Written by Amanda Canny (current WT Ecuador volunteer)
I have been dating a man from Trinidad and Tobago for over four years. Although he has lived in the U.S. for six years, he occasionally uses a phrase that once upon a time confused me. “Not my country,” he would say, and I would wonder, What is that supposed to mean?
That is, until I caught myself saying the same thing.
Fast forward to July 2017 – here I am in Quito, Ecuador, video chatting with my boyfriend, laughing about how I think I’ve found my own understanding of his saying, “Not my country” all of these years. Before I experienced living in a different country, I, a U.S. citizen, had felt slightly alienated and “left out” when he would feel the need to say that expression to himself, even when he’d tell me that it is just a neutral statement. But now, I get it.
Allow me to get this out of the way: I really enjoy living and working in Ecuador, and yes, I would highly recommend that you visit and learn about this incredible country! I could write you a long list of reasons of why I think this country is great, and I’d never be able to count a number that high, but that is not what I am going to be writing about right now. It is easy to find hundreds of articles and blog posts that can tell you about why Ecuador is a wonderful place. It is a lot more difficult to find sources that talk about the “not my country” experiences that, while strange, are very likely to happen to you when you live in a foreign country. So that’s what I’m here for.
As I have mentioned, I am from the United States – specifically, born and raised in New Jersey. Although I often feel like a cultural outsider in my own country, one very “North American” trait of mine is how direct and confrontational I am. In my opinion, deep down I have always felt that being direct and confrontational is the best way to be! Being any other way just doesn’t make sense when trying to solve problems, right? Well, that’s the first strike – my ideas of “wrong” and “right” have become futile since moving here. You know why? Because no matter how strong my morals and passions are, they are still inevitably painted by the United States, and similar to what Dorothy said to her dog Toto, “I don’t think we’re in Jersey anymore.” My “best practices” may suit my life in the United States, but that does not mean that they will – nor that they should – work in a different country.
Example #1: I work as an English teacher at a university here in Quito. As a teacher, I sometimes need to make copies of activities, song lyrics, or grammar notes for all of my students. And, of course, I am not the only teacher! There are many of us! So, when the only copy machine stops working properly when we still have more than a month of classes left, what happens? Well, anywhere I have worked in the U.S. at least, time is money and we can’t afford to be without an accessible copier to do our jobs, so that copier would likely be fixed in a couple of days, or maybe someone of authority in the workplace would be sure to find some solution for the teachers. Somehow, some way, they would just “make it happen.”
Here in Ecuador? Different story. The one copier for an entire building of teachers stops working, and is left without being fixed for weeks? No problem! What’s the big deal? You can still have copies made, but you have to ask the secretaries for to make them and it has to be minimum two days in advance. Or you can go find a place where you pay roughly two dollars to make copies for all of your classes, which doesn’t sound bad until you realize that those two dollars make up a significant portion of your lunch money. But hey! Work it out! Tranquila! This is how the teachers make it happen – they work around it.
Now, sarcasm out of my system and put aside, that’s really the truth of it here in Ecuador. This more “Type-B” mindset doesn’t exist to upset foreigners or to give people “tough love.” There is no particular purpose at all; it is just the way it is. And sometimes, the lack of “motive” or reason behind these things may actually make it more frustrating, because this isn’t something a person can really argue or schmooze into change. In Ecuador, these things aren’t seen as a problem worth sweating, so why would they treat it as such? Because a foreigner doesn’t understand it? Try again.
Another scenario: Here in Quito, there are some of the most patient, understanding, and religious people I have ever met! A lot of Quiteños would entertain my feelings or woes when most people in the U.S. would tune me out or tell me to get over them. Quiteños practice a lot more respect and mercy than I have ever seen in the United States. So when I simultaneously discover that many people from Quito don’t want to respect, for instance, homosexuality or a trans person’s pronouns, that seems in direct contrast to the extraordinary kindness and openness I’ve experienced while living here.
This all stays internal, of course, and you know what? I have begun to feel really guilty and foolish for having had such condescending, ignorant thoughts. Here I am, concluding that Ecuadorians who have these attitudes are hypocritical and irrational, as if my own country were completely just and free of hypocrisy, as if my country doesn’t have gaping holes in its moral fabric, as if all of my cultured beliefs are without flaws, missing parts, or loose ends.
Now, let’s say I did want to express my displeasure with something here – say, the copy machine or prejudiced perspectives – I have learned that my way of problem-solving would be useless here. Normally, I feel a lot of motivation to face issues head-on, but I have lost that steam. Any time I would show disapproval of something with my go-to direct, matter-of-fact tone, I would get blank stares in response. In a culture that values calm, sympathy, and taking life one minute at a time, my more “Type-A” expectations pass right over Quiteños’ heads. This has nothing to do with intelligence, superiority, or anything of that nature; it just doesn’t compute because my way of being doesn’t exist here. If I wave a Twix bar at someone who has never seen a Twix bar before, my delicious snack means nothing. This is where I realize that sometimes, my general way of being doesn’t matter, and I have to learn to be okay with that.
You cannot fit a square peg in a round hole. For me, the round hole has been Ecuadorian culture and the square hole has been my (U.S.) culture. I am amazed at how I have expected that Ecuadorians would be totally willing and able to understand where I am coming from, and that they’d adjust their own ways to create an environment that I, a foreigner, am accustomed to! Obviously, I did not consciously think to myself, Okay, these Ecuadorians had better act the way that I want them to! This expectation I had was existent but subconscious, and it showed itself in my pure confusion and frustration when things didn’t go in the way I had foreseen them. These feelings came when people did not seem to adhere to my U.S. template. In reality, there is a right way of doing things here in Quito – it’s just not the North American way.
So when I think to myself, “Hey, not my country,” it is without any ego or authority. It is just an observation that I have accepted in its purest form. Some of my lifestyle habits or personality traits simply are unable to be processed here. And that is okay! Even if I were to live here for ten years and raise a family, I would still be a guest in someone else’s home. A centuries-old culture is not about to shift to make things easy-peasy for me, and that’s okay also! They shouldn’t have to! This is the root of understanding that this is “not my country”: to accept that being here is a journey, an experience with no end, in which I have no ownership – only opportunities to learn.