2012 Cuenca Perspectives Collage

2012 Cuenca Perspectives Collage


My mission in publishing this blog is first to provide a living history of my settlement and life in Cuenca, and to provide myself and the reader with a journal account delineating my reasons for why I have chosen to settle in Cuenca. Second, the posts are my way of staying in contact with family and friends back in the states, and to provide them with an understanding of a country and culture that most North Americans have little knowledge and awareness. Third, the blog is open to one and all who wish to compare and contrast the experiences of expat bloggers living in Cuenca, so that you can determine whether or not from your perspective Cuenca is an appropriate move for you. Fourth, my blog provides another example of how expats view and interpret life in Cuenca. Ecuadorians and Cuencanos who may read this blog are especially invited to post comments that may enhance all expats understanding and appreciation of Cuneca and its people, or to correct any misinterpretations in my assumptions and perceptions of Cuencano culture. Finally, I hope I can convey the feeling of love and appreciation that grows within me each passing day for this heavenly city nestled in the Andes and its very special people.

Friday, February 27, 2015


Culture Shock and the Expat

Cultural shock is something that almost all expats experience to one degree or another.  Cultural shock is relative dependent upon the expats and their previous experience with interacting with other cultures.  Even when experienced expats relocate from one foreign country to another, the transition may be easier, but it doesn’t mean that living in a new culture will not present some significant adjustments.  The greater the disparity between the expat self-identified culture and the foreign culture to be experienced will generally result in greater culture shock as well.  The important thing for someone with little travel or expat experience is to reduce culture shock by doing extensive research about all the logistics to settling in a foreign culture, and to do an intensive study of the newly embraced culture as well.
Expats who only worry about the logistics of settling in a new culture, and fail to learn as much as possible about the new culture before they arrive in that culture do themselves a great disservice.  Some such expats are often the people who either planned to live for whatever time allocated by their employment or permanent residency in expat enclaves isolated from the culture at large. Other such expats are people who arrived at their new destinations with enthusiastic intent to mingle with the culture at large, and then discover from the hard work involved in adjusting to a new culture that they settled for much less than their original intentions and simply fell-back on their expat friends for emotional sustenance.  These are the folks who are most vulnerable to eventually returning home and sometimes very abruptly. 
As I mentioned in the previous post, expats can have much to complain about with justification.  However, most of the complaints seem petty when a particular problem becomes a deal-breaker, and people decide “this is the straw that broke the camel’s back”, and “I am going home”.

I examined some complaints of expats related to Cuenca.  Some of these are valid, at least in the disparity between what they were accustomed to in their native culture and what they may experience in their new foreign culture, and in forming their given rationales and rationalities for deciding to return home.

Number 1:

Cuenca has much in the way of culture and arts, but quality is questionable.  I won’t argue the merits of the comment.  Simply when one is exiting Ecuador and this is their primary reason, did such a person not do their homework ahead of time?  If the quality of the arts in Cuenca is so questionable, where would they find superior arts and cultural venues:  Chicago, the Big Apple, Boston, Washington, D.C.?   If so, then why did these art patrons come to Cuenca in the first place, if the arts loomed so big in the minds of these people as a make or break point to come or to leave?  Had cost of living factors been the reason these connoisseurs of the arts don’t live in the American art and cultural centers; or chose not to be an expat in London, Rome, Florence, Paris, or Vienna?

Cuenca does not offer the museum complexes of these major art centers.  There is no opera company, or professional dance troupe of national stature in Ecuador. The Cuenca orchestra does an admiral job and could hold its own with many regional orchestras in the states, but it is not by any stretch of the imagination on par with the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic.  

Yet the arts are vibrant in Cuenca.  Many expats with art backgrounds find a very active community with which they enjoy working.  These expats enjoy sharing their expertise, and in turn, learning from the cultural interaction of the South American mind and experience to appreciate what makes the Ecuadorian art forms vibrant from music, to the fine arts, to literature, to theater, and increasingly to film.  While at the same time expat artists share a wider venue that contributes efforts to introduce new art styles to the Ecuadorian artists, and watch to see how Ecuadorian artists may choose or not to incorporate these new styles into a fusion of new art forms that emanate from their new experiences and from what they already know.  What can be more exciting for an artist and for those who have an appreciation of art than to share in an art form that is ever-changing and even impacts upon incorporating South American art designs and structures of thought into the expats own art experiences?

Comment Number 2:

A complaint about living in Ecuador which is shared by a larger number of expats than the first comment is that Ecuadorians will ingratiate themselves to you only to take advantage of you.  

