Welcome back to Ecuador Lovin’, Part 2. We left off last time with talk about pet names in the context of relationships. There is one important name that I forgot to mention, which is an especially versatile one – mijo(a) (remember that the Spanish ‘j’ is pronounced like the English ‘h’, and the Spanish ‘h’ is silent). This pet name is actually what you might call a contraction. It is a shortened version of mi hijo(a), which means ‘my child.’ This is a name you heard all the time here in Ecuador. This is what my host mom and dad call me, and also what my host brother sometimes called me. You might also hear older people calling younger people by this same, similar to the way older men might call younger men ‘son.’ However, I also often hear my host mom and dad calling each other this, mixed in with mi amor and mi vida. As the Spanish name makes clear, nombres cariñosos are names that you use to express care for someone in any and all contexts.
Now, although I was joking a little bit what I said that Ecuadorians say they are very loving people, there was also some truth to the statement. Ecuadorians, and probably many Latin American people, are much more affectionate than Americans. Americans are not as physical (with the exception of hugging, which doesn’t happen too often here), nor are we as willing to articulate our feelings of affection and attraction as are Ecuadorians. However this observation cannot be applied too generally, because there are some other factors at play, such as gender. Latin men are much much more expressive of feelings of attraction and feelings, in general, than American men (except for crying, which I think is almost universally unacceptable for men, apart from a death-related situation). The principal difference in terms of courting and relationships is that Latin men are more forward and direct. If they like you, they just come out and say it, or write poetry or something; meanwhile, American men, and women, beat around the bush and try to be as indirect and discreet as possible when we’re attracted to someone who we don’t know very well. These expressions of attraction come in myriad forms ranging from innocently sweet to creepily obsessive. Here are some examples:
A now-friend of mine and former student and I went on a few dates after his class ended (i.e. not while I was his teacher). For the first date, he picked met me near my house and we went to get coffee. We chatted in the coffee shop for about two hours and then drove up to a look out over the city – you know, the kind of look out where people go to make-out instead of look out. That was slightly awkward because we didn’t make out and were conspicuously not affectionate among the other people there. So after 20 min or so there, we went to my house and sat chatting on the roof top. Lest you be tempted to question the wisdom in my management of this date, remember that I had known this guy as a student for two months prior to the date. Anyway, the activities of the date are not so important. What is important was that we had fun and spent nearly five hours talking. Now fast forward a few days after exchanging emails thanking each other for a nice time. I received a text message that read, “Hola Rachel, sabes que hay algo que no te dije la otra noche: eres muy bonita, y me encanta cuando sonries. No podía no decírtelo, y sobretodo, cuando tenemos una luna como la de esta noche. Cuidate, un abrazo.” (Hello Rachel, you know, there is something that I didn’t tell you the other night: you are very pretty, and I love it when you smile. I couldn’t not tell you, moreover, with a moon like the one we have tonight. Take care.) So, that was a sweet message that I can’t imagine most American men writing that, particularly the part about the moon.
This is a message I received from another former student of mine. This one I have not been on any dates with, and he is quite a lot older than I am, and has two teenage children. We are facebook friends and he messaged me one day to say that he had done very well on an important English exam he had taken a the previous weekend and wanted to share the good news. He also said that he had seen me in the school building and wanted to compliment me on the purple dress I was wearing that day. This is what he had to say about it because, “in Spanish I can write nicer than in English. You were really beautiful.” “Que el color de las flores jamas llegara al rojo encendido de tu rostro, tampoco el perfume suave del amanecer mas hermoso se reflejara con la belleza que hoy te presentabas. Asi el purpura se agrandaba con tu caminar.” (The color of flowers will never match the red glowing from your face, nor will the soft perfume of the most beautiful sunrise reflect the beauty that you presented today. And your gait magnified the purple.) Well, I’m flattered, but wow.
Now we arrive at the extreme end of the spectrum of flowery/creepy messages. My former roommate once met a guy at the beach. They chatted and flirted a bit, but nothing came of it. Then a few weeks later, we happened to run into him in Quito, and they exchanged numbers. He would sometimes show up at the same clubs we went to to dance and so we continued to see him around and he would often come over to dance with us. The interesting this about this guy was that he really didn’t engage at all when he was with us. He would just be there, sitting or standing next to us drinking a beer, but nothing else. He didn’t talk to us, and hardly even danced, and was generally pretty absent while present with us. One time, my roommate, another friend and I were going out to dance salsa and she got a call from this guy, so she invited him to meet us. He came and seemed unusually present and sober, and then spent the evening at the salsa place with us. While there, he decided to be a gentleman and bought a beer for each of us, but without asking. So, neither my friend nor I drank the beer, and I eventually gave him mine, explaining as he was about to buy another that I hadn’t even put my lips to it. At the end of the night, my other friend and I went home, and my roommate went with the guy to another disco and then came home about an hour later saying that it was fun, but that he still seemed like a strange guy. Then in the middle of the week she received a surprising message from him that read, “quiero q sepas q estoy enamorau tragao d ti me tienes divertido si tu lo permites podre infundirme en tu piel y saciarte con cariscias d amor. Quieres venir con migo a esmaraldas este fin d semana, para parsarla bien junto a ti. Te animas. Como estas como teva sin mi has encontrado un nuevo amor, o aun lo esperas. Acaso sere yo aquien esperas con las puertar abiertas d tu al cova, con esto.” (I want you to know that I am in love and swallowed up in you. I have fun with you. If you allow me, I could infuse myself in your skin and satiate you with caresses of love. Do you want to spend this weekend at the beach with me? What do you think? How is it going without me? Have you found a new love, or are you still waiting for it? Perhaps I will be the one who you are waiting for with the doors of your bedroom open.) Wow, definitely not flattering. And remember that this was after one “date” during which two of her friends were also present. So weird!
