Ecuador – First Time as a Foreigner – by Abigail Blonigen. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
Hola amigos. My name is Abigail Blonigen, and I am a student at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. I have three majors: Spanish, English, and Global Cultural and Language Studies. This is my third year in college [Editor’s Note: this article was submitted in 2017], and this semester I am studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador. Here I am studying the politics and development of Ecuador, social changes, art, culture, history, and of course, Spanish. I’ve been here five days, and I have already experienced so much it was nearly impossible to decide what to write this first article about.
Everything here is new to me, and I mean everything. I grew up in a rural town in central Minnesota with a population of 350. My high school was a combination of small, rural towns, and I had a graduating class of around 120. When it came time for college, I knew I wanted to live in a “bigger” city, but the Twin Cities were too big. I chose Duluth: population just over 86,000. The city of Quito has a population of nearly 3 million. The traffic is crazy, the busses are packed, the streets are polluted by exhaust and noise. I had only taken a city bus two times before I came here, and I had only seen mountains once. Now they are right outside my window. In addition, I have barely traveled the United States, and I have only left the U.S. one time – to spend my birthday weekend this past summer in Canada, which is less than four hours north of where I live. There was absolutely no transition to this South American metropolis, no comparable experiences to prepare myself – I just jumped right in.
The biggest change I’ve experienced thus far has been my new status of foreigner, or “extranjera.” I have definitely felt like an outsider before, but never to this extent. To start, the majority of people in Quito have darker complexions: darker skin of different shades, black, brown, or dyed hair, and brown eyes. I, on the other hand, have very fair skin, naturally blonde hair, and eyes so light blue my eye doctor said I should never leave the house without sunglasses. One can tell I’m a “gringa” from all the way down the street. It is strange, as the way I look has never made me “different.” Living in an area of German and Scandinavian immigrants, there’s always been plenty of blondes, and many people who get sunburned in less than 20 minutes.
Because I look differently than the majority of the population, people stare. Every time I look around I make eye contact with someone who is already looking at me. Children stare the most. Their parents point us out to them when we are in a group. At the bus stop there was a small child who was staring at my friend and I, turned to his dad and said, “¡Mira las gringas!” (Look at the gringas!). The word gringo/a stemms from the Mexican-American War, where the Mexicans shouted at the Americans in green uniform, “Green, go home!” Now gringo/a is known across Latin America and most of the world as a term for white people of the United States and Europe.
Being noticeably foreign makes me an easier target for people to take advantage of me, whether it be theft, charging me more, or offering me free drinks, so I need to be extra careful. There are several rules that the other girls in my program and I have to follow: always carry valuables in a money belt or neck pouch, take a taxi if it’s after dark or you’re carrying something valuable, call the taxi, don’t hail it, don’t talk to strangers or make eye contact on the street, etc. It is likely overkill, but it’s to keep us safe. I’ve been catcalled several times already in these five days. Guys will randomly say “hello” or “hi guys” in English. It’s happened on the bus stop, in the street, and while biking. Unfortunately, I am kind of used to this sort of harassment in the U.S., but it’s a little scarier here as I don’t know the city very well yet. My host brother said it’s just because we are different, and different is attractive. Some people are nicer. Today, a woman stopped me on the street as I was walking to my friends house and asked if I was looking for the busses because she assumed I was lost. Some people randomly compliment us on our Spanish, others snicker at us like we don’t know what we’re doing.
With such tensions in the United States and around the world with immigration, it was very strange to be stopped by immigration police this morning. I was simply standing on the street with my friend waiting for the rest of our group, when the immigration police approached us asking for our documents. Thankfully, we both had them. They asked when we arrived in the country, and what we were doing here. They proceeded to write down our information in their note pad. I was a little nervous, though I had no need to be. A U.S. passport is a very special privilege.
Regardless of the awkward stares and interactions, I am having the time of my life. This city is beautiful, and the history and culture are fascinating. I learn something new every minute. It’s a curious dynamic to be a minority with so much privilege. I’m sure I will learn to navigate this – and the bus routes – soon enough.
Abigail Blonigen serves as an assistant editor for The North Star Reports
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