Editor’s note: Adapting to life in Ecuador is an on-going topic of conversation among North American expats. Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo turns the tables and tells the story of being an Ecuadorian living in the Middle East and the U.S. She is a native of Cuenca and the author of a novel, Días de Arena y Dátiles and a collection of short stories, Muros de Papel: Cuentos.
By Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo
I have been an expat for the last 10 years of my life.
I am a Cuencana. I was born and raised here and my family continues to live here. I married a gringo from Florida who came to Cuenca to teach English and then moved with him, 10 years ago, when his work took him to the Middle East. Later, we lived in the U.S., in New York and Colorado, before moving back to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
I would like to share with you my perspective on the expat life and how I have changed by being exposed to new cultures.
I still remember (and I am reminded again every time I visit Cuenca) all the preconceptions that my friends and family had about foreigners and foreign countries when I became an expat. I was confronted with the anecdotes that had been repeated as I grew up and that became “true stories” for many of us. As an expat, I realized that most of these were stereotypes, often prejudiced, that prevented us from learning the truth about other cultures. As an expat, I recognized the error of viewing cultural issues in black and white and missing the rich colors that real-life experience offers.
Let’s review some stereotypes that we, as Cuencanos, hold about gringos (these are generalities, of course, and not the feelings of every Cuencano): all gringos are emotionally cold; gringos only eat fast food; gringos hate Hispanics; gringos are unable to dance; gringos have no idea about geography; gringos live lives of consumption; gringos don’t lie.
Now, let’s turn the tables and look at gringo stereotypes of Hispanics (again, with the qualification that these are generalizations): Hispanics are very family-oriented; Hispanics are loud; Hispanics eat only spicy food; all Hispanics would move to the U.S. if they could; Hispanics are good at dancing salsa; Hispanics like hot weather.
Imagine the stereotypes that my friends and family had about the Middle East when I relocated there. And remember, I moved there at a time when much of the world associated the region and its predominant Muslim religion, with terrorism. Fed by the fantasy of soap operas and stories from the Arabian Nights, Cuencanos thought that being a woman, I was living a life of oppression. Recently, I was even asked how difficult it was for me to convert to Islam even though I never did. I had to remind the questioner that I was married to a gringo, not a Middle Easterner.
Living in the Middle East and in the U.S., I was exposed to new stereotypes, ones that I had not heard of in Ecuador: the French are rude, the Germans are strict, the Irish drink beer all day. At a time when I was enriching myself with the truth about different people, I was learning that prejudices are indeed universal.
I am sure that many English-speaking expats have had similar learning experiences in Cuenca, and have seen their own stereotypes demolished by the life that surrounds them. They learn that, in fact, not all Cuencanos know how to dance salsa, just like not all gringos eat only fast food. I can also assure you, from my personal experience, that being French doesn’t make you rude, just like being Irish doesn’t mean you sit in a bar drinking beer all day.
Early in my expat life, I learned that a change of attitude requires a lot of energy and that adaptation is not easy. I am reminded of a speech presented by a professor at the university where my husband was teaching in the Middle East, about the stages a person goes through in the process of becoming a well-adjusted expat; it is similar, he said, to the process of grieving because we feel the loss of things that have been familiar. Of course, the loss that each individual feels is unique to the circumstances of where she or he has relocated. As in the case of grieving, we learn to adapt and once again begin to enjoy the richness of life around us. Our knowledge and experience expand as we gain new levels of sensitivity towards new environments.
In his book The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code, Elie Wiesel writes that “we must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”
I can think of no sentiment that better summarizes the error of stereotyping.
As expats, educating ourselves about our adopted culture is not only a responsibility we should readily accept, but a pleasure that we owe ourselves. By gaining an understanding of people different than ourselves, we eliminate the stereotypes we have grown up with and open the door to real enlightenment. Being an expat is a precious opportunity that we should not waste.
Photo caption: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo
Yolanda can be contacted at CuencaHighLife@gmail.com.