For the most part, Don and I embrace and appreciate the vast cultural differences between Ecuadorian and American life. We value the emphasis on family gatherings, relationships, meal times, and the general enjoyment of life. People are very relaxed here, find great joy in the simple pleasures of life, live in the present, and are understandably proud of their beautiful and diverse country.
Yet, there are times that I just can't wrap my head around why certain things are done as they are and I find myself getting frustrated, annoyed, and realizing that I prefer the American way. During those moments, I try my best to bite my tongue, especially around Mia and Nikki, as I want to model acceptance and appreciation of cultural differences. Sometimes it works and other times they see right through my frustration. :)
It has been heartening and refreshing to stay in touch with several of our friends who are living in different countries (China, Saudi Arabia, Botswana, France) this year who are occasionally experiencing similar feelings of discomfort related to cultural differences.
So here are a few of the funny, frustrating experiences that I have had in Ecuador- all of which point to a big cultural divide.
LAUNDRY The good news is our apartment came with a shared washing machine that is outside. The bad news is it has never really cleans our clothes. Yes, the smell comes out but often the clothes look worse than when we put them in. We hang them out to dry and when it is windy and sunny it takes no time at all. One Friday morning we had done our wash and it started to rain. We were leaving to go out of town for the weekend and needed our clothes to be dried by early afternoon when the kids got home from school so we decided to just go to a laundromat and stick them in a drier. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. We take our wet clothes there and the employee announces that we have to wash AND dry them. Sorry those are the rules. We explained the situation and offered to pay the extra for the washer, but really all we needed was to dry them and we were a bit rushed (the concept of being rushed has no significance here...). The employee said absolutely no way and then I offered her to just run the washing machine as if there were clothes in there and we'll just dry out clothes. I was getting desperate. No can do. We left in a huff certain that some other laundromat would love to have our business rather than this lame one.
Wrong again. Laundromat #2 said the same thing. We still can't figure out why. We ended up getting our clothes washed for the second time that day, which really wasn't so bad because they actually got cleaned this time, and we got out of town on time.
THE COPY PLACE. One day, I went to the university copy shop to make some copies for my class and discovered that double sided was half as much as one sided. This clearly did not make sense to me. I asked the employee why they would charge more when less ink is being used and she just said "that's how we do it here". OK then. Now I make sure one word is printed on the other side so that I can print double sided. Somethings just don't make any sense to me. Don and I often remind each other that efficiency is neither a goal nor a priority here.
CUTTING IN LINE. I know my friend Gretchen who has lived in China for a year a half can relate to this!! I have been in Latin America long enough to know that most lines (for buses especially) are never respected. What surprised me, though, is how you can be in the middle of a transaction with a shopkeeper and another customer will come up, interrupt us, and the shopkeeper will tend to him/her. After about 10 times of patiently waiting my turn and not interrupting anyone at my local store, I realized there was no way I'd ever get to make my purchase unless I just aggressively demanded my goods. This is totally against my nature, but that's how it works here. Completely befuddled by this interrupting behavior, I once asked Margarita, our local shopkeeper, why she just doesn't finish one transaction and say "just a moment please" to the interrupter. She just looked at me, befuddled by MY question!!
The interrupting culture is alive and well among adults and kids alike. As a university professor, I'm constantly interrupted by my students and repeatedly say "please wait your turn", "Let me finish with Johnny and then I can answer your question". The problem is waiting (and raising your hand for that matter) is not modeled by the adult community so it's very hard for kids to learn it. Mia and Nikki have noticed the same thing in their classrooms and they are surprised the teachers let the kids interrupt all the time. Interestingly enough, at meal time, NO ONE interrupts (unlike in our house) and everyone listens very respectfully while one person talks. They also NEVER talk with food in their mouths. If my Ecuadorian family ever came to the 20 person Heath family dinner in the Adirondacks, they would be appalled by our lack of education! :) So I guess I do have a thing or two to learn from these folks.
NO SEAS MALITO (Don). One of the most common phrases we hear in Cuenca is "No seas malito..." frequently followed by a request for a favor. It literally means, "Don't be a little bad thing" but translates better as "Would you do me a favor." The problem is that it is usually asked in a terribly whiny voice, and is often used not just to request a favor, but also to ask for a lower price, a loan of money or goods, or when directed at us, some "little" favor, like translating and transcribing two 10 minute videos (from a virus laden flash memory card). Cultural diffences indeed!