What I’ve Learned

Noah Hapke - Ecuador


March 26, 2016

If I were to list every individual aspect of growth that I have seen in myself this year, this would be a very long(er) blog. From overall global perspective to my favorite act of showing “curiosity before judgement” to maintaining self-awareness, this year has given me the opportunity to become a person I am proud to see in the mirror (even when that mirror is cracked and barely hanging on the wall). I could not imagine having went straight to college.

I needed time to reflect, and I didn’t even know it until I had spent a couple months here.

It’s hard to look back at a year (or eight months to be exact) and easily recognize significant changes in yourself. I’m still debating whether my double chin has decreased or grown twice in size, and whether or not me stopping the usage of shampoo has been a positive impact on my general scent. However, from the kindness and honesty of my cohort, team leader, and overall program there are five things I have seen grow in myself since August that I would like to acknowledge. Since September, the Azuay cohort has focused a lot on not only recognizing our lower points throughout our year but also celebrating our finer wins. This is something that has been a challenge for me – but nothing I couldn’t adjust to. Throughout youth (during high school, jobs, relationships, etc.) American society focuses on recognizing what we lack in ourselves; however, rarely do we take the time to pat ourselves on our backs and say, “Way to go! You rock!”

So, while also acknowledging areas of needed growth, I also would like to do some self-celebrating.

Self-Awareness

One of the key points on every Fellow’s overall feedback card is self-awareness. This includes the individual’s well-being emotionally and physically, and also how they are leaving an impact on their community.

From my first couple of months, I realized I sucked at Spanish. Like, terribly awful. Even my co-teachers at my school joke with me about how I was a mute my first few weeks. My students didn’t take me seriously and wouldn’t listen to me. So, I decided to get some teaching advice. I studied my Spanish notes. I prepared myself to be in vulnerable situations because it was what I needed to do.

Was I comfortable? No. Did I enjoy it? Not at all. Yet it’s something that has helped in not just teaching but also my daily life here. I can go buy something from the supermarket, teach an hour-long English lesson alone, and order breakfast (and coffee!) without assistance and awkward stares.

That’s not just what self-awareness is though. In November, after our first Training Seminar, I returned to San Juan with memories of other Fellows talking about their daily lives – it all sounded so exciting. Working with the Red Cross on Mondays and Wednesdays. Spanish Class on Tuesdays. Teaching English on Thursday mornings, then dance class in the afternoon. Farming in the dawn of Friday. Selling vegetables at market with their families on the weekends. I was swarmed with a sense of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). “All I am doing is teaching,” I thought. I wasn’t making an impact. I hardly knew my community. Thus, I began to search for outside apprenticeships.

However, I thought and thought more about this fear of mine and came to realize that not everyone’s Global Citizen Year is going to look the same. In fact, they most likely won’t. Being at the school ten hours a day has become my bridge year because it’s what I love doing, and it’s what is “making a difference.” My students are more excited to study English. They feel more comfortable talking in class. They even volunteer to speak first. I have become part of a “clique” with some of the teachers who are now my best friends from Ecuador. All the staff greets me everyday. The school has become my community and my greatest memory, and that means so much more than me just doing extra activities to sound busy.

Confidence with Self-Identity

I’ve written multiple blogs about this (in “my struggles”) and still do believe that finding confidence within myself is one of, if not the, greatest thing I have learned about myself this year.

Not until January did my students start asking me about my sexuality. However, it wasn’t just “are you gay?” It was do you like penis? Do you want to have sex with this male student? Have you *insert inappropriate hand-gesture*? And, to be honest, it sucked. It got to the point where I had to vent about it (or should I say V.O.M.P.) because, not only could I not be honest with them, but it was just straight-up rude.

What teacher ever should feel obligated to talk about their sex life with their students? Or be questioned about these things publicly in class? And, as annoying and disturbing as they all are, at the end of the day it is almost ridiculously funny. The fact that my students feel that comfortable with me to ask such personal questions – as if we’re best friends. In that, I feel lucky they feel confident asking me this rather than nothing at all. Sure, I wish they would choose other questions but I am grateful that they feel open with me, even if they are just making dumb jokes.

Also, gender identity. Even though I’ve explained to people that I identify as genderqueer, how does one even begin to explain this to others in Spanish from a culture so far from one's own? I found an interesting source about up-and-coming gender neutral Spanish pronouns, in which they use ‘e’ or ‘x’ in replacement of ‘o’ and ‘a’. For example, “les maestres” or “mi amigx.” Although this is super exciting for me, most Ecuadorians hardly even know about the Queer community. They abide by the rules that only women have earrings. It’s actually forbidden for the boys to wear earrings to school because it is against the dress-code. Yet, with the growth of the Western world’s influence, this style of more gender-fluid clothing is passing. Most of my male students have exactly three earrings in the style that I have (ironic…right?). They have began wearing colorful scarves and more H&M styled clothing during recess. They are expressing themselves in a less gender-binary form.

Throughout my year, I would spend nights putting on different pairs of earrings I had boughten, wishing I could dress like that in public. I looked back at old pictures from the U.S. at how I would dress. Purple hair. Long, black cloaks. Gold rings. It made me sad and reminiscent of a more liberal and open past. Yet, as depressing as it was, I know that that past is soon approaching the present for me. And, for my students, however they may identify themselves, do not get to return to the states. They live here in a society that is less accepting. I have learned how to identify myself, personally and to a larger and more conservative audience, without compromising too much of who I truly am. I never realized how grateful (and with such privilege) I am to be American.