No doubt there are instances of this to one form or another.  It certainly has happened to me.  However, if I am honest about it, I have also let it happen to me.  Don’t think I haven’t done some soul-searching as to what was going on with me at a sub-conscious level that I allowed it to happen.  However, to broad brush stroke an entire nation of people for what a few have done is not only an injustice, but also is more reflective of a superiority attitude that dominates some expat thinking.  Ironically and laughably when such comments are made, is that too many expats are very well aware of the expat charlatans among us who have plied their trade here in Cuenca.  Amazing how people can see these crooks as individuals when they are from their own cultural or racial group, but completely stereo-type a whole group as crooks when it involves “the other”.

Comment Number 3:

Culture Shock
Culture Shock

Probably the most legitimate complaint for expats is the “manana attitude” of many Ecuadorians.  That “tomorrow” can mean any indefinite time in the future.  

This is not a serious problem with expats dealing with Cuecanos, for example, who have lived in the U.S.  Such Cuecanos either learned from the Norte Americano culture that if they wanted to keep their jobs they needed to be on-time; and/or they learned that being on time in Ecuador is essential, if they want to earn their living by primarily servicing gringos.  The “manana attitude” is an attitude found “south of the border” and throughout southern Europe as well.

I have one Ecuadorian friend where “I will pick you up at 8:00 p.m. was interpreted by Ecuadorian psychology to mean, “I am to begin to get ready at 8:00 p.m. when my friend arrives.” It literally meant to my Ecuadorian friend that when my friend arrives and while my friend watches television; I will shower, I will shave, I will brush my teeth, I will brush my hair,   I will dress myself, and I will get ready to go out.  Every time we went through this scenario, it was a great opportunity for me to practice almost all of my reflexive Spanish verbs.  It did no good to show up an half-an-hour later, because appointment time did not start until whenever my arrival time began.

Potential expats need to learn that when an Ecuadorian gives an exact time for a social event, that time in reality may not commence  for two or three hours beyond the given time.  Potential expats need to know that Ecuadorian dinner hour, whether at home or in restaurants begins no earlier than 8:00 p.m. and as late as commencing at 11:00 p.m.
Expats may be quite knowledgeable of the “manana attitude” before they arrive if they did some research, but knowing about it and experiencing it are two different things.  I didn’t have too terrible a time with the “manana attitude” when I arrived.  As I have often advised my readers: hire a trusted Ecuadorian who can not only translate for you, but also cut through the red tape for you as well.  Things will be much easier when you first settle here if you do.  Increasingly, more expats can also fill this role, or can refer you to a trusted Ecuadorian.

I did not mind standing in line to pay bills, or conduct bank transactions when I first arrived.  I knew what to expect, and I enjoyed watching people in this new culture while I stood in line. I wonder if another group of people have the infinite patience on the face of this earth that Cuecanos have.  It has to be a genetically inherited gene from the indigenous blood-line that has been perfected by generations of cultural inbred habits of patience.  I certainly did not find such patience exhibited by either Brazilians or Portenos (the name for people from Buenos Aires, Argentina) last year when I visited.  

After a couple of years of such patience, and running into line experiences that I endured for an hour to and hour-and-a-half, my type A personality began to emerge.  Actually my type A personality erupted like a volcano,  and laid to waste many hours of meditation.  Fortunately, many such delays can now be handled by electronics with immediate deductions from my bank account. Far worse than standing-in-line in perpetuity and failing completely at navel-gazing in the process is dealing with the government bureaucracy, its ever-changing rules, and its ever-changing interpretations of those rules dependent upon whatever bureaucrat with whom one is dealing at any given moment in time.  Personally, this is the aspect I hate most about living in Ecuador.  It isn't helped by the fact that dealing with the American bureaucracy only compounds the situation.

I lived my full adult life under the pressure of meeting deadlines, of frequently doing things quickly, and of having multiple balls in the air that constantly needed to be balanced.  I am still learning how to get off my “Type A” hobby horse, but I still deal with times that I find myself right back in the saddle again, no matter what strategies I employ.  Being task-oriented and wanting to get everything nailed down does not work well in Ecuador.  The difference now is that I am older, and I don’t handle stress and pressure well like I did when I was younger, and occasionally my Ecuadorian friends are the ones who calm me done and remind me that it won’t really be the end of the world, if things don’t fall into place in just the manner and time parameters I prefer. I am not sure I will ever completely relax, but I continue to find ways to leave lots of time open with less expected to be accomplished on a tight schedule.  How does one learn to be relaxed in the land of tranquilo?  Thank God, at least I know how to cultivate two-to-five hour lunches and dinners with friends.

