much rather eat that for breakfast than chicken and rice. A few weeks ago, I was camping with friends on the side of Volcán Chimborazo and we, and our many pairs of wool socks, were huddled around a fire. We had brought the ingredients to make s’mores (my wonderful friend and coworker, Fernanda, lived in California for a year on an exchange program and brought back with her some of our traditions), and Fernanda, and a fellow Fellow and I were happily roasting our marshmallows and asking for our bits of chocolate. Cornelio, a dear friend of ours, said he did not want his with chocolate- just marshmallow and graham cracker, thank you very much. I asked him if he was crazy? Did he not like chocolate!? He said he was fine with chocolate, but simply didn’t want it. He asked if people in the U.S. always put chocolate on these things called ‘s’mores’ and when I replied ‘yes’ he exclaimed, “qué raro!” (how weird!). It made me laugh that something so very normal seemed so strange to him. But when I thought about it more, I wondered what the Ecuadorian s’more was. What normal thing had I been looking at and thinking, “how very strange”?

I have been thinking quite a bit about cultural differences as of late. I did not realize before I moved here how deep these differences run, or how much the country we are raised in really affects how we think and behave. In fact, I think I had an idea somewhere in my head that geographic differences really don’t make us so different at all. Sure there are a few differences here and there, in greetings and similar small and relatively unimportant things, but that these melt away quickly and leave us all more or less the same. Not only did I not understand that the differences can be much more profound, but that this diversity is what teaches us the most about each other.

Like I said before, there are many behaviors and ideas in Ecuador that leave me completely frustrated. But there are also behaviors and ideas that greatly differ from the norm in the U.S., which I have come to love and cherish. Similarly, I have come to see the U.S. and it’s culture more clearly, and there are many cultural ideologies and behaviors that I profoundly value, and many that deeply disturb me. I feel extremely blessed to have such a wonderful opportunity to be opened up and expanded, to learn from people who think differently than I do, and to carry with me the best of two cultures.

I have come to feel a sense of freedom and acceptance, the likes of which I have not felt in a long time, living here. The amount of love and utter acceptance people showered upon me when I first arrived startled me. I remember feeling very self-conscious about my level of Spanish, and thinking that I had not yet really offered anything of value. I felt like I had to prove myself to people, and I did not understand how or why they were being so kind and loving toward me before I had. But a part of Ecuadorian culture is that it is very loving and inviting. My host mom has called me “mija” (my daughter) from day one, and people often address their friends and family members as “mi amor” (my love) or, my personal favorite, “mi vida” (my life). This love and friendliness spills over into greetings, as every time someone enters a room, an office, or sees someone they know on the street, they shake hands or kiss each other on the cheeks, or both. And it does not matter if you have never met them or if they are busy or if you are not the person they came to see, the greeting and the exchange of pleasantries like, “como estas? Como has pasado?” are always shared with everyone. In fact, the act of sharing is something that is greatly valued here, particularly when it comes to food. It does not matter if you have known someone for 5 months, 5 minutes or 5 days; if they eat, you eat. And if they see that you are not partaking with them, they worry, they ask you if you are hungry, they tell you that you really ought to eat something, and they go in search of food for you.

There is a great amount of solidarity. People go about their daily lives with a sense of connection, knowing that they are part of a system, a web of people and relationships. I met an incredibly sweet woman named Nelly, who always sends me home with bags of fruits because I told her I like them one day in passing conversation. She asked me to help her daughter practice English, as she was studying very hard and was tired and stressed, but wanted to apply to a university in the states. When Nelly was describing her daughters difficulties and stresses to me, I could see that she shared them with her daughter. That she felt a deep personal responsibility to help her daughter succeed and also lighten her work load. The boundaries between her and her daughter weren’t quite as strong as those that I am used to – they shared the joys and the struggles of their individual lives almost equally, simply because they are family.