Global Perspective

The idea of global perspective is an interesting one. When I was first introduced to it back at Pre-Departure Training, I never thought I would grasp it. I come from a Republican bubble called Orange County, where the amount of African-American students at my high school could almost be counted on two hands. I would drive down the beach (in my BWV, may I add) and see beautiful heterosexual white couples riding their bikes together (usually with their brown Lab too). I wasn’t really submersed in a “diversified” community. I didn’t know much about politics and felt like I only knew things from a U.S. perspective.

Coming to Ecuador has definitely opened my eyes, not just from an Ecuadorian’s view but one that is different than “American.” I was put in a house that was not what I was used to. I would often ask questions that, unconsciously, demonstrated the privilege from which I come. Thus, recognizing this barrier between me and others around me, I tried to fit in more. From language to clothing to food, I toned down the old “Noah goes to Starbucks everyday” and began living the life of my community.

Although it was a different culture (not exactly culture shock, however), I adapted. I started letting go of punctuality and let the Ecua-hour become a reality. I stopped judging the English teachers that didn’t speak English and decided to help teach them (with the little Spanish I knew). I forced myself to see things from a new perspective.

Social media can become a barrier between people. It can be especially easy to hide behind one’s phone to avoid the culture shock and awkward transitions from home. I saw that, and removed myself from Twitter and Snapchat, and tried my best to only use my phone when necessary. I noticed that by doing so, and offering more help throughout the house, the people in my family realized I was trying. Sure, I have friends and family back in the states, but I wanted to be present with my host-family. I learned to roast cuy, peel potatoes, divide up green beans, and make the perfect pot of coffee.

By letting go of American things that, to me, no longer mattered, I have been able to focus on bigger and more important issues. I worked on a LGBTQ+ project which sparked more interest and knowledge about global queer issues. I dove deeper into Correa’s effect on Ecuadorians. I read about issues in the Middle East. I even, despite many others, realized that Africa is a continent – not a country.

Dealing with Free Time

One of the tougher things, which one may not even recognize as an area of growth, is dealing with free time. Back in the U.S. I would fill up my day to the second. Always on the move, always doing something.

Although I teach at the school for a good amount of time, I still found myself with a good amount of free time. In the beginning, I would go on Twitter and Facebook and spend time in places I did not necessarily need to. After feeling a sense of space between my family and me, I decided to limit myself. I learned to knit. I continued writing. I found extra Media Fellowship jobs. And I read a ton.

Even though some of those activities above may not be exactly what one would describe as a "family-sharing" activity, they are tasks that have allowed myself to not stress about having too much time. I was shocked by how much my family spends on their cell-phones rather than conversing with one another. It consumed all of their free time and, whereas that is something I view as a Western idea, I still tried to fight back my urge.

I have become not just comfortable but grateful for my quiet and alone time. Every night I go to bed early so I can reflect on the day, read a good book, and play some Ariana Grande. On Sundays I wake up, sweep my room clean, and head outside to dance around in the grass while I hand-wash my clothes. I am super appreciative to have had this time to just think – it’s something I, and probably most people, need.

Free time has also forced me to put myself in the stretch zone. When I don’t have class, it’s fairly easy for me to walk home and roam on social media. But the better, and more rewarding result, is when I push myself to sit with my students at recess and have a conversation. When I walk around with my fellow teachers and grab some good coffee. Or even just by sitting in the teachers’ office and planning future lessons. The stretch zone pays off.

Traveling Internationally

My last area that I am proud to see myself grow in is the ability to travel independently and confidently.

Back in January, I headed up the the lake of Quilotoa with a group of friends for independent travel. We hiked many miles a day, jumping from hostel to hostel, and found each night filled with laughter and deep talks. From kayaking in the great lake to meeting other tourists at breakfast, my desire to travel grew exponentially within that week. When we returned to our host-communities, I knew I wanted to do that again – but do it alone to really test myself.

I have always loved the idea of backpacking and seeing all the beauty a place has to offer. However, I felt like I just couldn’t get around alone. I relied on people to make plans and talk to foreigners for me, and I basically felt like a follower. After really focusing on my Spanish and falling in love with the open-arms culture that Ecuadorians have, I decided to venture off.

I went up north to the province of Imbabura in February to visit some Fellows in that area. A couple of days before leaving I looked at my calendar – it was practically blank. Senior-year-Noah would have been freaking out. I decided that, after driving fourteen hours in one day, I may want to spend a night in Quito. This idea ended up being an evening filled with pizza and laughter with my old host-family in Quito. The following morning I met up with the program’s new college-intern, grabbed some brunch, and walked up a hill to visit an art museum. None of this was planned; it just sort of happened.

The next day I drove another two hours to Otavalo, searched for a nice little hostel in the middle of a town I had never been to prior, and found myself at a nice little cafe. There to my right was my friend Madi, ironically just working on her laptop. We chatted and then ended up meeting with other Fellows for a bite to eat.

This trip gave me more confidence to, not only spend time alone with myself, but travel alone and be okay with that. I loved spending the nights alone in my cozy hostel. I met so many interesting people along the way, and it felt so nice when people said, “Wow you speak really good Spanish!” It was, most definitely, a confidence booster.

— — —

In the grand scheme of things, I am beyond grateful to have had the privilege to take this bride year. Everything I heard about Global Citizen Year exceeded my expectations, and I feel way more prepared to continue on my future endeavors. I can express myself more openly and understand when it is time to close myself off as well. I have a better understanding of the world which is still thriving on growing.

With just less than two weeks left, I can truly look back at this year and say it has given me a “lifetime of potential.”


Noah Hapke