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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26 responses to “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”
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As I read this, I can not help but smile, because I couldn’t count the number of times we’ve talked about Ecuador since you’ve been back. Even so, every time you mention it your stories bring something new to the table; a new insight, a new joke about Americans, etc. I know this is a self-centered thing to ask, but did any of your Ecuadorean peers and colleagues ask to talk about the state of our government with you?
I would like to express that your description as a “minority with privilege” is a really interesting idea to think about. While I have thought about the concept at length, my international travel has been limited to countries just as pasty as the United States, so I have little experience with that feeling of “otherness.” I would assume that one would have to experience it to truly understand. Would you agree?
Abigail, I cannot imagine the feeling of being so far from home in such an unfamiliar place. Like yourself, I am from a small town in central Minnesota. Although it is quite a bit bigger than 350 people, it is still a relatively small town. I have never been outside the United States and have been pretty sheltered throughout my life. I think I would have a really hard time in places that are so unfamiliar because I like being in my comfort zone. I would love to travel abroad but some of the reasons you talked about, like safety, are some of the things constantly in the back of my mind that I think hold me back. You should be proud that you are so willing to put yourself out there and it seems like you are really embracing the new place, good for you!
Hello Abby it sounds like you had both a nice and a scary time in Ecuador. It is interesting to read that you have experienced both the privilege and an the ugly side of being abroad. I can somewhat relate to the idea of feeling like an outsider. Simply looking or speaking differently from the locals can be frightening. Although for a majority of my life I have felt like an outsider. From moving to a different country, and to moving to an even smaller city in northern part of Minnesota. Not only that sometimes I am made to feel different even when I return to my country of origin. With that said I cannot deny the privileges that comes with the American passport. One may overuse it to get away with certain things that are forbidden not only for other tourist but even for the locals. With that said, do you believe that by going abroad some might learn how it feels like to be the “other” in our community?
Most definitely. I do believe it is a different type of “otherness”, though. While my whiteness made me a minority, the systems of power and privilege were still in place. So I was more so being discriminated toward rather than discriminated against, if that makes any sense. Instead of avoiding me, people would go out of their way to talk to me. Instead of assuming I was poor, they assumed I was wealthy (which in turn made me at bigger risk of theft). Instead of telling me to speak their language, they wanted to learn mine. So it was definitely a different type of “other” than being a person of color in a predominantly white society, but I do feel I have a little better understanding of what it feels like to be different.
Abby, I am still astounded by the journey you took that semester. I would feel incredibly uncomfortable as such an obvious “other” in a foreign place, and the fact that you were able to maintain privilege in a dynamic like that seems dysfunctional. When I have gone to Germany, I have still been considered “other” as most Americans are looked down on for being loud and ignorant- even though there’s no glaring sign reading “Here stands an American,” it seems that most people can pick us out of a crowd, even when our complexion, hair, and eyes match with those native to Germany. I can’t imagine being entirely different from everyone around me, even though this is a reality that a substantial amount of people are living around the world, in Duluth, and on our campus. When at home, is the privilege that comes from being white (or same), different from the privilege that came with being white (but other) in Ecuador? The privilege of being other, but still white (and obviously American) in Germany was definitely that people weren’t very forward about their dislike of us or America like they can be about the refugees that have entered their country. I didn’t witness it firsthand, but some of my Syrian friends had seen others being treated poorly by some Germans (mostly due to the fear of “other”). Is it perhaps the opposite in Ecuador? Like they are excited to embrace “others” in Ecuador? Maybe just as long as the “other” comes from a wealthy country?
Abigail, I understand your feeling when entering a larger city than you are used to. I grew up in a city of a little over 1,500 and my graduating class was around 80. So when you call Duluth a “big” city, I fully understand that assertion. I definitely have experienced people looking at me as though I am a tourist when I have traveled to places even inside the US. The part where the immigration police really amused me because I would never think that I would be stopped by immigration police in a different country. I guess that is part of the privilege and resentment from others that comes with being an American in the world. I couldn’t imagine how scary it would be if you wouldn’t have had your papers on you at the time. It seems like you had a great time and really embraced the opportunity to learn about another culture!
Abigail! Congrats on taking the opportunity to explore outside of the borders of the United States. My dream is to travel, so I enjoyed reading about your adventure. It must have been really eye-opening being immersed in a place that different from your home. I would enjoy reading more about all that you learned about people and life in general! Traveling is such a necessary, humbling experience, because it allows us to experience other cultures first-hand, and we come to realize that beneath our unique ways of life we are all still human beings. I also love art, history, and politics, so your experience sounds fantastic. Thanks for sharing!
