I often feel uncomfortable.
I stick out like a sore thumb, walking down the street in my sneakers and backpack, while Ecuadorians pass in heels with their pocketbooks clutched tightly to their sides and wiping my blonde hair out of my face after a bus soars past. The stares, car honks, hisses, catcalls, and whistles ensure that my attempt of ‘avoid eye contact and if you can’t see them, they’re certainly not staring at you’ does not work. They make me feel a bit uncomfortable.
I typically walk home from school with my gringo neighbor, Nick, and one or more gringa girls who live nearby as well; we generally get a few honks and plenty of stares, but it is easy enough to ignore them and continue our group conversation. However, one day last week, I walked home alone to stop off at the grocery store. I had nothing to distract me from the expressions of attention being paid to me. I was making sure to stare straight ahead at my path on the sidewalk (which is actually essential to walking the sidewalks of Quito, there are bumps, cracks, small and large holes, chunks of missing sidewalk, trash and dog poop cluttering the sidewalks), but I could still feel the stares coming from all sides. Walking along a main road, I heard a chorus of honks, but knew better than to turn my head for any one of them. When I got to my bus stop, three middle-aged men hissed and clicked as I walked by. And sure enough, when I got off the bus and was heading into my neighborhood, a kind gentleman leaned out the bus window as it pulled away and whistled his approval of my backpack (certainly nothing else, right?). That day, there was no conversation to drown out the noises, there was no group to retreat into. I felt very uncomfortable.
Last weekend, I was in a group of new Ecudorian friends I met through my cousin. I missed a part of the conversation and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh along with the group as they very easily might be laughing at me – something I did, something I said, or just because someone cracked a gringa joke (more or less your classic blonde jokes).
Although I have an absolutely wonderful homestay family with an incredible house, delicious food, and a luxorious room, to retreat to my home would involve a couple hours on a plane. Living only about 45 minutes from University of Richmond is something I have always taken for granted. Any time I just need to get away from UR, I hop in my car and head home, where I get a big hug from my doofus dog, an even bigger one from my mom, a wonderful night’s sleep in my own bed, and some steaming blueberry pancakes in the morning. The flight home from Quito, Ecuador would be a bit more than 45 minutes.
It’s these moments that (well, first I laugh to myself, then…) I remind myself that I may never get this opportunity again. How many more times will I get to say that I feel uncomfortable and have very little control over changing it? Sure, I can go abroad and say, “wow, when will I have the chance to travel throughout all of South America, see Igazú Falls and Patagonia, lay out on the beaches and go to the Rain Forest, and come home with pictures of beautiful places” but, personally, I want my abroad experience to include truly experiencing a bit of the culture. I want to be able to tell the stories of the people in my pictures, to talk of my conversations with my sister when we went hiking that time, and to be able to share what I’ve learned about the struggles that the Ecuadorians of the Oriente are facing.
More than that, there are many people who do not have the opportunity to study abroad, to experience a different culture, and to feel completely and utterly uncomfortable in that culture. I am so incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity, to feel this feeling.
On the other hand, there are international students at UofR who are certainly going through this entire process in my culture. These students certainly have moments when they feel students’ stares all around them, they don’t know whether to laugh, and they feel that they don’t have anywhere to call home. Let’s look out for these students, help them to understand our converstaions and our culture, see if we can’t help them to feel more comfortable, maybe even to feel at home.
Now what about the “and savoring it!” part then? When I do realize they’re laughing at me, I first remind myself what our director told us: “The Ecuadorian government lets in hundreds of thousands of US tourists each year for two reasons: first, they provide income for many Ecuadorians and second, they are a source of entertainment for the rest of us.” With this in mind, I proceed to tell one of two jokes I have now mastered in Spanish, depending on the audience. That way, we can all laugh together (though they’re certainly still laughing at my horrible accent).
Finally, at the end of the day, no matter how frustrated I was that afternoon with the ridiculous catcall or at dinner when I couldn’t follow the conversation, I always remember that I will never feel quite this same type of uncomfortable again for a long time. And it’s the rain that helps us see and feel the sun, right?
“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness
because it shows me the stars.” -Og Mandino