Split Personality

Mitchell Mankin - Ecuador

November 10, 2011

There are two people living in my body.  One of them is writing to you now.  He’s constantly thinking, turning an analytical eye to important and decidedly not important things.  He’s often told that he thinks too much, which is true.  The other doesn’t have that luxury.  His mind is absorbed entirely by trying to process two new languages and one new culture: Spanish, Kichwa, and San Pedro de Aucaparte.

But that’s not the only difference.  In many respects, my Ecuadorian side is an empty vessel.  In order to absorb everything that I see in the Amazon, I need to open a big space in myself.  A space where I can laugh at jokes no matter how lame they are, where I can take pleasure in conversations no matter how basic they have to be.  And a space where I can make make mistakes, accept that I’m going to be a laughingstock anyway, and make a fool of myself without embarassment.  Where I would make a snap judgement in English and refine it, in Spanish, my opinions form slowly, if at all.  And when they do form, they take longer to turn into action.  While helping put up the walls of our new museum of indigenous art, I saw one of the children playing with a broken knife.  Usually, I would immediately run over and take the knife away before anything bad happened.  But as I was in full Spanish-Kichwa mode (my fellow workers speak almost nothing but Kichwa on the job), a good thirty seconds elapsed between seeing the kid and questioning my coworkers “Debe la guagua tiene un cuchillo?!” (Should that kid have a knife?!)  In the meantime, I’d been slowly watching the picture of the child with a broken knife dissolve into a decision like the little pellets of instant coffee and powdered milk dissolve into my morning hot water.

If I’m slower in Spanish, at least I don’t complain.  Nothing bothers me too much.  When a wasp lands on me as I scrub dirt off my clothes at the basin, I let it crawl about as it pleases.  When the guaguas (babies) start crying for no apparent reason, I ignore their crocodile tears the way their mothers know to do.  When we don’t have enough water in the house to wash the dishes, brush our teeth, or wash ourselves, that’s fine, I can wait.

But sometimes my US side asserts itself.  One night, too tired to help my brother with his homework, I got in bed and started reading a new book.  It was intoxicating.  I couldn’t stop reading, though I had to use the red light of a headlamp squished under my pillow so as not to leak too much light into my other family members’ rooms.  The transportation to a different world was a relief from an ache that Ecuadorian me didn’t know existed.  An ache of lack of privacy, but mostly of lack of expression.  My Spanish is now good enough that I understand almost everything my family members and coworkers say, but I can’t hear the beauty in it.  And I certainly can’t turn a phrase myself.  I have one, maybe two ways to say what I want, and rarely do I have a sense of their different connotations.  But in English!  Fluency is a massive gift that I didn’t really appreciate until I had to go for days at a time without it.  As I sat in bed, I saw spaceships grinding to a halt, red and white binary stars revolving in the vacuum, aliens watching human miners fall from the sky.  Looking a little farther up, I saw the same red light reflecting dully off my cement block walls and I fell to earth.

It’s important to be a split person right now.  My US side carries too many biases from the States to really accept the differences of Kichwa culture.  Before I can try to change anything here, I need to understand how my community thinks.  I’m one volunteer with an organization of 14, in a community of a hundred or more.  If what I have to offer doesn’t show up in a form that they like, the seed won’t take.  So for now, I listen.  And in time, I hope to see this shell-like persona develop into a full human being, who will have a lot to teach the old me.

Mitchell Mankin