I was recently home for a week, having been gifted an airline ticket by a dear family friend to be here for my big sister’s baby shower. Being home after having lived abroad almost 1.5 years reminds me of all the little things I appreciate in the States and also of things that occasionally frustrate me in Ecuador. All the free time I’ve had while my parents work and I sat at home eating copious amounts of sourdough bread has given me the opportunity to reflect a little more deeply on some of the more profound differences that these little observations bring to light. Something as simple as the fruit that we eat can suggest differences in culture: in my own US-culture (white middle-class small-town teacher family) and the cultures of Ecuador that I have experienced. For those of you who have been faithful readers since the beginning, you will know that I already did a somewhat silly series on Things Ecuadorians Like, part 1 and part 2. But this time, I’m thinking beyond food and tiny stores.*
Convenience versus The Natural
The observation that initially inspired this idea occurred to me when I was eating a cutie (okay, or maybe 3 in a row) at the dinner table with my parents. I came home to discover that my dad had purchased a 5-pound bag of these tiny, delicious mini-oranges, and could not get enough. “These are way better here than in Ecuador”, I told my parents. “The flavor is sweeter and there are no seeds”. Mandarins in the markets of Quito are actually green on the outside and are quite different from the ones we have in California. Then I told them, “But Gonza wouldn’t like these. They’re not natural“.
One major difference I’ve observed in the US that clashes with Ecuador is what I’ve titled “Convenience versus The Natural”. Many of our food products have been modified in some form (hello seedless watermelon, seedless oranges/mandarins, seedless basically anything, milk, corn…the list continues). In Ecuador, there is a whole lot less of this type of modification. Milk doesn’t have hormones like it does in the States. In 2015 McDonald’s in Ecuador stopped using hormone-filled chicken and milk to cater to its clients desires for “farm-to-restaurant” natural products. My Ecuadorian brother-in-law buys expensive goat milk now that he lives in California to avoid the high levels of hormones. Even in the types of foods available in restaurants you can see a value difference: Ecuadorian lunch restaurants typically sell fresh juice, soup, meat, rice, and an undressed salad, whereas many US restaurants provide much more processed food options like processed salad dressing, processed meats like hot dogs, and soda. Processed and fast-food joints thrive on the American value of convenience, as does the seedless fruit industry. The very idea of the drive-through is the epitome of this concept. This isn’t to say that Americans don’t care at all about feeding themselves processed foods. But restaurants providing these types of foods makes eating more convenient, and thus more attractive to the American populace.
Directness versus Maintaining Harmony
Another difference I’ve noticed on a more personal level relates to the way in which Ecuadorians and Americans communicate. The other day, I was having lunch at Gonza’s mom (Mercedes’) house because we were celebrating his brother’s birthday. I was sitting in the kitchen with Mercedes because after offering to help her prepare the bacon and cheese stuffed chicken, she had declined and I stayed around to chat. She proceeded to prepare an entire lunch for everyone followed by throwing a party with the extended family, with two cakes and snacks for everyone. The next day, I prepared a beautiful pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, and soup, and cleaned it all up too. Mercedes insisted on giving me a manicure since I hadn’t had time, and then proceeded to tell me that not once did the birthday boy’s spouse offer to help prepare for or clean up after the party. “I even said that it would be nice to have some help in the kitchen cleaning up”, Mercedes confided, “but she still, she never lifted a finger”. Had it been me, I would have had no patience for that, and I would have flat-out asked this person directly to help clean up. Indeed, I have told Gonza directly that I want him to do a certain chore here and there rather than attempt to drop hints. Ecuadorians will cut in front of other Ecuadorians in line and many don’t say anything, whereas I would tend to make a fuss about it, even at the risk of causing a bit of a scene. One of my fellows recounted a story in which she was in a very long line at the bank and when an Ecuadorian woman cut in front of her and the fellow told her to move to the back, the woman, instead of just moving, offered up a sympathy story to try to convince the fellow to let her stay in front and maintain peace. I’ve also seen interactions happen in other Ecuadorian family/friend scenarios wherein I would have called out my friends for their actions whereas Ecuadorians do not. I think this is indicative of a deeper value of directness versus maintaining harmony. Ecuadorians generally prefer to preserve peace in their relationships and Americans generally prefer to tell it like it is.
