I came to Latin American with various disclaimers in tow about possible impending struggles. The majority of them- the ones concerning safety, Ecua-time (the cultural phenomenon of national tardiness), Machismo, and the drinking culture- were anticipated and unfortunately, warranted. But I also received a few notes of caution about the intense unity of families here, to which I paid no heed. “How could that possibly be a challenge?” I thought, starry-eyed, basking in my last few moments of naivety. Was I in for a treat! Although I am now into my second month living in Riobamba, the capital city of the Andean region of Chimborazo in Central Ecuador, I was only on week two when I was first exposed to this facet of “culture shock.” For a holiday long weekend in October, my extended family of some 30 individuals rented a Greyhound-style tour bus and set off on a ten hour trip to Esmeraldas, a beach town in the Northern Coast of Ecuador. What succeeded was a 3-day fiasco of constant activities, games, and family-style meals- all in conjunction, all the time. My notions of a relaxing, beach-side vacation were drastically reinvented. Nevertheless, I was left with a definite impression of my family’s unity and genuine delight in each other’s company.
These conclusions are reinforced within me everyday through countless demonstrations of familial devotion. In Ecuador, it is not at all uncommon for children (or adults, rather) to share an address with their parents until they are married- in some cases, even after the fact. And whereas a typical American (if he/she/it even exists) may arguably equate success to attainment of personal goals and financial independence, Ecuadorians seem to place their foremost priority on how useful they can be to their communities and families. My host sister, for example, is a 26 year old college graduate who is currently living with her mother. Her responsibilities are indeed never in short supply, but take on a uniquely Ecuadorian hue. She is constantly in a supporting role to an extensive inventory of cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, second cousins first removed…(you get the picture). And she routinely (and ungrudgingly, I might add) bypasses social activities with friends and even a long-term boyfriend to accompany her mother to run everyday errands and fulfill her duties on the domestic front. My sister’s behavior has made it evident to me that my favorite excuse from the States, “I have a lot of work to do” holds no validity in this household. Spanish homework and personal projects will not exempt you from meals, gatherings, and certainly not from Sunday morning service. In short, family always comes first.
Justifiably, I have developed an utmost respect for my host sister and the amount of energy and unselfish love that my family constantly invests into the sustenance of this 30-member unit. As for integration, that’s another story.
After conducting some research, I discovered some vocabulary to clarify my observations. The social pattern that is defined by interdependence and the emphasis of the goals of the group (or family) over the individual is known as collectivism. Collectivists value loyalty, the maintenance of group harmony, and sensitivity to the needs and reactions of in-group members. According to the renowned Hofstede study, Ecuador has the second highest ranking of collectivism in the world. Of the individualists, who value independence, personal freedom, self-reliance, and achievement, the U.S. of A emerged on top. (http://geert-hofstede.com/ecuador.html)
So, what does this mean for us- American bridge year students in Latin America? Where does the conflict settle in?
In a collectivist society, self-confidence is achieved through social acceptance. On the other hand, the American idea of self-confidence is highly autonomous. Perhaps a perfect example of this autonomy was our very decision to leave the United States three months ago in hopes of developing our unique visions and voices.
Yet, in the initial stages of my experiences, I craved acceptance more than anything. So, I made it my focus to mimic cultural norms and meet every expectation placed upon me as a new family member- from forcing myself to clean my plate at every meal, (no matter how unidentifiable the meat or close my jean buttons were to popping) attending religious services on a tri-weekly basis, and indulging my host mother in teaching me how to cook for my future husband, despite an absolute lack of interest in the culinary arts (and traditional gender roles, for that matter). In other words, I did not say no.
But before long, the individualist in me came knocking. In my manic pursuit of integration and acceptance, I briefly lost sight of my own preferences and personal intentions for this year.
So, here I am to redefine it, for myself. Because I see now that I was mistaken. This year is not going to be about deliberately altering central qualities about myself or totally absorbing another culture as my own. Instead, it will be about learning the value in observation in reaching understanding. It will be about practicing compassion when dealing with differences. And most importantly, it will be about using this insight to build my own set of convictions and supplement it with the self-respect to uphold them, regardless of whether or not they are shared by my immediate community.
Whether collectivist or individualist, societies are beautiful things. Their trends provide secret insights. Their pockets provide a home for community. But perhaps the most beautiful quality about them is their diversity and yet, unfailing ability to piece together perfectly to form what I am discovering to be an unbelievably magnificent, colorful, and multi-dimensional big picture. And it is with great humility and appreciation that I am realizing that within this picture, there is a place for me too.