A Sense of Self

Daniel Schwarz - Ecuador


October 22, 2013

 

 

A Sense of Self

“I don’t know Mom, I just don’t care” (a typical response to why I got a bad grade and how I felt about it).  The truth is that I really did care about high school. I always got okay grades because school was easy. Occasionally there would be a subject I wouldn’t understand but I didn’t understand because I was not accustom to trying. I didn’t apply myself. All I cared about was having a GPA good enough to go to college.  I rarely pushed myself because I never really needed to. But, there was a second reason…

It was my first night in Tena, a small town in the basin of the Ecuadorian Amazon, when I waved goodbye to all my American friends as I hoisted myself into the back of a pickup truck. The passengers in the truck, at the time, were foreign to me.

“Hola Daniel” said my host dad

“Hola” I said. My American accent rang true

Que fue tu viaje? He asked.

Que? I responded.

Silence.

Negative thoughts consumed my mind and tormented my soul. Why did I decide to come here? God it’s hot, and humid ugh, I’m sweating. We passed by a bunch of shacks in the side of the road. I hope my house is better than that. We cruised by a crumbling apartment; the fallen stones had been moved in such a way to create a small run down BBQ restaurant. The car stopped. My host family owns a restaurant…  My host family. Owns. A. Restaurant.  My host family owns a restaurant….  But this… this… this is not a restaurant. No, this is a legitimate hole in the wall. This cannot be the place where I will be living, right? RIGHT?  My host dad got out of the car (No, it cannot be.) and walked over to the small old lady who owned the restaurant. She disappeared into the building and came out with a beer.  The car started to move. I sighed in relief.  I had no idea where I was going or anything about the people who I would be living with. How am I going to do this? How I am going to live for eight months in the Amazon rain forest knowing no Spanish? I thought. I never was able to learn Spanish in high school, how can I expect to learn it now?  I can’t do this.

About 10 minutes later I arrived at my host family’s home and was escorted to a rustic patio that was attached to a small house. The patio rested inside a small fenced in yard. It was old and had been there for a while. I, on the other hand, had not. I was foreign. Not just to the country, but to the culture and the language. I was overwhelmed and had a daunting amount to learn. My complete lack of knowledge and inability to function independently scared me.

This plot of land had been with my host family for over fifty years. It had been home to them for a long time. To me, it was brand new. It was the first time in my life that something I considered “new” was in reality decrepit. I felt a bit disappointed. I wanted air conditioning and Internet. I wanted good cheese and bread. I wanted to be able to drink water from the tap.  I found flaws in everything and I had no appreciation for their home or their way of life.

I stepped onto the patio and greeted my new kin. The smell of cigarettes permeated the air. A cup was shoved in front of my face. “Toma!” they said. Along with the rest of them, I drank. The cold beer, gold in color, quenched my thirst and after a few cups enveloped my fear. A plate was placed in front of me. “Comerás” they suggested. Like everyone else, I shoveled sticky white rice, marinated chicken, and cabbage salad into my mouth. These people had no idea who I was, or what I stood for, but they treated me, as I interpreted it, as their own.

Ensuing the food and drink, conversation and questions began.

“Como te llamas?” they asked

“Soy Daniel,” I responded

“De donde eres?”

“Los Estados Unidos”

“Y que has hecho hoy?” someone asked.

“No entiendo” I responded

My two favorite words by the end of the night were “no entiendo.”  I was done and ready to give up. I no longer wanted to try and speak Spanish. I was a failure. The more I spoke Spanish the more I reminded myself of how incompetent I was. After hours of not understanding and not being understood, I went to bed.

That night, while staring at the ceiling with the smell of mold filling my nostrils, I thought, shit, what did I get myself into? I don’t have any friends living near me. I can’t communicate, there is no hot water, nothing to do, and my job is going to suck. I won’t be able to do this. I can’t do this… STOP! It was at this point that I made a pact with myself: I would put all my effort into learning Spanish, and in two months I would understand and speak proficiently. I knew I had to stop thinking negatively and I needed to take advantage of the opportunity I had in front of me.

Two months passed and I had failed to complete my goal. I still struggled with everyday conversation and simple tasks. I only understood half of most conversations and was only able to form simple, VERY SIMPLE, sentences. The stress was doubled by the fact that I had a job (internship) in which Spanish was the only language spoken.

A project I worked on at my internship was to create an excel spreadsheet of the budget my boss would be presenting to donors for a festival. The name of the festival was “5to foro del cacao y chocolate amazónico 2012.”  The spreadsheet was projected onto a large screen in front of our sponsors. In the middle of the screen, in plain sight, was the misspelled title of the festival. The title was correct except for one letter. “Cacao” was written as “caca.” In Spanish, “caca” means poop. All of the organization’s sponsors, who pledged to give thousands of dollars of support, saw my typo. I put the word “poop” in a government presentation. I had embarrassed my work and myself; my office suffered consequences (not money) – its image. After the meeting I did my best to apologize to my co-workers but my Spanish was still mediocre. To this day I do not know if my apology was understood. Luckily my co-workers were more amused than upset. However, I was feeling down the rest of that day. I felt ready to give up again.