I’m so glad that you had a good time over seas. I have always wanted to to go to south America, and i’m glad it was a good experience for you. The part that made me sad was when you talked about how you had to take so many things to make sure you were safe. It makes me think about what kind of things women do when they come to Minnesota, because i’m assuming things like that happen here too. I do think that most people over seas feel the same way about Americans when we go to any place over seas. Just because Americans do have a reputation over seas.
I was very excited to see your post about Ecuador because I am also planning on taking the HECUA trip there this spring. My favorite line of this post was in your final thoughts when you said “It’s a curious dynamic to be a minority with so much privilege.” This is a beautiful recognition of not only your own privilege because of your origin country, but also because you felt some negative effects of being a minority or standing out and still felt a sense of privilege. You also mentioned that your host brother stated that being different is attractive and I agree with him. The fact that you have blonde hair is shocking in a country where the typical residences are darker in complexion. This leads me to ponder why blonde hair and blue eyes are such a desirable combination. Obviously, one part of it has to do with historical racial discrimination, but even to this day your specific complexion is seen as desirable and the height of beauty. This summer I worked with children at the Y in my hometown and there is a little girl there whose family immigrated from Guatemala. Her and her family look very much like the majority of people that live in Guatemala and the countries surrounding it. However, even this little girl tells her blonde and blue eyed friends that they have beautiful hair and that she wishes she looked more like them. The status of a fair completion is so ingrained in our society that even a six year old has come to think that looking that way is more beautiful. Wonderful post and very interesting connections to privilege and the feeling of being a minority.
Congrats on your first trip overseas! I think that is a big step in life and opens lots of new doors and options into our futures. I think there is always that factor of being different in another country that draws attention. Anywhere you go, people will look at you if you are different and instantly want to know more, people find it interesting. I am glad to here that you could get through that and really enjoy your time in Ecuador. I think the precautions you took when you were there are probably also something most tourists take when going places, including places in the United States. I also found it interesting that the immigration police stopped and talked to you, that would have made me very anxious!
Abigail, I found this post to be very insightful and interesting. I thought it was really fascinating when you discussed your nervousness at being stopped by the immigration police, I can only imagine what it is like to be a person from a marginalized minority group and being stopped by immigration police. Your comments made me think of ICE raids in the United States- a couple of years ago, the Latinx Student Union hosted La Asemblea de Derechos Civiles, an immigrant rights group, who taught us what to do if ICE were to show up on campus. It was a terrifying thought to me that people face this much fear every day of being deported. I have a hard time understanding when people are anti-immigration, as I think there is much to be learned from immigrants and other cultures.
Abigail, thank you for this very insightful travel account.
The perspective that you have is a very interesting one, to be a minority with extra privileges while simultaneously experiencing harassment and glares. I understand that being in an unfamiliar environment also creates a feeling of increased vulnerability, the friends and family at home are more than three thousand miles away and the language is a barrier to communicating with the locals. Who to get help from in a potentially dangerous situation?
I assume that this is an extremely valuable lesson for all who come from countries where they belong to the majority population. I can’t imagine there is a better way to learning what belonging to minority entails than to experience it first hand, even though as you say it might be difficult to do so to full extent when you have a U.S passport in your possession.
I find the paragraph about being stopped by immigration police particularly fascinating. It must have felt like an incredibly exposed situation! If I place myself in that scenario I imagine it would feel a bit absurd as well; I’ve never experienced the possibility of not being welcome in a country that I’ve visited. People that are living their lives with that feeling hanging over their head carries a burden that must incredibly heavy.
I have never been outside of the country and your article gave me a small lens into what life is like around the globe. I have never thought about what being a minority would be like. I too grew up in an area of European and Norwegian descent, so I am not sure how I would act within that situation. I believe that taking those safety precautions is always a good idea. You can never be too careful and hindsight is always 20/20. I would be very worried about being robbed or pickpocketed.
This is Matthew Koch and we have served this college in quite a few ventures together. You and I have a unique perspective when talking about “small towns”. Many people consider places like Virginia or Hibbing to be small towns, but they haven’t had to drive 100 miles just to get to a doctors office. Small towns teach practical lessons, I can see from your behavior during your travel experience that you have a lot of common sense and value your experience and will use it in the future. Not only do you now know more than you did before, but you will teach others to use the skills you learned. You are a great human being and I thank you for the work you do, not only for this publication, but for the community of Duluth in general.
