By Laura Jones
Thinking of moving to Ecuador with children? As an expat with several children of my own, I am often asked what the transition is like for kids. The answer depends on a number of factors, including:
* What are the ages of the children?
* How much time will be spent with fellow expats versus native-born citizens?
* Are the kids put directly into a Spanish-speaking school, or are they eased into the language via a bilingual school?
Following are some questions and answers from expat kids living abroad. Sibling responses have been grouped together.
What do you like most about living in Ecuador?
Karah (18): “I love how relaxed and calm it can be here. There isn’t a rush to get most things done. This can also be frustrating as it takes a while to get things done. I really like how friendly everyone is. When you pass by someone on the street and say ‘buenos días’ they’ll give you a smile and say the same back. Most are very helpful when I ask for directions and they’re always happy to help with my Spanish.”
Kristen (15): “I like that it’s different. I came from the United States and, let’s be honest, the most culture you’ll get there is the fact that the rest of the world already hates it. I’ve always loved the idea of learning new languages and Ecuador gives me that opportunity. It makes all these new things possible, it gives you the confidence to travel outside of your bubble.”
Faith (19): “I like and dislike the weather at the same time. I miss having a change of seasons but even though the seasons don’t change, the weather we do have is wonderful. Where we live in southern Ecuador, it’s very mild and perfect all the time. It cools down at night and warms up during the day.”
Clara (14): “I like how the fathers participate in the family life. They are very involved with their children. In the U.S., my dad and my friends’ dads just weren’t really there for the kids. They hardly ever paid attention to the kids, or talked to them, or did anything with them. But here, the dads are very involved and more a part of their kids’ lives. The Ecuadorian men I know help out their wives around the home and do a lot of taking care of the kids.”
Faith (19): “I remember when we first moved here, how surprised I was to see how involved the fathers were. You’ll see a dad walking down the street by himself carrying a baby, or playing futból in the park with his kids. They sometimes even take their kids out on jobs with them. They just really do a lot with their families. Because it’s such a machismo culture, you’d expect the men to go hang out with the guys and leave the little woman at home. But instead, the Ecuadorian men we know hang out with their extended family. They help take care of the kids, hold the babies, and play with the older children. They interact a whole lot more with their kids than we’re used to. It’s really nice.”
Clara (14): “You aren’t afraid of the police down here. At first, being stopped at roadblocks was kind of scary, but the police have always been very helpful and polite. Remember that time we got lost?”
Faith (19): “Oh, I remember that! Mom asked for directions and a couple of police officers explained where to go. But because we had just arrived and didn’t know much Spanish, we didn’t understand all they said. A few blocks further on, we started to turn left when we were supposed to turn right. Some other policeman came up and told us to turn right. Apparently, the first officers had called ahead and told the other policemen to watch out for us. Then, when we got to the plaza we needed, still other officers came up and directed us to the building we wanted. They went out of their way to be nice and helped us a lot.”
Oliver (13): “I like that we’re able to have a large property in a cloud forest with a lot of wildlife nearby and we have room for horses. Most people that you meet on the street are more friendly than in the U.S.”
Joe (11): “I like that we have a property where we can have horses and ducks and other animals. I like that I got to learn a new language.”
Sean (12): “It’s an atmosphere of friendliness. The people that I’ve been able to get to know are all very nice.”
Lily (11): “When you try and communicate with them, they’ll try and communicate back. They don’t ignore you or get rude if you can’t talk well. They just try and understand what you mean. They’re really nice.”
Kaitlyn (9): “The weather. All the festivals they have.”
Jason (9): “The parks. The other boys are good at soccer. All the festivals they have.”
What is something you don’t care for?
Karah (18): “I definitely could do without the fireworks they set off around my house. It’s not too often but they are very loud and disruptive. Also the parties with loud music that sometimes last into the early hours of the morning.”
Kristen (15): “I guess I’m not a fan of going around the city on my own. Maybe it’s the fact that I have no sense of direction and get lost constantly but I just don’t feel comfortable walking around all on my own.”