This sharing of responsibility is largely what the work I do is based on. I work with a small NGO called Utopía, which is dedicated to nutrition and the principles of food sovereignty. My coworkers have spent many years building the “canasta comunitaria” (community basket). They have cultivated relationships with small, local family farmers that live in the surrounding areas of Riobamba (the small city I live and work in). All of the farmers we work with produce organically, and are concerned with living responsibility and not outstripping the resources of their land. Every two weeks, we buy products from them – potatoes, kale, bananas, carrots, and so much more – to assemble the baskets. The families who are involved with the organization, all of them showing concern over the effects of GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) on the health of their families, desire to support small, local farmers, as well as the pachamama (Mother Earth), take turns volunteering throughout the year. They come early on the Saturday mornings of the canastas to help lug plastic bins of food around and count them out into piles and bags, and hand them out to the other families (and of course, eat). This community work is required of all of the families involved in the canasta. The families and farmers I have talked to are all thrilled to be part of this community – the farmers often struggle selling their products at the markets, because so many people simply do not value organic produce and don’t understand that while it may be a little smaller or uglier than genetically modified and chemically raised produce, it contains a higher degree of nutrients and is much healthier for the body. The farmers appreciate their work being valued by the families of the canasta, and they know that they always have a set selling price with the organization. The families feel a great sense of support and love in the organization, and appreciate the shared goal of taking care of their health. This beautiful community of bright, energetic and solidarity-minded people has taught me quite a bit about what it means to be part of something that is bigger than yourself, to understand that we are all part of a system and our energies are better spent when we work together.

But there are also instances and behaviors that can sometimes cause me to lose my temper and ask myself, “what is *wrong* with these people!?” For instance, there have been times when the desire to help each other out has gone a little too far. Like one morning at a canasta, I was counting out peppers to put in bags. A woman took it upon herself to help me out, by trying to count peppers with me and put them in the same bag. This resulted in a lot of miscounting, recounting, and me finally saying sheepishly “you know, I think it’s probably better for one person to do this.” Sometimes, the good ol’ “divide and conquer” strategy really is the quickest and easiest way to go about things. Furthermore when it comes to sharing and living in a more community-oriented culture, there are things I miss about privacy. On multiple occasions, people have picked up my journal and started reading through it, and when I am trying to sleep and my family is awake, it simply does not cross their mind to be quiet. It does not stop my mom, Sonia, from blasting the radio and singing along to it, or from banging around in the kitchen or yelling into the phone.

And while there is a great importance put on food and health and biodiversity, there is a lack of creativity when it comes to cooking, which simply drives me mad sometimes. There is a level on which I *cannot* understand why families eat soup every single day, or consume almost all fruit matter in the form of juice heavily spiked with sugar, or why the main staple of the house is rice, served with beef or chicken and very few vegetables. There is a sense of wonder in me as to why the day-to-day meals are so stagnant, when there is an abundance of huge and beautiful fruit and veggies markets, piled high with cheap and gorgeous produce. The ability to be creative with such a variety of foods is so available, yet so few people take it.

And the thing that annoys me perhaps more than anything else is how often I get stared at. People look at me as I walk along the streets because I am tall and white. They do double takes, and kids point at me, and giggle. People speak words of broken English to me as a walk by, often assuming that I cannot speak Spanish. And don’t you even get me started on the men. They whistle and cat call and honk at me from their cars. They say, “hola mi linda, mi guapa, mi reina” or, “hi baby, how are you?” I’m sure you can imagine how old this has gotten after 6 months. There have been times where I have wanted to explode at people and say, “What!? I am just a person!” I miss the diversity of that states. The fact that people from other countries can walk along the street and it not being given a second thought, that they can live a normal day-to-day life without people assuming that they can’t speak English. I understand, or at least I try to remind myself, that people have not grown up so close to diversity like I have. That seeing people from different countries with other colors of skin is normal to me, but not to others. As much as I try to understand these things, I still miss the diversity that I consider so normal. I miss not getting so much extra and unwanted attention based on the fact that I am white, and that I am female.

