Some time ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “The Other Side of the Story,” about some of the down sides of my life in Ecuador. This is a bit of a sequel to that. Some people have asked to know a little more about adapting to life in another culture. I cannot say that I’ve experienced “culture shock,” per se, in that I did not come here with “pie-in-the-sky” expectations of an easy life, and I had done enough research to learn some of the difficulties of this culture. However, there are still things that are different and challenging about learning to “do life” in Ecuador:
Recourse – there is truly no such thing as “recourse” for things that go wrong. My contractor, Jordan, thought it was hysterical when I labeled Ecuador the original “too bad, so sad” country, but it is true. If you buy something and it doesn’t work – oh well. If your electrician accidentally switched your voltage from 110 to 220 and fried your brand new $1,300 refrigerator (as happened to one friend) – too bad. If the store told you that you could pick up the item you ordered a certain day and you drive an hour to do so and it isn’t there or is broken – tough luck. You can sue somebody if they really rip you off, but good luck with that too.
Honesty – as one of my friends recently quoted someone else as saying about Ecuador, the #1 rule is “Everybody lies and everybody steals,” and this even includes a lot of the gringos! It seems that the socialist mindset is, “If you have more than me, then I have a right to take it from you any way I can.” The most difficult adjustment for me here has been the challenge of answering the question, “Who can I trust?” It really seems to be ingrained in their culture that dishonesty is a way of life. (And this once included bribes and corruption in all levels of government, but the current President has gone a long way towards cleaning that up, although some of it still exists). If they can charge you more because you don’t know any better, then you deserve it (aka “gringo pricing”). But Ecuadorians will cheat and steal from their own – including their own family members! You have to always be careful and never assume that if someone is friendly it means they are your friend.
Women – Ecuador is a very male dominated, “macho” culture and respect for women is very low. In general, if you are a woman you are basically seen as something to “use” and cheating and wife beating are very prolific. Even if a man knows you are married, it makes absolutely no difference in whether he thinks he can “come on to you.” Women are very much seen as “prey” here.
Bureaucracy – Ecuador seems to have bureaucracy down to a science – I think they even pride themselves on it! What you can do in one step/place in the U.S. takes at least 3-4 here. And the rules change daily (and with the person you are talking to). One theory is that the more bureaucracy there is, the more jobs that are created – this may be the case. A typical picture of when you see three Ecuadorians doing a job together, one is working and the other two are watching (I guess their job description is “moral support”). In correlation with all this, it actually seems that Ecuadorians try to do things in the LEAST efficient way possible (and certainly not in a speedy fashion). Doing something right the first time (or doing things in a logical order, so you don’t have to redo something again) is a foreign concept to them.
Consequences – it seems (as one friend once said) that there is a deficiency in their minds to be able to think beyond the moment to the consequences of their actions. This spills over into many of the things I’ve already mentioned. They don’t think, “If I rip you off today and get an extra dollar out of you, I will lose more in the long run because you will not shop with me or use my service again.” They just want what they can get in the moment. They are also notorious for telling you they will come and/or do something at a certain day or time and then not show up. It is actually a surprise if they really DO show up and do what they say they would!
Living here really does require that you either get patience or get out! It is a completely different lifestyle than more “civilized” cultures and many ex-pats don’t last because they just can’t adjust their mindsets or expectations. I will say that some of this may be influenced by where I live in Ecuador. I’m not in a large or even medium sized city – I’m in the small, rural coast which is uneducated and poor. But I have heard of most of these same things in other parts of the country, so most of it is truly part of the culture, although may be magnified even more so where I am. And I want to be quick to say you can never generalize individuals. I do know there are many kind, honest, efficient and hard working Ecuadorians – I have met some of them. But for the most part, what I am describing are widely realized cultural norms.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it gives you an idea of some of the major differences that require huge adjustments in expectations to live here. However, even the short season my family lived in Iran (for 5 months in 1978 when I was 13) helped me to understand how to be a “citizen of the world.” My mother, especially, helped me to learn that it is arrogant of we Westerners to think that our ways are always the right ways. Every society has its strengths and weaknesses and culture is truly a neutral thing – not right or wrong, it just is what it is. What living in a different culture does for us is “move our cheese” and force us to face how we deal with things when they are not as we think they should be.
So as I’ve said before, you have to take the good with the bad, and some of these things mean it’s not always “fun and games” living in Ecuador – but these things are only a fractional part of my life. Wherever you live, life is truly what you choose to make of it, and I still cannot imagine being anywhere else!