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Friday, November 22, 2013

Could it be that I'm an Ugly Foreigner?

So imagine you live in a place where you stick out like a sore thumb...too tall, too pale, you walk too fast, you're shaped differently, you speak differently...everything about you is different.  You're a bit like Dorothy in Munchkinland.  (Or Gulliver in Liliput.) 

Now imagine that you've spent all day sitting in a government office waiting to discuss very important paperwork with someone, only to find out that your documentation is out of date. The someone telling you this has been dealing with things like this all day as well, you can see in their face that they're hoping you don't freak out, but you do (some- a little, some- a lot). 

I know how this feels, because it happened to me, or more to the point WAS me.  Okay, I didn't really freak out or make a huge scene, but my voice was decidedly icy when I answered "porque?" (meaning why).  I didn't understand how a marriage certificate could expire. The government agent, used to this type of thing, replied sternly that marriage certificates needed to be issued withing 120 days to be valid. I reigned it in, I really didn't want to be one of those people, but it was a near thing. Yes, I'm describing the "ugly American", as the syndrome has been labeled. Mislabeled, as far as I'm concerned, as anyone from South, Central or North America qualifies as an American. (I've opted for ugly foreigner)

As I progress with this blog, I am doing so in a mindful way, knowing that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

We all know that person (or people) in our lives.  The ones that you don't want to go out to dinner with because they are going to say something insulting at some point. They might be prejudiced or just plain cantankerous, and we generally avoid being out in public with them if at all possible. You've seen strangers do it: the woman going off on the grocery store cashier, the drivers with road rage, the rude customer swearing at you over the phone, or worst (at least in my opinion) the faceless hordes who write ignorant comments on blogs hiding behind pseudonyms and usually spouting hate from fear and just plain stupidity.

This phenomenon is hotly debated here in Ecuador. Instances travel like urban legends through the expat population...groups are formed...what's to be done with these people who look like us, but aren't like us.  They're making it worse for us (okay...we) rational people.

Ron and I witnessed a gringa meltdown on one of the streets of Cuenca. I'll leave out the specifics, but it involved an illegally parked car and the traffic police cruising by on Segues (something that makes me giggle every time...but it's kind of cool) She was asked to move; politely as far as I could tell, as I was across the street. In that moment her face turned in to this hateful mask and she started yelling "No! No! NO!" at the top of her voice. She flips out her cell phone and tells the traffic police (in English, mind) that's she's calling the police, their boss...I think you get the gist. Her driver, (a local, or so I assume, with a cool head and experience with such things) could see where this incident was heading and did the smart thing: drove around the corner and away from a bad situation. Issue resolved. The traffic police proceeded on their way, having a bit of a laugh between the two of them. (Thank heavens they took it that way...I don't know if they have the authority to arrest/detain people, but I think she got off pretty easily.)

I was embarrassed by her and I don't even know her. In Canada, I would have looked at her with an expression of mild confusion mixed with a dash of disgust. I wanted to apologize to the police officers for her behaviour, something else I would never have felt at home, but here, it's like she was my mother or my sister making all this ruckus.

My point, in all of this? I don't want to be that ugly foreigner. I'm learning Spanish as fast as my brain can take in the information. I say "Por favor" and "Gracias", if I think I'm being offered gringo prices and I haven't pre-enquired, I pay it with an attempt at a smile. I'm a guest here and don't want to tip over the apple cart (yup, another tacky cliché). 

PS, I experienced this when I worked the switchboard at one of the Bay stores...when I answered the call, a woman on the other end of the line demanded that I speak Chinese and because I couldn't she hung up loudly in my ear.  I was peeved...we speak French and English in Canada, not Cantonese. Ah well, I've been proven wrong on that issue.  More to come, very shortly, on the good life here in Cuenca.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post Danica, some very interesting thoughts and observations.
    This would be worthwhile as an article in a travel magazine or travel section in a newspaper.

    You're right about knowing people like that, it may work to their advantage in western countries, but if you pick the wrong person in a foreign country where you don't really know the language it could cause more trouble than you bargained for.