Travel Guide | Ecuador

Culture Shock in Cuenca, Ecuador


From language barriers to living with a host family to being catcalled by police, culture shock in Cuenca, is an every day experience.

I have been living in South America for slightly more than a month now, so one would think that I would be used to having to literally run across the narrow streets to avoid being hit by a car, having to jump onto a barely-stopped bus to get downtown in a timely manner, passing four different churches (and the new cathedral) on my way to school, and wearing long pants every day even though 98.5 percent of the time shorts would be more weather-appropriate. And I guess I am used to most of these things at this point, but there are still a lot of daily challenges that fit under the category “culture shock.”

I can see the mountains from anywhere in Cuenca -- even from the center of the city, as shown in this photo, which was taken from a viewpoint on the west side of the city.

I can see the mountains from anywhere in Cuenca — even from the center of the city, as shown in this photo, which was taken from a viewpoint on the west side of the city.

Culture shock, as defined by the ever-so-popular Urban Dictionary, is “the shock of moving from one culture to another often associated with laws, traditions, food, music and general lifestyle choices.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Culture shock, for me, was not as severe as it probably could have been. I traveled to Peru almost two years ago on tour with a group of violinists from my hometown, Columbus, Ohio. I was the only one from my university who had been to South America before seven of us came down here for the semester, so I already knew that guinea pig is a regular delicacy, washing fruits and veggies is absolutely essential, and that tap water is (in almost every other city) not okay for us filtered-water Americans to drink. I was prepared to hike in the Amazon jungle (rain boots are better than hiking boots); I was prepared to take cold showers (and if they weren’t cold, very short showers); and I was ready to avoid snacking at all costs (snacks aren’t really a thing here). I didn’t expect to get culture shock, or at least not severe culture shock, since I thought I had already gone through that. But I experience it almost every day.

The first, and probably the most obvious, example of culture shock for the spring semester study abroad group is related to the language barrier. I am living in Cuenca, Ecuador and I’m going to school at CEDEI (Centers for Interamerican Studies) to learn the beautiful language of Spanish, but the difference between conversing in the classroom and in the “real world” is almost always very frustrating. In the classroom, my teachers will, for the most part, understand what I’m trying to say even if I mess up the verb tense. I will be corrected, and helped along the way. There are also dictionaries at school, and a couple of my professors actually speak some English too, so we are able to communicate with words more so than the gestures I typically have to use with my host family. When I am on the street, people speak faster, use words that I probably won’t know, and are significantly less patient when I’m trying to respond. All of my courses at CEDEI are taught only in Spanish, so you would think that I would have gotten the hang of this language by now. But I haven’t, and my lack of communication skills tends to be one of the hardest parts of my day-to-day life here. I can’t even read a local newspaper here without relying on Google Translate to help me through every few sentences.

The second, and probably most influential, example of culture shock for me is living with a host family. For starters, families in South America (Cuenca particularly) tend to be very protective of their children — especially their young, female children. I had lived on my own and taken care of myself for the last year and a half in college, and suddenly I am part of a family who occasionally feed me baby-elephant-sized portions of food, who need to know where I’m going and when I expect to be back, who pack my lunch for me when the group goes on a day trip to Girón or Ingapirca, and who are constantly there. Don’t get my wrong — I absolutely love my host family, both the immediate relatives and all of the other members I have met one way or another. It’s just a very big change that I’m not quite used to. I have my own room and my own bathroom at home, and I’m allowed to go out on weekends or stay at school downtown for lunch whenever I want to, but living with a family is definitely a challenge. My host parents can speak a little bit of English, but they’re supposed to only speak Spanish around me, so a lot of our communication includes miming, pointing and a dictionary. I have learned a lot of vocabulary and “Cuencanisms” (phrases specific to Cuenca that oftentimes mean other things when said in other places). My host sister and her husband (and two of their three kids) are proficient to advanced in English, and they don’t use Spanish around me as much. They live next door, and my friend is their host daughter. Even with all of the resources I regularly utilize to communicate, I often ended up confused and frustrated when I first arrived here.

Speaking of protective families…getting sick is a big deal here. First of all, over the counter medications basically don’t exist (flemex, a cough medicine, gets rid of most cold symptoms and you can get it without visiting a doctor). Secondly, when you’re sick (or at least when I had a small cold a couple weeks ago), everything is a big deal. Did you eat enough? Are you sleeping well? How does your stomach feel? I had a cold that kept me in bed for a day and took away my appetite for a week, but it felt like I was dying because I was constantly bombarded with questions. I guess many people may have that sort of experience in the US (and elsewhere) as well, but when I was sick growing up, I was usually left to rest and let the cold/sickness go away on its own. So when I had a cold that NyQuil could have taken out in 48 hours, it was a week-long challenge of trying to explain that I was fine and just needed to sleep. And another thing — if you’re going to study abroad for an extended period of time, bring medicine with you. There’s only so much liquid you can bring in your suitcase, but NyQuil is one of the few things I regret removing from my suitcase due to weight restrictions.

The last major element of culture shock that I was expecting but that still bothers me every single time I leave the house is the catcalling. Ecuadorean men whistle, hiss and audibly comment on the bodies of American girls every day. Cuenca is a very conservative city, so I wear pants and long sleeves every day (even though the weather is definitely shorts and tank top-worthy)…and I still get catcalled. The worst part, at least for me, is that the men/boys doing the catcalling aren’t just people on the street. Shopkeepers, guards and even police officers will whistle and hiss as I walk by. It comes with being a very obvious female foreigner, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

Even so, I love this city and I wouldn’t trade my study abroad experience for anything. Culture shock comes with living in a foreign country, and after a month in Cuenca, I feel like I am home.

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Kate Hiller

Ohio University | 19 stories

Kate Hiller is a Dec. 2015 graduate from Ohio University, where she earned a B.S. in Journalism and a B.A. in Spanish. Over the last two years, Kate has lived and studied in Ecuador, covered the World Cup in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium, worked with the Young African Leaders' Initiative Connect Camps in Namibia and Rwanda, spent time doing radio production with students from the University of Leipzig in Germany, visited family friends in Norway, and spent 10 days on a research exchange in Hong Kong. When she isn't planning her next adventure, you can find her taking photos, getting lost, pretending to be athletic, or cooking something that usually includes noodles. Follow Kate on Instagram @kmhiller527.


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