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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Cuenca, Ecuador

Jul 13, 2015

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.

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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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Comments about this Report

Jul 29, 2015 15:37

Wow, found this to be such a very negative response to questions. I have found my life here in Cuenca totally different. I have lived in East Africa so was prepared for life in a developing country and had no illusions about differences. I do not speak Spanish well yet...but am learning and folks here are very open, pleasant and helpful. I spend more time with locals than with Expats. There are good restaurants here that serve well spiced foods and otherwise can fix to my own taste here. And find my Ecuadorian family has a wonderful sense of humor if often at my expense as I provide them with my responses and I love it. One lady I know here has a most wonderful and constant sense of humor so think this man must just be speaking from his own family experiences but I find they have a great sense of humor and so much compassion and acceptance of strangers. But I do think you receive what you give....always. And I live in a beautiful, well furnished apartment (my own furnishings) on under $1000 a month and live well. Yes, it's like being back in the 50s in the USA which is a lot of what I love about it and watching the progressive daily changes and growing pains too. Need an open heart, patience and compassion to live here or any developing country to be happy. Embrace the differences, don't focus on them in negative ways. It's a choice. I love it here and my family will visit if they desire or not. I have no plans to return to the USA. I live here now!

Aug 3, 2015 05:51

I totally agree with the person who wrote this article. We did find the medical very good and cheap the one time I had to go to the hospital. The food is lacking in flavor, even the vegies seem tough. Regarding Spanish, the language they speak there is not a true Spanish and difficult even if one is fairly fluent in Spain Spanish. We left Cuenca last year after living there for three years. The sidewalks, the noise, the horn honking, house and car alarms, dogs barking, etc. We now live in Europe and are going to get fat with the wonderful meats, fresh vegies. We lived in a good sized house and the only thing we miss about Cuenca is the cheap rent for our house compared to what we pay here, but ... we now have culture, museums, great foods, cheap and easy travel all over Europe, wonderful music and a far better lifestyle. I paid over $60 a bottle for my favorite drink, but in Italy it was only 12.50 Euros. Wonderful, cheap wine too. For those that love it there, am glad for them. It depends on what one wants out of life. We love to travel and found it difficult from Cuenca as far as hours and costs go to Europe or the US. We are very content now.

Aug 3, 2015 09:39

The story by this American married to an Ecuadorian woman is true, though I have never lived or visited Ecuador. I lived in Mexico, Guatemala,Nicaragua and Panama, besides spending months in the Dominican Republic. All these Latin American countries share the Spanish language adapted to their traditions and history, and not speaking the national language is condemning yourself to a very limited and constricted life. Yes, the sidewalks are in bad shape as most middle class people in these countries move by cars or taxis; the sidewalks are used mostly by very poor or domestic(babysitters,housecooks,housecleaners people). Panama as a country comes closer to a North American lifestyle for Western goods and quality but at North American prices increased by 20%. My piece of advice for all it's worth : spend 6 months in a Latin American country and the oher 6-month period of a year back home.

Aug 15, 2015 09:47

Despite what others have written about this man's post, I totally APPLAUD him for his honesty. Everything he has said we have also found to be the case, although we live in Manta. And ANYONE that trivializes the Ecuadorian culture shock and, more importantly, the almost insidious toll it can take on one's emotional well being, is either totally out of touch with their emotions or extremely adaptable. From my experience the average person would do VERY WELL to take his advice to is a BIG DEAL to live in another culture successfully.

Feb 28, 2016 13:48

This is the most forthright & honest article about moving to Ecuador I have ever found. I have experienced all of those emotions. My bonus is that I have spoken fluent Spanish for a long time & have not had any difficulty communicating. It is not the U.S.A. It is Ecuador, and the people are the nicest I've ever met on this earth.

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