This is my husband’s first time as an expat abroad and this provided an opportunity to ask him about his time so far in Ecuador. Here are Tony’s authentic answers to my questions, unedited. I’d love to hear your thoughts about Tony’s approach to living abroad and where he falls on the cultural adjustment cycle.
How did you feel about coming to Ecuador?
At first, I was hesitant on visiting a third world country (update: Tony has since learned the words, developing country) in a perceived unstable region of Latin America. I didn’t have much understanding of Ecuador, but when my wife visited the country and I did research on the growing expat community, it started to sound like it was more stable than I had imagined or have been led to believe by media reports. Additionally, I recently separated from my job and am pursuing virtual opportunities. I know that most people think you can work virtually full-time and in some cases that is true, but I pride myself on being available physically so that my clients can meet me and we can develop trust.
Going to Ecuador for two months (my wife wanted three, but we settled on two) would take me out of my plan to develop opportunities in North Carolina, but what I’ve learned is that wherever I am, I can still build a network, especially here where my expertise in web, mobile and social seems to be in demand by the expat community.
What myths and stereotypes have been busted by this experience?
The first myth is that I might be scooped up by the Ecuadorian police and questioned about my status. But, I’ve learned that Ecuador is working hard to attract foreign tourists by investing in infrastructure and city beautification and mixed use projects in both Quito and Cuenca. I see a strong police presence, but they are watching and not acting aggressively. The police I have met have been kind and helpful. In fact, almost every Ecuadorian I’ve met so far has been willing to extend themselves personally to help us.
I do see a lot of infrastructure issues keeping streets paved and sidewalks intact. In the U.S., we have this need to make sure our sidewalks are perfect and our streets are well paved, even in NYC where it is very difficult due to the heavy volume of use of public infrastructure.
On the transit side, the public transportation – mainly buses, are plentiful. You never have to wait for a bus for too long. They are replacing many of the old buses with new ones and it won’t be too long until all the buses are fitted for lower emissions.
Another myth is that crime would be rampant. On every block, something might happen if you are not careful and watching your things. Yes, it is a city, but I have yet to see any crime happen in front of me and I have yet to be harassed by anyone. I am also trying my best to not make myself a target.
Tell me about your emotions about learning Spanish.
While some right-wing Americans believe allowing immigrants in the U.S. to maintain their ties to their home language is a problem, I am a believer learning multiple languages helps you to grow both personally and professionally and provides entré to other cultures that you would not understand if you do not learn the language. Keeping ties to your home language is as important as learning a new one.
In an immersion experience, where you drop yourself down in a city like Cuenca, you must learn the language to communicate and survive. It’s the same thing we tell Latin Americans when they come to the U.S. – they must learn English.
If you come here, take Spanish lessons immediately and don’t start three weeks after you arrive. Start the day you arrive, because it will give you a sense of comfort and achievement that you will be able to navigate the paths you choose.
At first, it’s a little challenging, but as you start picking up words and phrases, you’ll be able to ask for things, excuse yourself when necessary and basically survive without depending on someone else. To depend on someone else is to fail at challenging yourself. I did not know Spanish and at forty-something, I never thought I would learn. This experience has shown me that anyone can learn anything at any time – you just have to want to learn.
What do you think you’re learning about yourself?
I have traveled before and navigated the streets of European, American and Canadian cities, but that was only for a week at a time. Today, I am living and progressing personally and professionally in another culture with a completely different, but complimentary way of life, while using a language that I am only beginning to learn. I have also learned that I can challenge myself today – as I did in the past – to be free of the constraints I may have put on myself as I have gotten older. Sometimes we think we might miss something where we are and then when we get to the new places, we learn how to try and bridge the known with the unknown.
I am a very linear person with a creative streak, so this trip has definitely challenged the way I need to work. I’m still not 100% focused, because of distractions that can arise, but here it’s more okay, because you don’t feel the pace of rushing around to get everything done by a deadline. I do think deadlines are important as they built trust and confidence, so it’s hard for me to think like an Ecuadorian, because for me today means today and not tomorrow. I don’t want to change that about myself, because I think there’s a need for that always. I can be a little more relaxed here, because everyone else is.
How do you imagine people at home responding to you sharing your expat experience in Cuenca?
A lot of people wish they could take the time and have this experience, but because of their situation, they are either unable or unwilling to do so. Heck, I wasn’t all that willing either, because of the “how” and not the “why.” Most of the people who knew I was debating on whether to go were my Facebook friends. They chimed in loud and clear that I should not pass up this opportunity. My partner in Digital Strategy Works was also concerned that it would impact our working on building the new business together. And, my mother was especially concerned given her worry about my job situation and whether or not this was the right choice at the right time. I had to make a decision that would take my out of my daily routine and put me somewhere else, where I could not fall back on the know. I was pushed into the unknown and now I am handling it.
Now that I’ve been here a month and my mom has seen the video and the pictures, she’s actually changed her mind and believes this was a great thing to do. It may not have been the best thing given my job search and trying to develop a consulting business, but it was a thing at this time we could do for a short time and not worry about the consequences. All of my other friends on Facebook and off where so excited for us. Many have been following our travels on social media.
There are some who have simply liked our communication on Facebook while there are others who comment all the time and want to share in the adventure. Being here makes you want to share what you’ve learned with others, so it’s a little disappointing when your friends are not engaged. We have to remember they have lives back home and we can’t expect them to be there talking about every single photo we take and every single experience we have.
How have you changed since being here?
I don’t know that I’ve changed. I’m still my jovial self. I’m still the person that likes to meet people, network and learn about things I did not know about in the past.
I have always loved to challenge myself and do things that were a bit unorthodox. This experience has helped me to remember that part of who I am.
There are some small things, like asking people for help. Since I’m not a native Spanish speaker, I’m asking people how to say things correctly, how to get to where I need to go and I’m learning how to ask people about themselves in another language.
Maybe there’s been a change in how I feel about time. As I write this response, everyone around me is relaxed and having coffee at a mixed Gringo/Ecuadorian hangout called Coffee Tree. People are relaxed and kicking back. There is no lunch time rush. There is no grab and go. People just sit and talk and chill. And, it’s not the tourists. It is the Ecuadorian natives all around me who have planned their day like this.
What advice would you give to anyone considering spending time abroad now that you’re half way through your experience?
First, I would say be yourself. I don’t like when people tell me to change, just because I’m somewhere else. I take great pride in being American and doing the things that I have done in America. I don’t want to lose my American values and culture, but I’m willing to adapt to other cultures. I think one should carry his/her values, but of course should adapt those values to the culture where you are.
You can be American (or European or Asian or whatever) in Ecuador, but just realize that your social customs may not be understood here. What you say and what you do may be looked at by others like, “huh?” Be reserved about where you came from and embrace learning and growing in the new place you’ve chosen to be in. Then excel in being both who you are and who you can be in your new environment.
I would also say that you have to make sure you break free of your comfort zone. You are naturally going to depend on those who have been to a place before you, but you want to make sure you don’t overstay your welcome with them. It’s important to have a point in time where you will go off and do your own thing, because that’s the only way you are going to learn new things on your own.
The people you depend on may be kind and generous with their time, but there will be a moment where they will wonder why you’re not breaking out on your own. They did it and they want to see you do it. When that happens, you can both celebrate in the joy of learning a new culture and building new pathways, because you might discover things they did not know. Even though you think they’re really cool for paving the way, they’ll be so excited to learn from you too.
While there are many signs in Cuenca that say, “Una Via,” make sure you travel with “Doble Via” in your mind and in your heart. Life is a two-way street wherever you go.