As I have observed and become a part of a different culture, I often think about the one that I come from and will be going back to. I think about the things I value and miss, like diversity and creativity in cooking. You could say that I miss and value variety in general – of food, places, beliefs and people. I love the United States, because it’s people are able to change so quickly, and to welcome in the new, and to keep developing. While many of us believe that equality is slow-moving, I have actually become quite impressed by how fast we have been able to make progress in this area. The fact that such a huge amount of people support and fight for gender and homosexual equality is amazing, and I am proud that we have been able to make such strides toward acceptance. I view the United States as a place of growing acceptance, movement, and development.

However, I also believe that this constant need to be moving and changing can leave us feeling quite disconnected and lost. We have lost the ability to value things that cannot be measured in terms of profit or outcome. So many of us do not know how to value art, nature, relationships or food. And even when we do try to value these things, that is just it, we *try*. We no longer value these beautiful parts of the human experience as a central part to the health and expression of our beings, but rather we make en enjoyment of “nature” or “art” separate from our businesses and our lives. We organize everything into categories, and forget how to be whole Human Beings. This, I believe, is such a huge part of why we find ourselves running in circles, repeating how superficial we are, how dependent we are on technology, how harmful the media is to our psyche, how fat and sick we are becoming, and how much we consume, without realizing that each of us has the power to not only change ourselves and our behaviors, but that in doing so we can help change the systems of which we are a part. We have forgotten how to interact with others and with the Earth as not separate from us, but part of who we are, as an extension of our existence. We are so lost and confused and guilty about who we are that we rely on experts to tell us how to live- what to wear, how to look, how much to weigh, and what to eat.

While I believe we need to make steps toward reclaiming our personal knowledge and guidance in all of these subjects, the one that concerns me most is the way in which we interact with and consume food. So many of us are so far separated from what we eat that we could not trace it back to the source even if we ever thought about doing so. In fact, we cannot even read about three fourths of the ingredients we eat in processed and packaged food. For a great variety of reasons (which I will go into further detail about in a later blog) we in the U.S. have moved away from farming as a lifestyle and a way of nurturing ourselves, our families, the land, plants, and animals, and moved toward industrialized farming. Toward planting as many genetically modified seeds into an acre of land as possible, and squeezing as much yield out of it until the soil is pushed to within an inch of it’s life. Instead of viewing vegetables as rich with minerals and vitamins and full to the brim with life, we see them as something we have to force ourselves to consume everyday because that is what the health experts say. We look at cattle as milk machines and steak, instead of part of a beautiful system, which can consume excess crop and unneeded grass, and in turn help the plants grow and prosper through their input of manure. We have lost touch with the incredible miracle that what we consume becomes part of who we are, part of our very tissue and makeup. We have forgotten that each animal we eat is a sacrifice made in our name, for which we should be very grateful. We don’t think about the hard work that goes into feeding us. Somewhere along the way, we forget that everything is connected and that what we do in our daily lives has a huge impact on the world.

The point is, every culture has its beautiful points and its virtues, and every culture also has it’s points that are less than stellar. But this does not mean that one is “the norm,’ nor the best. And, for goodness sake, it does not mean that we should be scared of each other. It does not mean that we should point at each other for being different, and remark “oh, how very strange they are.” Or, at least if we do, realize how very strange we are as well. We have such an opportunity to pursue virtuous globalization – I am not talking about Free Trade or the spread of McDonalds or homogenization. I am talking about learning from each other, from embracing the cultural differences no matter how annoying or abnormal or frightening they seem, not necessarily for the purpose of accepting them (I will always hold to the belief that men should treat me with more respect than whistles and crude words), but for the purpose of discovering who we are as One People in the world, for the purpose of learning from each others’ weaknesses and building off of each others’ strengths.  For the purpose of maintaining and respecting each others’ cultures, while learning how to become more unified. We can all share our cultural s’mores, with the understanding that we can take or leave the chocolate and still be friends.

Alexandra Lines