My Ecuadorian host family taught me a great deal about the meaning of family from the perspective of another culture. My experience not only altered my view of Ecuadorian culture, but it also gave me a new perspective on what family is to people of the United States.
Ecuadorian culture highly values togetherness of families. This doesn’t just mean being close emotionally, but also being in close in location. For example, many families in the U.S. have grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other extended family that live far away in different cities or states, but here families stay in close proximity and see each other more often than just for special occasions. I now see just how individualized Western culture has become, or perhaps to put it in better terms, selfish. People in the U.S. think of themselves first when making decisions, but here they think of their family first and are willing to make sacrifices against their own best interests if it is best for the family. One of the most striking instances of this I witnessed was within my own host family. They host students from all over the world in order to get some extra income, and they took in two students when there is only one extra bedroom in their house. One my host brothers doesn’t even have his own bedroom and instead sleeps on the floor in his brother’s room when they have students living with them. He could easily go out and get his own place since he is 22, but college students typically live at home and go to the closest university, and he is the father figure in the family so he stays home for that reason also. I can think of very few college students in the U.S. that would be happy with this situation.
Another way that people of Ecuador value togetherness is at meals. At home in the U.S. it is rare for my family to sit down and have a meal together, and when we do it is mostly initiated only for special occasions. I know that there are U.S. families that eat together at meals, but hearing of families that don’t eat together isn’t really that out of the ordinary nonetheless. In Ecuador, another family member eating at a different place or time is a weird, inconceivable concept. Every lunch and dinner everyone stops whatever they are doing and will wait in order to eat together. Meals are long and often we stay sitting at the table long after finishing our meal. This concept is even prevalent with shop-owners–most, if not all businesses are not open between the hours of 1-3pm since they all go home for lunch with family. This makes me realize not only how people in Ecuador take life so much slower and in a laid-back manner, but also how in the U.S. we are so fast-paced and on our own schedules that finding a common time to eat together doesn’t often happen, especially for a weekday lunch.
This concept of being laid-back is definitely evident by the South American concept of time. In the U.S. when someone says to meet you at a certain time, you’re probably late if you’re not early (I’ve had much personal experience with this). Ecuadorians have a much different concept of time, meaning that being 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or even an hour late isn’t actually being late. There are many examples of this, but the most prominent and frequent example is when eating out at a restaurant. It is not uncommon to wait over an hour for food to come, which would result in not leaving a tip or yelling at someone in the U.S. It takes a lot of getting used to after being so accustomed to the U.S. lifestyle. Getting food or drinks to-go in Ecuador is also an odd concept, seeing as there aren’t very many fast food places (when there is “fast food” it’s a chain from the U.S. and it sticks out like a sore thumb), and there aren’t any Styrofoam cups for coffee. Many of my classmates moan about not being able to run to somewhere like a Starbucks and get a coffee to-go. The concept of “on-the-go” doesn’t exactly exist here.
What I have been trying to figure out is why it is that people of the U.S. are individualistic. Where did this isolated, selfish, busy, multi-tasking go-go-go persona come from? Should we rethink the way that our culture relates to others, or is it the beauty of the dynamic human race that two cultures are able to be in such contrast?