I enjoyed your article and your ability to talk about being a minority in a different country and the feelings that accompany it. I have never been somewhere in my life that I can remember being the minority to the point where people looked at me because I simply looked different. I’m sure it is an eye opening experience and one that may be hard to adjust to at first. Also, the safety precautions that you are being told to take sound similar to the ones fathers tell their daughters here in America once they leave for college. It got me wondering if the men you are with were told to take the same precautions and to be as alert? Either way it sounds like your trip to Ecuador will be or was a great learning experience in many ways.
I like the perspective you had for this trip so early on. I have never studied abroad sadly but I would probably feel the same way you did if not more nervous at first. When I read your sentence about being cat-called, it made me sad because I wish none of us ever had to deal with that. You travel somewhere new and I think in the back of your head you wish that sort of stuff would not follow. With never being targeted at home for immigration status, I bet that was a little crazy feeling having the roles flipped. I grew up from a small town in northern MN also so we are sort of away from everyone and not exposed to these sort of things. Thank you for sharing your story and I hope your trip abroad was great!
I’m glad to hear your enjoyed the begining of your trip. I have had a very similar experiences during my trips to Guatemala. The area I go to is a fairly remote village, and very traditional. The children would point to our group and holler at the gringos. We also had to follow similar precautions when travelling. Reflecting on that, I sometimes think the way we react to unknown places and situations is with fear, although the people of San Lucas were some of the nicest people I have ever met. It got me wondering, do the people we encounter while in a ‘forgien place’ also react with fear? Do they mistrust the gringos the same way many gringos mistrust them?
Your study abroad trip to Ecuador sounds like a amazing time! The landscape and the culture of Ecuador sounds fascinating especially being in South America. I did not realize that the Immigration police in Ecuador will stop people that have European descent and ask them for their documents. I found it fascinating that the people of Latin America call Americans and Europeans, gringos which goes back to the U.S. Mexican War. It must be very weird to be the outsider from having a whiter complexion compared to the darker complexion of Ecuadorans. Even with all the challenges of being in a different country it will allow you to experience the joys and wonders of a lifetime.
Your point that being a minority with such privilege is a strange thing was thought-provoking. I have never been a minority because of my skin color. Today, ICE is a definite threat to immigrants or people who have a darker complexion. This situation begs the question of how we can use our privilege to help people. In MLO, (Multicultural Leadership Orientation) something one of the mentors said stuck with me: “We are the microphone, not the voice.” They were talking about how those with privilege can advocate, how we can raise awareness and not speak for people who are being discriminated against. Instead, we amplify what they are saying; we are allies.
Any time spent outside of the country is an enjoyable time. It was very interesting to hear your own person perspective. I particularly liked how you talked about be stared and at easily standing out. It is a good way to put yourself in other peoples shoes to understand the perspective of many marginalized groups here in the USA. We could all benefit from an experience such as yours. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Hey Abby! It was great to hear a little more about your experience in Equador! I really admire you for being apart of something like this, as I would be a little hesitant to do so! Coming from a similar upbringing, I can imagine the culture shock that occurred arriving in Equador! I liked your take on what it’s like to be apart of a minority population in another country as that’s something that is typically not talked about. I’m glad you had a good experience and were able to stay safe! Great post! -Hannah
Thank you for writing about your time abroad! I love Ecuador and the culture one can experience there. I had a very similar experience when I visited for a Medlife trip. I loved meeting people and experiencing everything the city had to offer. I have always wondered where the term gringo came from so thank you for explaining that! I think it is interesting the Immigration stopped you and asked many questions but I suppose that is important part of making sure everyone has the correct documents. I hope you continue to share your experience and continue to travel the world!
I loved reading your article and I have so much to say about it! Being a foreigner in a country is an experience of getting the best of both worlds. Even though, at first it might be hard being seen as different or as you said a stranger, you get to learn from an outsiders perspective. Going to a whole new country and experiencing another culture also makes you appreciate your own. Thank you for sharing!
Dear Abigail, thank you for sharing your experience, it sounds like you experienced it all during your time in Ecuador! I have to say that I have never really experienced what it feels like to be a complete outsider. I guess the one time I have experienced this is when I moved from Maine to Wisconsin when I was in middle school. Of course it was the same language, and many of my peers looked like me, but it was different to learn about the local culture in Wisconsin, which is predominantly Germanic and Scandinavian. It’s also crazy to know that you experienced all this in your first couple days in the country!!