Let me paint a picture of “family” in my 1200-person town of Imbaya. My mom Mayrita, dad Segundo, brother Paul, and sister Mishell live with me in the center of town. Right next door is my abuelita Blancita who runs a tienda and a merienda restaurant outside of her kitchen every day. Upstairs is her 96 year-old mother. Both come to my house multiple times a day bringing potatoes for us to have with our lunch or to have tea. Mayrita regularly sends me next door to bring food to her mom as well. Across town (read: a three-minute walk) is my other abuelita and abuelito on my dad’s side. They live right next to my aunt, uncle and cousin, who live right across the street from my other aunt, uncle and cousin. We usually go over there every Sunday for an hours-long meal.
But just a bit outside of Imbaya I have even more family. Half an hour away in a town called Otavalo are two uncles and their families (this means a lot of primos). And about an hour away is where all of my dad’s primos live (I still don’t know where. Every time I ask where they live my family tells me “abajo,” (down) “arriba,” (up) or “en un otro lado” (in another side)). The furthest family members away from Imbaya live in Galcan two hours away. Okay, so that was a lot of information, but my point is that family here means everyone is close by. Family means that at any random time throughout the day a primo or tia or abuelito could come through your door with a huge bucket of potatoes and nobody bats an eye. Family means that a typical weekend consists of two full days driving around Imbabura buying fruit, eating, walking, swimming and sitting with a ton of family members.
Now let me paint a picture of “family” back in the U.S. I live with my mom in Seattle and my dad lives in Seattle as well, however about 20 minutes away from me. My sister lives with my mom and I, but she is in college in New York, so I only see her during the summers and for winter break. My grandma, aunt and uncle live a six-hour plane ride away in Hawaii. I have aunts and uncles in Arizona, Florida, Maine, and New York. The last time I saw much of my extended family was the summer after my junior year of high school in Hawaii.
There are some obviously stark differences between these families. I’ll talk later about how I don’t think proximity or lack thereof always correlates to how close-knit a family is, but for now suffice to say that my Ecuadorian family was visibly uncomfortable when I explained how spread out my family in the U.S. is. The first few weeks with them when I was explaining how often I see certain members of my family, or that my parents were separated, it was impossible for them to hide their side-glances to each other or to ignore the awkwardness of the awkward silences. Family being far apart is not something that they can understand because it isn’t something they do, or any family does here. Family has to mean that you can see and catch up with everyone multiple times a day, or at the very least, a couple times per month in-person.
In my experience though, while my relationship with my extended family in the U.S. doesn’t include as much time face-to-face as in Ecuador, I still feel I have strong relationships with my family members, albeit in a different way. Because it is clear I won’t see my extended family a lot, when I do see them we make sure to catch up not just on the events that have happened in our lives since we last saw each other, but we make time to talk about how those events have changed us, where we think our futures are headed, and how we feel about our lives at that moment. I don’t see my Ecuadorian family making time for those types of conversations that have been really important to me and made me feel close to my family. It isn’t worse, it’s just different. There is not a feeling of “I need to catch up on their life” when family here means someone is in your life every single day.
A couple of weeks ago, my dad Whatsapped me with the news that my grandma was with a hospice. A few days later she was dead. It hit me then that I hadn’t seen my grandma in at least six years, and I hadn’t made a point to keep up with her by talking with her on the phone at least every once in awhile. A family member died and I was thousands of miles away and removed from the situation. I told my family here in Ecuador and while they were compassionate and helpful — hugging me and talking to me about my grandma and how everything would turn out okay — they also expressed shock that I took on traveling to Ecuador for months with the knowledge that there were certain family members I wouldn’t see again. But from where I’m from that isn’t a reason to stay somewhere. My extended family became so spread out because when they decide what they want to pursue out of life career-wise, they go do that. Nothing holds them back from that pursuit. I had always looked on this observation kindly. But recently I’ve come to think more of the idea that this pursuit; this ambition, comes with a price.
I am thankful because through all of my educational opportunities I have never felt discouraged from exploring. I have had every opportunity to learn about the world and to assume that I would be able to keep learning and trying to change the world in the future. I have been given the gifts of empowerment and boundless opportunity. And I’ve run with that. I decided to attend school across the country for a semester in high school. I’ve taken part in exchange programs in my past summers. I chose to attend college across the country as well. I decided to spend an entire school-year in a completely foreign country. I did all of this because I was curious, and I’ve been told my whole life to run with that curiosity. My goal is to learn and then use what I learn to impact something. I never thought this came at the expense of valuing family. But my frankly almost-indifferent reaction to my grandma dying showed me that this ambition has in fact come at the expense of family.
Where do I go from here? My answer is not to do a complete 180 and define family in the way my Ecuadorian family here does. I do still see limits with that that I don’t feel comfortable taking on. It feels too insular to plan to live with my parents during college and then live minutes away from my entire family even if I want to live somewhere else. I don’t want to work a job that I only do the bare-minimum of. I want to have a career that means something; that challenges me and keeps me up at night because I am so passionate about the work I am doing. Those things can’t happen in my Ecuadorian family. But right now I am on track to follow my dreams and not include family in those dreams. And if these past few weeks are any indication, that will mean my life lacks something that should be prioritized. How do I act on this? Well… It starts with questioning more. I need to look at my decisions not just with ambition in mind, but start framing it with how it affects my relationships as well. I need to question what I want from family more, instead of just making decisions with that as an afterthought, or a variable that has to react to everything else. When thinking about what my ideal work-life balance would be in the future these past few weeks, I was still at a loss trying to define that for myself. But I kept coming back to a quote from one of our speakers at Pre-Departure Training, Julie Lythcott-Haims. She told our cohort that she doesn’t know exactly what she will be doing in 10 years, but she “[hopes she] will be becoming more [herself].”
I have been lucky throughout my life to have been shown many places to look for questions, and many places to search for meaning. This experience, while hard and uncomfortable for me, was a necessary way for me to prioritize a new question. How do I prioritize family in the future? How do I maintain a work/ambition-life balance? What role should this play in my life?
I imagine I will struggle with these questions my whole life, as we all have questions that may be too hard to answer. But having these questions allows me to live a more fulfilling life and therefore become a better self every day and more myself every day. I am finding the questions that drive my life in the direction I need it to be driven. If we answered all of our tough questions, we wouldn’t have any more room for growth or learning, and I am content with my outlook that growth and learning should never stop.