Spanish professor Rick Clark lives in Iowa and teaches at an American liberal arts college, but the States are not his first home. When asked about his early life, he describes a landscape of sweeping mountains and peaceful valleys, where the people are friendly and the seasons seem to come full circle each day. This is Quito.
With both his parents serving as missionaries, he was born in the capital of Ecuador, at 9,000 feet above sea level and only a few miles south of the equator. Until graduating from high school, he lived most of life in the so-called “Switzerland of South America,” and grew up speaking both Spanish and English as a part of everyday life. He traveled with his parents to the United States every four years to visit supporting churches and to receive an American education. And when he wasn’t in the U.S., his life was a “completely bilingual experience.”
“My mom and dad had grown up there, so their friends were Ecuadorians,” Clark said. “We just hung around in the culture. As a family, we didn’t care what we spoke. We spoke a lot of Spanglish, and we all understood.”
With Spanish and English as his native languages, Clark has a better understanding of the Ecuadorian culture, and also has many advantages in teaching Spanish at Northwestern.
“Part of my brain thinks like a Hispanic,” Clark said, “and the other part thinks like an American. In teaching, I don’t have to figure out stuff. Most of the time I just have to say it in my head, and I know what the right answer is. Then I have to figure out how to explain it to my students.”
Clark moved to live in the United States for four years while attending Wheaton College, and after struggling with separation from his family and friends, feelings of being foreign in the States and dreams of the mountain hikes of his early life in Ecuador, he has a special understanding of culture shock.
“I long for a lot of things that are part of the Hispanic culture that aren’t a part of American culture,” Clark said. “Especially in terms of business. It always seems like I’m so busy, and then when I go to Spain or to Peru, I’m spending all this time talking with people. There’s always a little bit of ‘uncomfortable-ness’ with living here.”
After the experience of feeling out of place in America, Clark also has special advice for students who are interacting with people of another culture, either here on campus or while abroad.
“Ask them lots of questions, and show genuine interest,” Clark said. “We get so wrapped up in who we are that we forget that they’re missing their country. Ask them about their family, about what food they miss. Focus on them. Just be friendly.”
He also has advice for those who are intimidated by the idea of meeting someone who seems like an outsider.
“There will be things that we can’t do language-wise, but I think we underestimate the power of nonverbal language. I think we also underestimate how much we will grow from meeting someone from another culture. It really is a phenomenal learning experience.”
Clark will visit Ecuador again this summer, and earlier this year he will also travel to Nicaragua on a Spring Service Project. “It’s almost like I need my Hispanic fix,” he said. “I need to have that as a part of who I am.”