So, these examples hint at the different approach to courting that Latino men take, to varying degrees. What most often comes to mind when I think of this is a line from the newest film version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Kiera Knightly. The night that Elizabeth first meets Mr. Darcy, they have a brief conversation that goes like this:
Mr. Darcy: “I thought that poetry was the food of love.”
Elizabeth: “Of a fine stout love, it may. But if it is only a vague inclination, I’m convinced one poor sonnet will kill it stone dead.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about these differences in approaches to relationships, and also the relative importance of different aspects of relationships. Disclaimer: I am making generalizations about culture here; the balance of these elements in any individual relationship will obviously depend mostly on the preferences and personality of each partner in a relationship.
Most of my Ecuadorian friends, as well as my family note that I, and other foreigners (especially women), are more independent than Ecuadorians (especially Ecuadorian women). In particular, I have driven away one or two guys because I’m not sufficiently pegada (clingy), and the one that did stick around likes me in part because he doesn’t have enough time for the demands of a latina girlfriend. Those of you who’ve been following this blog since the beginning may remember a post in which I wrote about the importance of family and relationships in Latin America. Here, relationship status is incredibly important. This does not necessarily reflect desperation or fear of solitude as we might assume, but rather, that the Latin concept of self is based on relationships. In contrast, Americans views ourselves as independent people who have relationships around us, but ultimately the independent self takes precedent. Relationships are important to Americans, to be sure, but at least for many young single people we think of sacrificing singlehood only for a really great relationship, never just because being in any relationship is better than being single; and if someone does that, we view them as desperate and/or lacking self-esteem . Here, it feels as though prevailing attitude is that singlehood is a temporary and lonely status between the more desirable periods of being in a relationship. Many conversations I have with people about this have given me the sense that people here have a hard time imagining that being single for any significant period of time (perhaps more than 6 months) could be an enjoyable experience. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, and this attitude also changes with age. My students laugh, but also think it’s a little bit odd when I tell them that I’m “waiting for the man that is better than no man.”
The final facet of this topic that I want to address is the differences in attitudes about love and sex because they diverge significantly. Again, these attitudes shift between generations and also evolve as one gets older, and so I will confine my interpretation to the attitudes of young adults. Young people in both countries generally agree that sex no longer has to wait for marriage. However, in Ecuador it seems that the connection between love and sex is still far stronger than in the U.S. Hook-ups, which are so common in the U.S. are far less frequent here. They are also logistically complicated because most Ecuadorian young adults live with their parents until their mid- to late-20s. Latin America is much more sexually open than the U.S., but bringing a relative stranger home from a bar to your family’s house still pushes the limits of latin modesty. While casual sex does not hold a very strong place in Ecuador, that is not to say that Ecuadorians are conservative or prude. What happens instead is that relationships become serious, emotionally and physically, faster. In both countries, sex is a relatively normal part of most non-marriage relationships, but here people think of sex more as the literal physical expression of love. In contrast, young Americans make more of a distinction between them, acknowledging that sex can and ought to be an expression of love, but that it doesn’t have to be, and has intrinsic value as a stand-alone experience. For example, I was once told by a now-ex-boyfriend from Peru that when I said I didn’t want to have sex with him, he felt like I was prohibiting him from expressing his love for me, and seemed at a loss of how else to do it.
The particular origins of this difference still elude me, and there are many influential factors. As I mentioned, the fact that Ecuadorian children live with their parents far longer than American children certainly changes the relationship dynamic. Also, there is no university scene here. Ecuadorians that attend university continue to live at home during that time, so college does not represent a period of new independence and self-discovery, as it does in the U.S. In Ecuador it seems that there is not as clear a differentiation between love and infatuation; love is that crazy feeling that appears from the very beginning (as demonstrated by the text message cited above). In addition, Ecuador has only recently begun to experience movements toward greater gender equality and empowerment of women. Also, it missed out on the combine forces of third-wave feminism and sexual liberation pushing for the destruction of the barriers of conservatism and prudeness in relationships. But, latin culture remains a very sensual culture that is far more open about sexuality, which results in this confusing (to me) combination of traditional ideas about the meaning of sex in relationships, but very liberal manifestations of them.
Well, that’s all for now. I have 11 days left here, so I hope to get one more Ecuador blog up before going back to the U.S. Thanks for reading.