Culture Shock



Culture Shock

Newly arrived Peace Corps Volunteer
Baños, Tungurahua, Ecuador, September 1962

 

He wanted me to teach him English. “Of course, Arturo,” I said, “tomorrow at eight o’clock.” After all, I mused, that’s what I’m here for—to each anyone who wants to learn, young or old, tall or short, skinny or fat. And it isn’t my fault if Arturo is a beautiful man.

It was eight o’clock. Manuel, the doorman, was making his rounds, feather duster in hand, a truly rhythmic man who bounced from the knees with every step.

He saw me; a smile broke open his face exposing a smattering of yellow teeth. “Buenos días, Señorita Meeess.” Like a rooster strutting, he stepped into the faculty room, his feather duster bobbing.

It was a dingy hole, no windows. Eight wooden high-topped desks were lined up on both sides of the entrance like tanks, an invasion of ugly maroon-brown blobs. In the center at the back was the rector’s desk growing a like huge mushroom, scarred through the years, papers piling up, spilling over into the back like uncontrolled mutants. A dusty satin flag hung above the desk, drooping green on yellow, a weak tribute to this whittled down country, a peanut perched so precariously on the earth’s equator.

León entered the room, vibrant, strong, healthy like a new species designed for the future.

How did he happen this way? No one else looked like he did. The villagers were descendants of the ancient Incas, squat, energy-less remnants, yellow with age and wrinkled by time, their vulnerable teeth spent, the few lingering ones brown from chewing sugar cane. Their proud minds were rendered feeble, fermented products of the chicha ritual.

Arturo had perfect white teeth that glistened, fair skin that breathed deeply, and rosy cheeks that got rosier. His volcanic eyes spewed forth unharnessed energy; and his mind was quick, responsive, easily tantalized. He knew he was different. It made him proud. He favored himself like a parent favors a gifted child. But his naive mind would not be shut off from the experience of modern civilization forever.

“Guta moorning, Meess Laurel. Ow are you?

“I’m fine, thanks. And you?”

“I yam well. Thank kyou.”

“Did you bring your book?” He gave me a blank stare, energy clogged up. “Your book,” I pointed to a book.

“Not,” he exploded with undue emphasis, energy flooding once again through vibrant eyes. “Thee buke es en me ouse.”

“Well, that’s all right. We’ll just practice conversation today. Bring your book tomorrow.” The blank stare returned. My English had fallen smoothly and fluently, a unique creation, gifted to us all in countless variations, engaging in sound, effortlessly coordinating mind and body. Quickly I changed gears, “Tomorrow, your book. Tomorrow, book.” I pointed to the book again.

“Yes, Meess,” he smiled teeth glistening, cheeks rosy, “tomorrrow I weel thee buk.” We sat down side by side at the high wooden desks. Anxious to show his skill, León readied himself for conversation like a tuba player getting ready to play the biggest note of his career. “Meess, pleese, I like a shit of paper.” It hit me off guard, the vibrations numbing me. I suppressed a hysterical laugh and took a deep breath.

“Sheet, Arturo, sheet of paper. Sheet, repeat,” I articulated, mesmerizing myself, the perfect teacher, a gramophone record. He said ‘shit’ a few more times and gradually resolved it into sheet. All the while, I felt like a beginning hurdler who has just scaled the first of many hurdles, too high and erratically placed for comfort, realizing belatedly that she would be infinitely happier twiddling her thumbs in the bleachers.

Arturo continued his struggle to express himself. "I yam arteest. I like bary much coulors. Thee peoples here not intend. They much seemples.” I nodded encouragement; but the smile was only surface. I wanted to laugh again, this time at his incongruous gestures and sounds, a ludicrous masquerade like a donkey’s ‘hee haw’ coming from a stallion. It was almost as if he was trying to make me laugh, but I knew he wasn’t, not this proud man.

“All right, Arturo, write these words down on your paper.”

“Sheet of paper,” he smiled pleased that he had learned. I nodded restraining a smile that might easily erupt into a deluge of hysteria. I leaned forward against the desk and watched him as he wrote the words down meticulously, beautifully, with the practiced hand and eye of an artist. His cheeks were rosier, quite a lot rosier.

I wondered if I had asked him to write down a highly charged word. Like yesterday in class, I gave the sentence, “John has a ball, “then asked one of the boys, “How many balls do you have?” That did it! The class broke up, some with muffled hiccups of laughter, others quietly red with embarrassment. I wish I didn’t have to go back into that class.

I leaned forward again to check Arturo ’s vocabulary words. Then I noticed that the desk moved slightly. How could that be? Casually, very casually I glanced down……I was rubbing up against his leg!!! Oh, excuse me,” I fumbled, “I thought you were the desk!” The great kingly one, wounded, vulnerable, didn’t say a word.

I was confused and afraid, an alien, alone, unhappy, misunderstood. A little street urchin wandered in and stood staring at us, huge eyes claiming her gaunt face, oily brown hair, a stringy wig set out of kilter on her head, a rumpled colorless dress, gray with dirt and neglect. Her feet were very dirty, and so were her legs, hands and face. She smelled like stale moldy crackers.

I felt sick. This smelly, dirty place made me sick—nothing human or beautiful around. León glanced at the street urchin, a stray dog to be left unnoticed or shooed away. I spoke to the little girl, my naive mind confronting the poverty of ancient civilizations.

“Hola, linda, cómo estás?” She continued to stare, eyes glassy, distant, uncomprehending. Then she farted, one loud exclamation, and ran away.

I said good-by to León and hurried out into the village, ancient, poor, smelly, crude humanity. I knew I love them. How was I going to live with them?

 

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