Faith (19): “The noise level! They don’t have any noise ordinance laws down here so it can get extremely loud, especially during fiestas. It took awhile to get used to the random cherry bomb going off in the middle of the day or really late at night.”
Clara (14): “The guys whistling and making comments. In the U.S., guys would whistle sometimes but nowhere near as much as down here and they wouldn’t make comments. It gets kind of creepy sometimes.”
Faith (19): “And if you flirt back even a little bit, you’re suddenly a skank or they assume you want to marry them. I don’t like the double standards.”
Oliver (13): “Sometimes the buses let too many people board and it gets overly crowded and some of the buses aren’t in the best condition.”
Joe (11): “It’s not as easy to get things shipped here from the U.S. or other countries.”
Sean (12): “I really hate all the feral chickens. They’re noisy. They come on your property and leave little gifts everywhere and they don’t know what time it is! They don’t just crow at dawn. They crow All Day Long. And All Night Long. Wonder if it’s living at the equator? Is that why they don’t know when to crow and when not to crow?” [Laughs.]
Lily (11): “People stare. I hate that! They come up and point at my red hair and touch it. They ask, ‘Can we take a picture?’ I know they’re just trying to be nice and it’s something they don’t see a lot of, but I don’t like standing out so much.”
Kaitlyn (9): “It doesn’t snow. Car alarms. Using trashcans for toilet paper. All the exhaust.”
Jason (9): “It doesn’t snow. The smells are sometimes bad. Using trashcans for toilet paper. All the exhaust.”
Has it been hard learning a new culture? If yes, what was the hardest part?
Karah (18): “The hardest thing was learning to slow down and be more patient. In high school back in the States everything was very quick and rushed. I had to practically run through the school to get to my next class and rush through lunch so I wasn’t late to anything. People here are very relaxed and don’t rush if there isn’t an emergency. You have to learn that if someone says they’ll meet you at 11 a.m. you probably won’t see them until 1 p.m. Patience is a requirement if you move here.”
Kristen (15): “Yes, it’s very difficult to learn and accept the new culture. Especially when all you’ve ever really known is what you grew up in. It just means you need time to adjust and learn.”
Faith (19): “Yes and no. As kids growing up, we were taught etiquette. Knowing how to act in any given situation smoothes the way quite a bit. But it is a different culture. At first it was so different that all you wanted to do was go back home because you weren’t used to it. But as time goes by, it becomes easier because it becomes more familiar. I know now that I’d have huge culture shock if I went back to the States.”
Clara (14): “Everything looked different. Palm trees instead of pine trees. Poinsettias that were actually trees! The people, too. We were used to seeing lots of tall people with hair of every color: blond, red, brown, black…a few blues and pinks and greens. We weren’t used to seeing only black hair everywhere we looked and everyone so much shorter. It smelled different, too. Not bad, just different. Our body chemistry has changed, as well. When we first came here, we were all eaten up by bugs. Now, we don’t get very many bites any more. Hey! We’ve evolved!”
Faith (19): “At first everyone stared. They probably still do but we no longer feel self-conscious. It no longer bothers us so we don’t notice it.”
Clara (14): “Yeah! We have fun with it. We’ll wear high heels and tower over all the men! When I wear 3-inch heels, I’m 6’ tall and most of the men are about 5’6 to 5’7”. We feel more confident now and it doesn’t bother us any more to be different.”
Oliver (13): “No, it wasn’t that hard for me to adapt to a new culture.”
Joe (11): “It wasn’t that hard to adapt, but I do miss being able to go to a swimming pool and some foods from the U.S.”
Sean (12): “Not really. I just don’t like being stared at. There’s a kid in the village and whenever he sees us, he comes and stares. He’ll follow us all around. He won’t say anything, just follow and stare.”
Lily (11): “Being the slowest runner because I’m not used to living at such high altitude.”
Kaitlyn (9): “Learning a new language.”
Jason (9): “Making new friends when you don’t know the language.”
What is the hardest part about learning a new language?
