On Building Yourself from Scratch: Notes from Quito, Ecuador

I am not myself here. At least not yet.

They say your identity may change or be challenged outside your context. They say you might be a different person–but maybe for a while you don’t feel like a person at all, just an outline with blank space in the middle.

A clean slate may seem like a good idea–after all, don’t you now have the freedom to reinvent yourself if you wish? You can fill in that blank space with whatever new colors inspire you. But what about all the trust you have built with your family, friends, and acquaintances, the quirks that have been explained? All that has to be mapped out, blueprinted, and executed again.

At home, I can hide behind comfort, background, and history to ignore my weaknesses. Perhaps excuse my sensitivities. At home, the people around me may forgive quickly because they understand my general tendencies and intentions. They know my childhood, my neighborhood, my family, and my interests.

Here, I have only three weeks (and, after Immersion Week, 7 months) to make up for a lifetime of personality. Every word, every sentence, every por favor and gracias is a crucial piece of the very small puzzle that creates my host family’s image of me. And every small misstep can feel like a significant stain on that image.

Language, of course, makes this process exponentially exhausting. When one barely has the faculties to explain a complex situation (or a simple one, for that matter), easily avoidable conflicts can take on a life of their own in a matter of minutes. My tongue lolls around hopelessly, my hands mime frantically, and my brain cannot churn fast enough to find the Spanish vocabulary for an appropriate response.

Sometimes, in Ecuador, I feel less mature than I ever have. With humility, I have to learn that which I thought I would never have to relearn, accepting–often with embarrassment and lowered eyes–instructions on manners, bed-making and personal belongings. I am trapped in a baby’s body, toddling around an unfamiliar place, unable to steer clear of the many obstacles in my way. I’m eighteen years old; I have all my basic manners down, right? Not in Ecuador.

I won’t say it’s been easy to follow my own advice for this year: to “seek opportunity” in whatever situation I find myself. In fact, I won’t even say I’ve been completely successful in following it. However, I believe that maybe, through the terrifying feeling of being merely an outline, I will be able to more clearly observe the qualities that arise on this new canvas of mine. There is nothing here to cloud the simple everyday actions we often shove aside in our busy lives, key moments that unknowingly define our characters.

Never has the idealistic notion of I am not the sum of a list of activities been so daunting. Here, I am not President of the Women’s Rights Club, I am not an actor in the musical, I am not a good student, I am not an Ultimate Frisbee player. I am just the gringa who walks into the kitchen each morning to say, “Buenos días!”

So, take a deep breath. Let’s build from scratch.