Later that day a co-worker came up to me, “No estas aquí para trabajar Daniel, estas aquí para aprender.” “You are not here to work Daniel, you are here to learn”, she said. These words stuck with me and gave me the courage to continue my goal of learning Spanish. My coworker reminded me of why I decided to take a gap year, and why I decided to challenge myself. I was in the middle of an eight-month long process that overwhelmed every sense in my body. It was at this point that I changed my attitude. I embraced the fear, and the fear of making mistakes. I was done with being scared. I changed the pact that I had made to myself. I told myself that I would never give up and that I would be able to converse in Spanish by the time I went back to the United States.  It was at that moment when I remembered something my Dad told me senior year.

“No Dad, I cannot do calculus. I have gotten a D on the last two tests. Look, obviously math just isn’t for me. There is no point in my studying for the next test.” I declared

“Maybe you can go talk to your teacher, maybe he can…”

“NO. THERE IS NOTHING I CAN DO,” I yelled

“Things worth learning take practice, time, and effort.” Dad said

Those words my Dad told me years ago were never more relevant. Every day I searched for conversations. I went out of the way to chat with strangers. With every conversation came mistakes, made up words, or incorrect grammar. With 40 plus mistakes a day I was failing frequently. But due to the self-prophecy of self-motivation, failing no longer mattered. I would learn from my mistakes. I would keep talking and keep listening, no matter what anyone said. My dedication soon paid off.

About a month later I was sitting in a white plastic chair at my friend’s house. We had just finished eating miatos de tilapia, a national dish of the Kichwa people consisting of tilapia wrapped and cooked in banana leaves.

“Mashi (the nick name of my friend), tengo una pregunta.” I asked

“Si?”

“Que era la religion de los Kichwas antes los Españoles llegaron?”

“La naturaleza mas que todo,” he started

A long conversation began about the original religion of the Kichwa people and how the Españoles had destroyed it. I was learning so much about the culture of the indigenous people of Ecuador that I didn’t even realize I was speaking Spanish. After a few hours of talking I left my friend’s house and walked home.

On my walk all I could do was smile from ear to ear.  I was so happy with myself that I had fully understood a conversation and was able to respond in such a way that a fluent speaker could understand me. I became so motivated to learn more Spanish.  I had discovered a passion that I never once had.  My passion was not for Spanish but rather living my goal. For the first time in my life I had set me self a challenging goal for my self and was doing everything I could to complete it.   After that day I began to learn Spanish faster and faster.  I felt thankful for everything I was going through. Every day I was realizing more and more how emersion into a new place teaches a person how to be resilient.

A month or two later I was strolling toward my favorite restaurant. It was a beautiful day, not too hot and not too cool. My workday had just ended and I was feeling pretty good about myself. I was finally starting to get a really good grasp on things. As I crossed the main bridge in town I ran into my host cousin.

“Eyy que mas Primo? Que haces por allí? Porque no estas en Quito?” I asked

“No tengo clases entonces ya regresè a Tena.’

“Bueno! Vamos a salir mas tarde, no?”

“Chuta Daniel, ahora puedes hablar español.”

The words left his lips and I filled with joy and felt accomplished.  All my suffering had parlayed into a skill that will be with me for life. Learning Spanish was the first goal that I truly completed. I proved to myself that I could do something if I really put my mind to it.  If I could drop myself in a new country with no language experience and go from knowing no one to saying hello to four to five people every day in the street, then I could face life with a smile, with no fear. My language difficulties made me grow. I proved to myself that I could do something that I once considered impossible.

It wasn’t Spanish that made me grow, it was the act of learning a language through emersion. Turning my negative fearful thoughts into fuel to accomplish my goal has helped to make me the man that I am today. I now push myself to the limits at every chance I get. I see the world with a new perspective and I learn faster from my mistakes.

I figured out why I never truly applied myself in high school. It was because I was fearful of failing. I was afraid I would put everything I had into something and get back a bad grade. My year abroad taught me to face my fear of failure. Learning Spanish showed me that I need to force myself through the hard patches; it showed me that suffering is a part of growth; it showed me that I should never give up. I never thought I was tough, but now I know I can put myself through more than I thought possible. I pay closer attention to the world around me, and I embrace and use life lessons accordingly. Learning often unfolds out of mistakes. Life-lessons have shaped the way I am, and how I act. I know I will have innumerable lessons to learn during the rest of my life, and I know I will have many more choices to make.  The life lesson I embraced from learning a foreign language has given me a quality I didn’t previously possess. Resilience.

 

Daniel Schwarz