Efficiency versus Meticulousness
Oftentimes I’m in a rush in the mornings, but it’s important to Gonza that I make the bed (Ecuadorians are in general a bit tidier than Americans in my opinion). One morning, as I tried to adjust to this expectation of bed-making, I made the bed quickly before I left for work. Later on, I received a text from Gonza, who had gone to my apartment after he finished classes, saying “Aw. You sort of made the bed”. Now, by my determination, I had absolutely made the bed: the blankets were up, the pillows were at the top. But to him, the bed wasn’t properly made. Another example relates to bathroom doors. I personally never keep bathroom doors closed when I am not inside. It just seems like more work to close the doors and then have to open them again anyhow, and also to have to check if it is occupied by knocking every time before entering. In every Ecuadorian home I’ve been in, though, the bathroom doors are always closed–occupied or not. I’ve been asked to close the bathroom doors after use as well. Once, when I was at an almuerzo restaurant, an older gentleman told me in a scolding voice that I hadn’t shut the bathroom door. I have also been laughed at for the way I trim my nails without filing them. Ecuadorians tend to be very meticulous with their nails, making sure there are no rough edges, whereas I just make sure they are sufficiently short and I’m good to go. Quiteña women also take very good care of themselves and generally look put-together. Rarely do you see women walking around in leggings or work out clothes in grocery stores or around town. Many women wear heels to work on a daily basis. On the contrary, I wear my running shoes or Ecco lace ups because they allow me to walk faster, and I also almost never wear makeup or style my hair. Who has time for that?!
Independence versus Connectedness
This one is probably more obvious for those familiar with Latino cultures, but Ecuadorians are incredibly connected to their families. It is common to live at home while you attend university and stay with your parents until marriage (as I noted here). Young people generally spend a lot more time with family than with friends, which I’d say is the opposite of American youth. One of the earlier minor conundrums Gonza and I encountered involved grocery shopping and errand-running. Whenever I suggested I go to the store while he cleaned or vice versa, he always preferred to do the shopping together and then whatever chore we had waiting together after. It was better, from his perspective, to do things together than to work independently. Pot lucks aren’t really a common practice among Ecuadorians, either (where everyone cooks something on his/her own and bring it to share). The only potluck I ever went to in Ecuador was with various groups of American friends. When I lived with a host family here, every single weekend was spent driving out to visiting grandparents or other family members, even when they lived an hour or so away and even if only for a couple of hours. When I lived an hour and a half away from home, I generally video chatted or called mom and dad on the phone instead of going home for a visit. Like many of my American friends, I love my family, but I also basked in the independence that college provided. Additionally, Ecuadorian family parties (and parties in general) go on far longer than typical American parties. If you have planned to attend an Ecuadorian family function at noon, you best not have made plans for later in the day or even that night. I have gone to a family party that started at 12 and didn’t end until after 9 pm. Guests were served lunch, dessert, dinner, and coffee. Another family party I attended similarly lasted through both lunch and dinner and involved many hours of chatting, card games, and singing Ecuadorian folk songs and other Latin American tunes in a tree house. My family parties back home maybe last a few hours and generally just involve dinner. People are eager to get on with their lives and don’t want to take an entire day to spend with the fam.
So where does this all leave us? As I was developing this comparison, I began wondering what, if anything, was a common thread among these differences. I think what sticks out to me most is the issue of time. I think that, at its root, much of these cultural differences stems from different perceptions of time. Americans value convenience over the natural because it saves time: eating processed foods is quicker than preparing natural foods. Eating a seedless mandarin is easier and faster than spitting out two seeds per tiny slice. We value directness in part because it saves us time when we don’t beat around the bush. We prioritize independence over connectedness because it allows us to have more time to ourselves, to accomplish our own goals. We value efficiency over meticulousness because we are constantly in a rush to make our next appointment, show up to our next class, or hang out at our scheduled lunch date.
