In America, if you happen to be a foreigner who doesn’t speak English, you may find yourself in an uncomfortable and humiliating predicament. Some unknown stranger may shout the words, “Learn to speak English” at you, or, “Go back where you come from!”
Now not knowing the English language, you may have a myriad of thoughts running through your mind:
What is this person saying?
Why is this person so upset?
Is there something wrong?
Another thought that may cross your mind is that your native tongue is offensive; and yet, in America an American has the presumed right to inform you what to do. We Americans love telling others how to do something.
I’ve lived in Cuenca now for seven months and I still can’t speak conversational Spanish, yet not once has an Ecuadorian shouted at me, “Aprende a hablar español!” (learn to speak Spanish).
Why do we North Americans have this compelling need to have others conform to our ways? I suppose that it has to do with how Americans see themselves in the world. I’m reminded of the old idiom which says, “The worm in the apple thinks that the whole world is an apple.” We tend to view life from the prism of the American perspective.
I see someone wearing a Boston Celtics or New England Patriots or a Green Bay Packers cap or shirt and immediately they are the enemy. If we happen to strike up a conversation, I will point out that I cheer for teams from Chicago. They’ll smile cordially and give me that you have my sympathy expression, but we both know we’ll never find common ground on the topic of sports team loyalty.
That’s how differences exist; it’s difficult to appreciate how others differ from us. But life would be so incredibly boring if we were really all alike. I remember when I worked for a large telecom company. Each day, I would drive to work and park in almost the same spot. I’d exit my car, and begin the trek to my office. As I walked, there were others on their way to work; walking in front of me or behind.
No one ever said a word, we just walked like sheep or cattle to the slaughterhouse. I questioned this activity which seemed so mechanical, robotic and predictable. This paradigm changed when I decided I had enough of corporate existence. I experienced a freedom of expression, but more importantly I experienced an appreciation for living and for those who were different from me.
Now I will never cheer for the Celtics, Patriots, Cardinals or Packers, but one thing I share with those who do is an appreciation for sports.
So I appreciate the citizens of Ecuador, and particularly Cuencanos, who treat me with courtesy and respect; in spite of my language deficiency. I hope my other American expats do the same.