I had a lot of cultural misunderstandings last week. Let’s examine three vignettes, shall we?
“I Like Big Butts and I Cannot Lie”
When I travel for work, it’s hard to exercise regularly, and my diet gravitates toward carbohydrate-heavy Ecuadorian meals, so I often feel like I gain a few pounds on the road. When I recently returned to Quito after a week of eating way too many plantains on the coast of Ecuador, an Afro-Ecuadorian friend commented that my butt got bigger while I was in Esmeraldas. Wow. I was BUMMED.
Now, you might think it’s rude to talk about someone’s weight. But weight isn’t really a taboo topic in Latino culture – I can accept that. And you might also think it’s chauvinistic for a guy to comment on a woman’s body parts. But that’s part of machismo culture – I don’t necessarily like it, but I understand that’s how it is here. These things didn’t really bother me. What bothered me was that I was feeling a little chubby, and someone noticed and critiqued my weight gain.
Except my Vice-Minister of Ecuadorian Relations then informed me that if an Ecuadorian, particularly an Afro-Ecuadorian, says my butt looks bigger , it’s a COMPLIMENT. And she verified it with the guy. Yep. It was a good thing that my butt was bigger. WHAT?!?! He thought he was giving me a compliment, and I thought he was giving me an insult. How’s that for a total cross-cultural misinterpretation. Wow.
“Let’s Get Straight To The Point. Or Not.”
At 8pm on Friday night I received a text message from a guy I met a few weeks ago while salsa dancing. He was inviting me out to dinner. Then. Like, RIGHT then. Now, I know that Ecuadorians don’t tend to plan things much in advance, but this seemed ridiculous. So I wrote back “Now?! I already have plans. Maybe another time.” And he said ok. But later, my Vice-Minister of Ecuadorian Relations informed me that my message was REALLY direct. Too direct. I didn’t MEAN for it to be direct/rude. My intention was to indicate I was busy, but open to doing something later. Sigh. Sociolinguistic fail.
“Waste Not, Want Not”
I had some Ecuadorian friends over to teach me how to cook encocado, a coconut seafood stew. Now, you have to understand – these friends make minimum wage. I make an American salary, which goes a loooooooong way in Ecuador. These friends each pay $70 in rent. I pay $700 in rent. (This, unfortunately, was all revealed because prices and salaries are not taboo in Ecuador. So, when they entered my elegantly furnished apartment located in a ritzy part of Quito, the topic of rent came up.) When some water spilled in our pot of sunflower oil, there was concern that the oil would splatter when we started frying the plantains. So I dumped out the oil, thinking it would be easier to clean out the pot and start over. They were DISGUSTED with me. The oil could still be used (which I didn’t understand), and it was horribly wasteful in their eyes to dump out a cup of oil (which I never even considered). I felt like a world-class jerk. A rich, snobby, wasteful gringa. A cup of cooking oil wasn’t a big deal to me. But this incident opened my eyes to the fact that, for many Ecuadorians, a cup of cooking oil IS a big deal. I got much more than a cooking lesson that evening.
These 3 misunderstandings all occurred within 4 days of each other. I was feeling pre-tty culturally incompetent by the end of the week. But at least I’m learning.