Whereas Americans are hyper time-sensitive (wearing watches, scheduling appointments in advance, setting specific times to meet up with friends and texting if even a few minutes behind schedule), Ecuadorians are more spontaneous humans and much more lax about time. Ask anyone who has gone to an Ecuadorian social event–like the Christmas party I hosted with entirely Ecuadorian guests, the first of which arrived nearly two hours after the start time. Ask anyone who has set up a meeting with an Ecuadorian official. Ecuadorians in general value the immediate over the planned in advance. I had a conversation with one of my fellows wherein she told me she had to dip out early on a spontaneous host family trip because she had planned to skype with her parents. We talked about how an Ecuadorian would probably choose the plan in the moment over the scheduled plan, probably partially because they don’t schedule as much anyhow. Also, what does it matter if you’re late if it means you can prioritize the people in the now? Moreover, Americans have several expressions about saving time. “So much to do, so little time”, “Time flies”, and “Time is money” are learned at young ages. We even want to “make time” for things when we are seemingly over-booked already. Our very language indicates that we view time as extremely important and in limited supply. When I asked a couple of Ecuadorians for Spanish expressions about time, the only answer I got was Dale tiempo a tiempo–or give time, time. Maybe I didn’t ask enough Ecuadorians, or maybe this indicates a greater level of patience and less focus on the passing of time.
It can be easy, when living in another culture, to look at the cultural differences you observe and ask yourself, Why do Ecuadorian women spend so much time on their appearance but show up late to meetings? Why do they spend so much time preparing natural foods when it’s so much faster to buy processed, prepared meals? Why don’t Ecuadorians just come out with whatever they’re thinking instead of beating around the bush? Why do they spend 9, 10, or 11 hours with family on the weekends? Why are these people so strange? It is perhaps harder to turn around and evaluate the potential strangeness of your own culture. Instead of asking, Why don’t Ecuadorians care about efficiency? we can ask Why is efficiency so important to us? It is in this mindset that we can truly gain the most value from our experiences. When I started asking myself why Americans value the quick and the scheduled, I thought back to American history, as my roots as a History major taught me to do. I hypothesized that our emphasis on time and schedules began during the Industrial Revolution when factories were created and people were on strict shifts and long hours–a change from working in agriculture, where the sun dictated the work hours and people often worked for themselves as opposed to a corporation, when meals were dictated by specified lunch breaks instead of hunger. I think about the way college admissions have changed in the last couple of decades and the pressures applied to high school students to do as much as physically possible with their limited time to build the best chance for successful admission to the university of their choice. I think about the way in which companies in the States are using enticing/manipulative strategies to keep their employees at work longer, such as providing three meals a day, a space to work out, and maybe even unlimited PTO.
I recently read an article about the the cult of busy and it confirmed what I was beginning to suspect when I pondered why Americans are so obsessed with being occupied and how time came to dominate our consciousness. It’s a good read for those who are interested, and it confirms my thought that maybe our time obsession has roots in the Industrial Revolution. Though I can speculate about why my culture is so busy and time-oriented, as a foreigner I don’t believe I can fairly guess as to why Ecuadorians don’t share the same time concept as I do. I did some reading and stumbled across some interesting articles about how there are three major time concepts throughout the world’s cultures, and Latin America falls into the “flexible” time category while the US falls into “linear (non-flexible)” time category. As the aforementioned article notes,
For flexible time cultures, schedules are less important than human feelings. When people and relationships demand attention or require nurture, time becomes a subjective commodity that can be manipulated or stretched. Meetings will not be rushed or cut short for the sake of an arbitrary schedule. Time is an open-ended resource; communication is not regulated by a clock.
And this one:
People in flexible time cultures tend to focus on the present, rather than the future (linear cultures) or the past (cyclical cultures). It’s not that they don’t value the past, nor believe in the future; it’s just that they tend to live very fully in the present.
Thinking more deeply about differences between my American culture and Ecuadorian culture has provided me with a greater appreciation for Ecuador. As I posited to my fellows during Mid-Service, who is to say that my values are objectively better than Ecuadorian values? And just how many of our values are determined precisely by the culture into which we are born? Maybe Ecuadorians are the normal ones. Or maybe every culture is normal. Who knows. But I think that we can all learn from these differences and perhaps adopt the best aspects of each other’s cultures. What American would say that it’s a bad thing to “live very fully in the present”? And what Ecuadorian would say that it’s bad to plan for your future? I’m hoping that the more time I spend in Quito, the more I will learn about what ex-pats call Ecua Time and develop a greater appreciation for Ecuadorian values.
**Please note that I am not, nor do I claim to be, an expert on Ecuadorian cultures. This is my limited perspective from my experiences living in Quito for over a year.