Sunday, September 28, 2008

Strange Vibes in a New City

What is it to truly be immersed in a culture? You're not something special, just another person. After a few days in Cuenca, I'm starting to feel that just being a gringo isn't really that big of a deal. You're just another person. Take for instance, the way no one seems to care about including me in conversation or asking me about my culture.

Yesterday my host sister was working with a group for a project for the university, and since I had nothing else to do, I offered to help. I also wanted to start creating a bond with my new family, and helping out is definitely a good way. I was introduced to all of her friends, but after the short intros, I became nonexistent. No one cared to know about me, where I was from, or what I was doing. The group continued to go on as if I wasn't even there.

I thought they might not care at all about me, but then when pizza and soda arrived, they made sure I had two slices and a full cup. After the meal everyone talked as I watched on and struggled to understand, but no one ever tried to bring me in to the conversation. Being on the outside is frustrating and a bit depressing.

My host brother is nice, but I've tried several times to hang out with him and he just kind of shrugs me off. We watched a movie together, but when I asked him to show me around the city a little bit, he just said that there isn't much to do. If I want to talk, I have to initiate all of the conversations.

It's a bit hard, coming from 3 weeks of a very involved family in Quito and tons of other volunteers around to also hang out with and talk to. Once you totally immerse yourself, you realize just how bad you are at a language. In Quito I had two other American roommates that I could count on to jump in on conversations and fill me in when I didn't understand. But now I'm all alone here, and I have to catch everything myself.

Yesterday when talking to my host brother I thought he was inviting me to watch a Formula 1 race with him tonight, so I was excited that he was including me. But tonight when I asked what time the race was on, he said it already happened, leaving me to wonder what the hell we actually talked about.

Maybe I just expected to be a novel thing people would be interested in. Maybe I just expected people to care about showing me a good time. Or maybe I just had different expectations that will have to be altered. The first time I met my new host mother, she talked to me using the formal "Usted." I was taken aback. It must be because I'm an American English professor, because she has over 30 years on me and I've never seen an older person talk to a younger person with Usted.

The streets are cold in a new city, and though I walked around the block a few times to try to create some sense of familiarity, I'm still just a lonely newbie to this city. I'm blond and people stare. Some laugh. Without a large group of people to call up and hang out with, it's hard to feel at place, especially with some free time after weeks of constantly being busy and surrounded by others.

Staring at a semi-empty room with dim lighting, it's enough to make you feel hopeless. I start teaching on Tuesday, and until then, I have to find ways to keep myself occupied throughout the day. Today was the long awaited election to see if the country would rewrite the constitution. My host mother took me with her to the polls to see what it was like.

The streets were packed with people and cars as people headed in. Voting is mandatory here, except for the police and military, who don't have to. As we walked into the school, I could see soldiers everywhere with automatic weapons, just in case. I was surprised to see that men and women voted in separate areas. The whole process took about 2 minutes, and we left.

Later on we went to a family party for a niece who was leaving for Spain for the next two years to study. It was a strange reception for me. The family members seemed happy to meet me, but no one spoke to me. It was like being a friend or family member that no one likes, but everyone else feels obligated to invite.

Being the American, they told me to sit in front of the TV, and that's where I sat in near silence for hours watching different soccer games and golf. The family had DirecTV with maybe 10 different sports channels, 9 of which were soccer.

At the meal I was barely noticed, and though I wanted to speak and practice my Spanish, it's no easy task just jumping in. By 5 p.m. the election was over and the results were immediately in. The country voted overwhelmingly to rewrite the constitution, and the family was excited and happy as we watched the results come in. President Rafael Correa spoke jubilantly, and seemed to me like a Latin JFK.

Later, the mayor of Guayaquil spoke and the family hissed and made fun of him. He was a big proponent to vote No. Throwing yourself into a totally different situation is not easy, especially after having a totally different experience up in Quito. It will take some time, but I already like this city, and will just need more experience here to get my bearings. Until then...

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