Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What Music Ecuadorian Kids Listen To These Days

One of the fun things about working with high school aged Ecuadorians is getting glimpses into the forces that are influencing them. The other day we had some work time in class and one of the kids asked if we could put on some music. I told them yes, but I didn't have any. Not to worry - Ecuador is one of the only countries I've lived in where people actually use the MP3 player feature on their phones. As the class shared the favorite pieces from their collections, I got to hear:
  • Katy Perry - Firework & Teenage Dream
  • Queen - We Are The Champions
  • Lady Gaga - Poker Face
  • The Village People - Y.M.C.A. (Although when I said, oh how appropriate since we are studying hotels, they were shocked. They didn't realize that a YMCA is a place you can stay. They thought it was a resort or disco).
  • Poison - Every Rose Has Its Thorn
  • Taylor Swift - Romeo
  • Kenny Loggins - Highway To The Danger Zone
  • The Cranberries - Zombie
There wasn't one Spanish language song among the lot, and the kids were pretty surprised I knew the words to any of them since I'm old enough to be their collective mother. Still, we had a pretty fun class while they made posters ... and how does this list compare to your perceptions of what music Ecuadorians like?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cuenca: A Home For America's Economic Refugees?

Americans visiting Cuenca used to talk about the climate, the culture, and the opportunities for new businesses in the city. Increasingly, they are talking about economics. Not local economics, but American economics. The idea is that they want to get out while the getting's good, and want to know if Cuenca's the right place to ride out America's imminent financial doom.

I've had a surprising number of conversations lately that focus on getting out of the US dollar and escaping the US economy. Many of the people quizzing me about my international life aren't planning to join me in the Freelance Kingdom - they are really just running. Running from the idea of retiring in debt, running from the idea of long-term unemployment, and running from the idea of losing it all, once and for all.

To be honest, these people inspire two emotions in me: Fear and Pity. The fear is rather contagious - the latest crew of American arrivals in Cuenca seem to be genuinely afraid of just about everything. Talk to them for a while and you, too, will start to wonder if tomorrow you will wake up to the wreckage of a midnight Armageddon. On the other hand, I really pity some of these people, because in their fearful mindset, they are shortening their lives by stressing themselves out something ridiculous.

It's not to say that all of their fears are groundless, or that Cuenca is necessarily a poor choice for waiting out the Greater Depression. Last time I checked, yes, the US economy still stank, and yes, the cost of living in Cuenca is significantly lower than a similar US lifestyle. However, cheaper does not always mean better for every situation, and cost of living isn't the only metric to use.

Cuenca's culture is very different from that of the United States. It can be warm and welcoming, but it can also seem very closed off due to a strong emphasis on family ties and last names. You need to speak Spanish or you will be stuck in the gringo community. The gringo community is okay, but it can seem to be very us vs. them for new arrivals vs. old Cuenca hands. Expect to make acquaintances readily and friends more slowly.

Many of the systems that people are used to in the US don't exist here. Yes, many economic refugees want to "leave America behind" in theory, but in practice they still expect there to be functional administrative systems that respond to their needs and complaints. Not so in Cuenca - most people here fend for themselves, and the complaints department is permanently closed. Noise complaints can be directed straight to your neighbor, thank you very much, and if you don't like your cable service, join the club. This "we don't care" attitude in service areas is a sharp departure from the US where sales clerks and phone agents jump to serve "the customer who is always right". After all, if you don't like it, you'll blog, tweet, and post youtube videos about it.

Only not in Cuenca. The technology barrier is high - only about 28% of Ecuadorians regularly access the web (meaning once a week or more) and high speed connections like those in the States just haven't arrived yet. Facebook has caught on pretty strongly, but blogs and Twitter are still marginal. Websites for businesses vary in quality. If you want information, word of mouth, newspaper, and radio are the top choices. Or picking up the phone and calling directly, something many Americans consider archaic.

So there are some pretty significant adjustments, and the economics aren't all fabulous. Most Americans in Cuenca aren't making a local income - it's all dependent on what they have going for them from the States. English teaching might net $250 - $500 per month as supplemental income, and there are a few restaurants owned by gringos, but other economic opportunities are limited. People who think they will come down and work for a local are sadly misguided - there are plenty of unemployed locals for local jobs!

And that's my two cents on the matter for the moment. Yes, Cuenca can be wonderful, and if you know what you're getting into, it might work for you as a new home or economic refuge. However, it's not mini-America, nor is it Mexico, and economic refugees looking for either had better look somewhere else!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom Is A State Of Mind

Independence Day overseas is always an adventure, because you know its supposed to be a holiday, but nobody else is taking the day off. While my family and friends back in the States are enjoying the sunny weather and a three day weekend, Cuencanos are enjoying the fifth straight hour of pouring rain and another workday. Yee-haw!

The question does sometimes come up as to whether I worry about my freedom living overseas. The short answer is no, not really. America isn't the only place you can live free and happy ... and to me, attaching freedom to a place diminishes the concept.

Freedom isn't a concept that can be fenced by borders. It's not even really a concept that can be fenced by facts. Was I more free in America, where an organized government efficiently collected taxes, monitored citizen activities, and regulated the snot out of being a small business owner? Or am I more free in Cuenca, where a highly inefficient government doesn't provide much more than basic services and the police can be readily bribed? (In a recent lesson on crime vocabulary, I mentioned a friend paying the police $10 to get out of a ticket. My students told me he overpaid - it should have been $5. "You foreigners run up the price of everything," harrumphed one of them, implying "my people" are ruining their freedom to drive like maniacs.)

Moving from the cops back to government, was I more free in America or when I was living in China? I didn't speak the language well and had no knowledge of the local laws. I know I got tons of exceptions from locals because they knew I didn't get it and it wasn't worth it to them to make an issue out of it ... but in America, there are no exceptions for me. If I speed, fail to register my car properly, don't follow my community covenant for recycling, or a hundred other small things, I'm in trouble.

So what is my freedom, really? Were my forefathers fighting for the right to watch reality TV on high-speed Internet connections in McMansions? I like to think they were fighting for the right to live on their own terms - the right to choose their futures, govern their destinies, and take their lives where the path led. It's not a place - it's a concept, a state of mind. Rainy skies, no fireworks, and miles from home, that's what I celebrate as my Independence Day.

Now We're Mobile

Hey, quick administrative note -- I've set up to optimize the viewing of the blog on your favorite mobile device. This should make it easy for iPad owners, iPhones, and other "smart" mobile devices to visit me without a mega-jumble on the screen.