There is something very beautiful about a culture that can enjoy time, enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner, and where life is enjoyed in the moment and not rifed with stress.  That is the South American gift to us if we knew how to embrace it and throw off the shackles of our Norte Americano experience.  Unfortunately, even El Presidente has spoken on the need to change the Ecuadorian culture by increasing time efficiency, and therefore, productivity to increase the GDP.  Increased GDP in itself will not make for a happy people, and will primarily benefit the corporations at the expense of the workers.  Not to mention, increased materialism which if the South Americans learned from their northern counterparts doesn’t necessarily produce more happiness either.

I know–everything has its advantages and disadvantages.  Getting things done and counting on people to show at the time or on the day that service people say they will are just as important to a stress-free life as well.  However, I remember how often my work colleagues and I would often take time off from work in the states to be available for a service delivery or Internet installation or whatever, only to reschedule because the delivery time and date were not kept. Or my friends in the states who hired plumbers, electricians, and/or carpenters to complete a remodeling project; only to discover that what was promised in weeks transpired over months.  Why?  Oh the young dude didn't show up as promised on Saturday, because he and his friends were out drinking or smoking pot on Friday night; or his girl promises to ditch him, if he doesn't show her more attention.  Or the carpenter tells the owner what he wants to hear, when he promises that the job will be done in two weeks, but doesn't tell the owner that he also has two other clients he is working for outside of his full-time job which therefore will result in months of delay because he is trying to balance his time among all of his remodeling jobs.  Why do expats forget all of this?  I think sometimes expats forget that everything in the U.S. is not always done efficiently either, and it's easier to focus on shortcomings in "the other".

Ultimately, what can I say, if the “manana attitude” is more than somebody thinks he can handle, then Ecuador is definitely not the place for such people?  Why move to Ecuador and “bitch and moan” during ones entire duration of residing in Ecuador, when one should already know what to expect?

Comment Number 4:

“I can’t live any longer without a Walmart or Costco’s.”  Yes, I actually hear this especially from expat women all the time.  Well, once again, such expats knew before they moved here that such amenities would not be available.  It sure would be nice if expats discovered that their lives were going to come to an end, without the old standbys before they moved to Cuenca or anywhere in Ecuador.  On the other hand, there is no doubt, if one has lived in Cuenca for three or four years, the ever-increasing restrictions to imported items and the huge fees in the way of import taxes has made it even more difficult to import products that are not made in Ecuador.  I would venture that it is only going to get worse in that respect. As oil prices plummet, the national revenues in turn plummet, and the need to keep dollars in the country accelerates.

Comment 5:

Another complaint departing expats have in their decision to leave Cuenca is there is too much rain, too many cloudy days, and the weather is not spring-like.  Well, of course, no one from Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; or Vancouver, Canada thinks Cuenca has too much rain.  Once again, why wasn’t due diligence in research done before a move was made?  Why would someone move here as one person told me because she thought the weather would be more like the tropics?  Or people complain that the on-line magazine, International Living, misled them with the idea that Cuenca is perpetual spring.  Well, it is, if you are from the Northern U.S.  Actually, Cuenca is more like autumn in the Northern U.S.  Too much of especially early spring in the Northern U.S. is generally colder than Cuenca.  Why would one’s research on such an important point as the weather end at International Living?

Comment 6:

Some expats admit that they just can’t adjust to the culture, and want to return to what is comfortable and familiar to them.  While other expats hide such a motive behind the pretext of wanting  to return to family or some other excuse.  Sometimes family and other concerns are legitimate.  Whatever the motive for leaving, it doesn’t really matter once the decision made is for departure.  The person,  couple, or family are returning home, and for better or worse, have no reason to feel like they are losers.  Maybe they have had some or many good experiences; even if in some cases, more due diligence would have prevented them from suffering possible major financial crunches.

So basically, it all boils down for potential expats who are going to make a financially significant move to another culture, which if it doesn’t work out can cost a good chunk of money, to seriously prepare and research extensively before taking such a monumental leap.  If you are young, you have plenty of time to regroup your financial losses and start over again.  However, when you are a senior citizen, the financial losses may never be made up again.  Moving to another culture by wearing rose-colored glasses that primarily envisions an exotic or romanticized adventure can transform into one of the biggest disappointments when intense preparation is not exerted.  Poor planning, a lack of reflection as to whether or not living in a foreign culture and as a minority is right for you, and impulsive decision-making should all be very important points to ponder to the decision-making process of relocation.

If you decide that permanent relocation is not right for you, but you still have a yen to experience other cultures.  By all means travel, spend a few weeks or even a few months visiting other countries and living in other cultures, without making life-changing commitments for which you may be unduly prepared psychologically and financially.  Why you can even come and visit Cuenca.  We'll keep a light on for you, and have a mint sitting on your pillow when you arrive.

1 comment:

  1. Jim,

    What a great and honest article regarding life in Ecuador. Thank you so very much for taking the time to get this message out to future expats.