One thing that has passed through my mind more than once throughout this year is: “What is the biggest challenge, the hardest part about this experience?”, and I think it’s safe to say my answer has changed through the course of my stay.
In the beginning I would have said, without a doubt, the language barrier. My lack of Spanish made every interaction strained, every new person I met exhausting, and every slip up and misunderstanding left me feeling like a failure. I remember the first day of my apprenticeship at the elderly home, my supervisor telling me what I had to do, and me having absolutely zero idea what she had just said. I could only stand awkwardly, hoping to catch a clue. I left work that day feeling embarrassed and ashamed, and that I just wasn’t cut out for this.
But looking back, yes my Spanish has improved significantly, but so has my mindset. I’ve learned not to be so ashamed when I don’t understand, because honestly, being ashamed isn’t going to get me anywhere. I’ve even come to expect the not understanding, hearing only a flood of Spanish sounds instead of digestible, tangible words. But what I also hear in these moments is that I have so much more to learn, and that I WANT to learn, so more and more these sounds are taking shape into words I can chew, swallow and then take to use as my own. So no, I have to look for a more appropriate answer to my question about the hardest aspect.
6 months into this new life, I think I can finally explain to you, and myself, my answer. And it’s not so much a word as a feeling, although I do have a name for it. It usually lingers like a little knot in the pit of my stomach, or in the red blush of my cheeks from embarrassment. It’s the feeling that manifests inside me when when I am surrounded by my host sister and her friends, all of them laughing at a joke I didn’t understand — maybe it was something I said? It’s when I feel like I can only show my host family the best version of myself, where everything is good and perfect all the time, or when I sit at the table for a family gathering, everyone being friendly to the new gringa, but I mainly stay silent because I only recognize their faces; I can’t remember who they are. It’s the feeling that this is not my home in the same way it is my host brother’s or sister’s; it’s the feeling of being so far away from everyone and everything I have ever known. It’s the feeling that comes to me when I sit alone in my room, looking at photos of my family enjoying a beautiful thanksgiving dinner, and I remember a different version of myself. It’s that feeling of being an outsider, like I’m looking at a life and a family that is almost mine, but not quite. And that’s what I would say the hardest part is, that feeling of not quite belonging, that this life is “not quite mine”. It resides in every greeting, every goodbye, every conversation, lingering in some part of me deep down but somehow everyone still sees it.
But as always, the greatest challenges come with the greatest learnings.
And the biggest takeaway from this experience for me has been a broadened perspective. And what I’ve realized is that I’ve been lucky that this is new, uncharted territory for me. Of course everyone goes through times when they have that sense of not belonging, of looking in from the outside — it comes with trying anything new and stepping out of your comfort zone. But that cannot be compared to the feeling of being a complete outsider – in your community, family, or even country. I’ve been lucky enough to feel a part of these crucial communities in my home town; I’ve never had to struggle to fit in before because of my social status, race, or nationality, so no wonder stepping outside of my bubble came as such a shock to me.
But there are so many people that this cannot be said for. In the United States, as well as Ecuador, there are many groups of people who constantly feel, and are treated, like outsiders. What must it be like for Syrian immigrants traveling thousands of miles, fleeing from a war torn country, having lost everything they once called home, only to be turned away at the border? Or the ones that are lucky enough to be let in, but struggle to find a job or be accepted in their new home? Or people of color in the United States who are in danger walking the streets in front of their homes, or discriminated against in practically every aspect of society? Why am I able to travel to Ecuador for a year simply for educational and personal growth purposes, while Ecuadorians trying to visit family or find a job in the US are denied visas again and again? What must it feel like for your belonging to not only be taken away, but actively denied, over and over again?
I think that what I’ve realized from this new perspective is that this feeling will appear over and over in my life, and in everyone’s life, this “not quite mine”, of being an outsider. And there are times, and people, who will have it harder, and there will be times when it will even put their lives in danger. And in these moments of feeling most alone, little acts of compassion can make a world of difference. When my brother invites me to play cards with him at the family gathering, or my sister’s friends make the effort to get to know me, or my coworker helps me understand what I have to do, it completely changes my sense of inclusion. And that is something I have vowed to myself to be better at, never forgetting to always perform these smaller acts of kindness, especially for people I can see struggling to find their place.
Because as I explore more and more of this world, I see that it is as much mine as yours, or my host sisters, or the elderly people I work with, and it belongs to 7 billion people that you’ve never met and neither have I. So it may sound almost communist, but the most we can do in our short lives is to share what we are lucky enough to have. Because in the span of a second, or a year, or maybe even 50 years, the tables may turn, and it will be you on the outside, looking for someone to open the door for you, and give you a sense of belonging.