Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Cuenca, Ecuador
An American expat and his Ecuadorian wife, who initially lived with family in Quito, moved to Cuenca and enjoy life there. The expat husband advises anyone considering a move to Ecuador to learn Spanish, realize that you'll have to travel home see your family (most won't visit you) and know that homesickness happens in random moments that sneak up on you.
What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?
Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?
No. I am married to an Ecuadorian woman, however, and we visited Ecuador on four different occasions before relocating, so I kind of knew what I was getting into.
Moving to Ecuador Soon?
If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?
I am learning Spanish rapidly. It's not that hard, especially since it is reinforced everywhere I go.
Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?
How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?
Massive. The family culture is suffocating - living with my in-laws felt like being rolled up inside a carpet. The constant prodding and pushing, the basic inability to give me space to do my reading - Ecuadorians as a group have no appreciation of the written word - just about drove me out of my mind. After three months in Quito, my wife and I escaped to Cuenca, which is a superior destination any way you measure it. Notably, after eight years in the US, she couldn't handle the family scene, either. Arriving with only the most rudimentary Spanish exacerbated the situation greatly. I felt like a sack of potatoes being trundled here and there with no clear idea of where I was going or what was going to happen to me upon arrival.
Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?
I very clearly went through each of the phases.
What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.
I was extremely frustrated by the ineptitude of the Ecuadorian bureaucracy. I was infuriated by the way in which the rules for obtaining citizenship constantly changed, how what one bureaucrat in Quito told us was not the case in Cuenca. I was frustrated by the slow pace and the half-assed attitude of the locals to meeting a schedule.
I was only occasionally homesick, usually when Ecuadorian cuisine would come up short, which it did regularly. The food here is unbelievably bland and Ecuadorians have no taste for sweets, so candy and anything sweet - like desserts - don't excite me much. It's an adjustment, but I have lost weight eating a non-American diet. It's funny, but I can get depressed all of a sudden when the differences between Ecuador and America surprise me at a vulnerable moment. For example, I know a decent steak cannot be purchased in a grocery store here (even the giant American style store that caters to gringos), but at just the right moment it can completely deflate my balloon to contemplate what a lousy selection of meat is offered here.
By the way, taxes on foreign goods are so high that drinking alcohol is out of the question - a 750 ml bottle of Jack Daniels costs $75! You've been warned.
What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?
The people are really sweet, especially if you try to speak Spanish. The cost of living is low, although not as low as various websites would have you believe. WATCH OUT! The amazingly tiny sums you can spend here require you to live like an Ecuadorian, so ask yourself when was the last time you considered a single chicken drumstick to constitute a dinner portion? And yes, rents are low - $300 or so, but trust me, you want to spend at least $600 per month until you get the lay of the land and maybe after that. What I appreciate the most about Cuenca is that I truly do not need to own a car. You would not believe how cool it is not to have a smoking monster sucking on my wallet. I can walk anywhere, which is a big part of why I have lost weight since arriving.
What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?
The family orientation means that newcomers are effectively shut out of local society. If you don't become fluent in Spanish and get involved in the local economy somehow, you will forever live in a gringo bubble.
Ecuadorians are short people - I would guess the average man is about 5'5", the woman 5'. It's just weird being so much taller than everyone around you - it can be a little creepy.
The streets are not safe - I'm not talking about crime here - I'm referring to the state of the sidewalks and curbs. YOU WILL HURT YOUR BACK AT SOME :POINT WHILE YOU ADJUST TO THIS REALITY. Not a day goes by that I do not encounter a situation presenting an unreasonable risk of personal injury that would not be allowed to persist in the US.
Ecuadorian businesses overtly discriminate on the basis of age and sex. It is jarring to see an ad for a professional accounting position that specifies the job is offered only to females under the age of 30. Now, I know many of the persons reading this are thinking that they have no intention of seeking a job in Ecuador, but they need to consider the type of mindset that this evidences and decide if they will be amenable to this attitude generally as it pervades all of Ecuadorian culture. You need to set your watch back 50 years to move here.
Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!
I am blessed with an Ecuadorian wife, so I have avoided most of this sort of thing. We have been married for six years, so I get it. One thing I would note for gringos is that in my experience, Ecuadorians lack a sense of humor - they don't tell jokes. They are some of the most literal people imaginable, so get ready for a blank stare if you have a funny story to share.
Ecuadorians prize conformity, even anonymity, above all. The best metaphor I can come up with for their society is of a prairie dog village. They never raise their voices or speak critically of each other. They criticize the government but never with any specific purpose or agenda - they just bitch gently about whatever. So do not speak your mind forcefully - I lost my temper visiting my wife's family in Quito and it was incomprehensible to them that I could raise my voice.
Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?
LEARN SPANISH before you arrive. If taking a few classes at your local junior college is too much of a burden or bother for you, then you are NOT a candidate for relocation. The next time you visit your physician, consider what your experience of medical care will look like conducted entirely in Spanish.
THINK VERY CAREFULLY about whether you can live without seeing your relatives in America. They are not going to fly to Ecuador to see you. You will have to go home to see them. Loneliness is the number one reason ex-pats go home. Get ready to be disappointed - things are DIFFERENT here in a million little ways that can bum you out seriously from time to time. And they are not just different, they are inferior. If you come here looking to reconstruct an American lifestyle on the cheap, you will be enraged, disappointed, depressed, and then you will go home.
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