Karah (18): “The hardest part about learning Spanish was understanding the slang and quirks that people in Cuenca use. You can’t talk like a textbook here as you might not be understood. I took two years of Spanish in high school so I understand grammatical aspects and how to conjugate but not the colloquialisms.”
Kristen (15): “If you come from a mostly English speaking country then learning any other language is more difficult because it seems like everything is all switched around and backwards. It just takes a lot of practice and I, personally, think that immersion is the best way to do it.”
Clara (14): “The hardest part is I need to learn it, but I’m not really interested in learning it.”
Faith (19): “At first it was hard to communicate because of the sheer embarrassment. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. When you’re first learning you can try your best to be understood, but you never know because you’re not a native speaker. It can be a bit difficult to get over the discomfort of making sounds with which you’re not familiar. They have sounds in Spanish that we don’t have in English at all. And even the way they arrange words is different.”
Clara (14): “If you spoke like that in English, you’d sound like Yoda. So you have to kind of swallow your embarrassment and just force yourself to communicate anyway. It does get easier.”
Faith (19): “It’s really nice, though, because the Ecuadorians will meet you half way. A lot of them are trying to learn English. We have a friend who is trying to learn English, and because I’m learning Spanish, we can get a long pretty well. The phrase, ‘Cómo se dice?’ is very useful. [Laughs.] All you need, really, to learn the language is your finger to point and the phrase ‘Cómo se dice?’”
Oliver (13): “It was hard to learn different subjects in school well when I was first learning Spanish.”
Joe (11): “Remembering what all the words mean and when to use certain words.”
Lily (11): “I hate talking in Spanish. It’s so embarrassing. I can understand what they’re saying most of the time, but I don’t like trying to answer in Spanish.”
Kaitlyn (9): “Not being able to communicate at first.”
Jason (9): “Pronouncing new words.”
Would you ever want to move back to your home country?
Karah (18): “I actually have a great opportunity for college that has come up so I am moving back to the U.S. I would prefer to go somewhere else as I have seen most of the U.S. and I want to explore more of the world, but it’s just worked out for me to go back to the States.”
Kristen (15): “Not in the least. America has never felt like home to me and traveling around more makes me feel even less convinced to go back. Personally I would quite like to travel the world as Ecuador has given me the ability to see that there is so much more to the world then the little bubbles you might have grown up in.”
Faith (19): “No. Now that we’ve moved abroad once, it’s opened a lot of doors for me. It has made me open to the possibility of living abroad on a permanent basis. Where as before, when we were living in the U.S., I wouldn’t have considered it at all. Now, I can think of several different countries I might enjoy living in. I’ve done it once, so I know it’s possible to do it again.”
Clara (14): “No. I like it here. There’s a lot of freedom; the police aren’t scary, I like the people. I want to stay here.”
Oliver (13): “Probably not. If I move, I don’t want to go back to some place I’ve already been.”
Joe (11): “No. I don’t see a need to. I’m fine with my life down here. There are good things about the U.S. and bad things, and good things and bad things about Ecuador.”
Sean (12): “I don’t want to move back up there. I’m sure it would be cool to visit because I spent 9 years of my life there, but I wouldn’t want to stay up there. We have a nice home here and I like how it’s nice weather. I miss the snow, but in the summer up there it was so hot. It was just way too hot. It never gets too hot here.”
Lily (11): “Well, I’d like to visit. I’d go to the bookstore!”
Kaitlyn (9): “Kind of. I miss my friends. There are more choices at the grocery story. The food here is not as good and lacks variety.”
Jason (9): “Kind of. They have better Internet there and more space. We had a bigger house in the U.S.”
Moving abroad with kids can be an exciting, wonderfully enriching experience. Generally speaking, the younger the child the easier it is for him or her to adapt to a new culture.
Maintaining an upbeat attitude, keeping communication open with your kids, warning them of the differences they can expect to encounter, as well as encouraging them to keep in touch with friends back home, can help them make the adjustment to living life abroad. With patience, time and understanding, your child can develop a positive attitude to moving abroad and embrace it as the adventure of a lifetime!
Laura Jones moved to Ecuador as a divorcée with her five children. They live on a quinta in southern Ecuador.