By Walter Panko
I had planned to use Part 2 of my “things are different in Ecuador” series to talk about some of the things that, as a recently arrived Cuenca expat, are taking me longer than expected to adjust to. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that thinking that way wasn’t very conducive to assimilating into the Cuencano culture. (To read Part 1, click here.)
I decided that it makes much more sense to consider the charms of my new home. After all, adapting to something means that my way is more natural, more comfortable, and, just plain better. And, that is hardly a prescription for fitting into a new culture.
The more difficult question for me is: How much do I want to assimilate and how much of my former lifestyle do I want to maintain? I’ve moved to new countries several times during my life, and I’ve asked myself that question with every move, and I’ve usually come to the same conclusion. I want to find a way to comfortably fit into the new setting and to fully enjoy it.
Every place I’ve lived, whether they were in the same country or not, I’ve heard recent arrivals speak of the ways things were done in their hometown. “Why don’t they have enough sense here to (insert an action) like we did in (insert the name of hometown)? It would be so much better for them!” (For more on the question, click here.)
Even when the speaker was well-intentioned, the question inevitably drew a similar response from locals: “We don’t care HOW you did it back home, we do it THIS way here!”
This was usually followed by the new arrival believing that the local citizens were inept, backward and unfriendly, and the local citizen believing that the new arrival was rude, closed-minded and arrogant.
I’ve decided that instead of trying to adapt to a new culture, forcing myself to change, it would be better to immerse myself in it. I’m trying to forget the habits and behaviors of the past and develop new patterns in Cuenca. Please note that I don’t change my values, only old habits.
So, instead of wondering why people don’t pay attention to the traffic signals at street corners and seem to cross the street whenever they feel like it, I try to determine what rules they actually play by. Once I figure them out, I can cross the street at the appropriate and safe time!
Instead of trying to understand why restaurants serve rice with spaghetti, I just enjoy the combination—or simply don’t order the spaghetti!
Instead of trying to figure out why parents walk ahead of their toddlers on the sidewalks instead of keeping them in front, I marvel at the fact that the toddler is able to keep up, and that parents seems to know when it is necessary to stop and let the children catch up.
Once I made the adjustment in my thinking — and my attitude— it became apparent that I didn’t have to “get used to” anything. All I had to do was learn. And, learning is fun for me.
My way isn’t for everyone. I don’t even want to suggest that it is the best way. Other expats may find it more comfortable to bring part of the U.S. with them when they move to Cuenca. Of course, I’m not talking of material items that they carry or ship to their new home. I’m talking about attitudes and actions.
I’ve already met and interacted with expats who feel more comfortable eating at restaurants, cafés and bars that cater to an English-speaking clientele, and interact primarily with other expats. Many of these expats speak only English and explain that with the lifestyle they have chosen, they don’t need to learn to speak Spanish, and have no plans to.
Again, while that may work for some, I don’t feel comfortable with it. My wife and I have found an “Ecuadorian-style” apartment and have learned to live with a different set of amenities, as well as attitudes, than we did in the U.S. It’s a set of amenities that is neither better nor worse than what we had before, just different.
I’m working to learn to speak Spanish. While my progress is slow, it is continual and I can now shop in the mercados and tiendas and make myself (somewhat) understood. I still visit the Tias and SuperMaxis, of course, but the options available to me have expanded as my language skills have improved.
As an ice-breaker, I often smile and, in Spanish, apologize for my limited Spanish, and say that while I’m learning to speak the language and have advanced to the ability of a two-year-old. I normally get a smile or giggle in return, and the Spanish-speaker slows his or her speech and tries to make sure I understand.
My wife and I have started to get to know Cuencanos. With my limited Spanish, it can be frustrating trying to understand a conversation, but it is also exciting when it becomes apparent that I understand the Cuencanos and they understand me!
As a disclaimer, my wife, Karen, speaks fluent Spanish, so when we are together she can act as an interpreter for me. But, I am starting to spend more and more time trying to communicate on my own—with her continual efforts to improve my pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.
My acculturation is not complete by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve only been here a few months and am still looking at what happens in Cuenca on a daily basis through “Gringo eyes,” and probably will for years to come. But, I’m feeling more and more comfortable with the activities and language that surround me, and feel more and more a participant in the culture instead of an observer.
I’m enjoying the fun of discovery, the joy of learning and the development of new behavior patterns that come with moving from the old to the new. I feel lucky that my personality is one that not only allows, but welcomes change. It’s a necessary part of my attempt to make Cuenca my home!
Walter Panko and his wife, Karen, have recently moved to Cuenca from the U.S. He is a retired educator and business owner looking forward to adapting to and adopting the local culture. He is experiencing life in Cuenca through “Gringo Eyes” and sharing some of his observations.