What a Tater​ Tot​ Me

By Arlyss Herzig

I love french fries and chips and potato wedges and all things potato in general. Who doesn’t? But, we all have our limits. You’re probably thinking: “There’s no such thing as too many potatoes!” I, too, was once naive and full of potato-filled happiness, but then I spent almost six months in Ecuador.

Am I being dramatic? Maybe. But am I being serious? Yes.

I normally adapt to most things going on around me and just go along with what’s happening. This happens largely because I feel uncomfortable saying no or changing plans people already had. I feel guilty causing an inconvenience. For these reasons, I have always eaten everything my host family gives me, as long as it isn’t meat. I’m vegetarian, which means I end up eating a lot of rice and potatoes. There’s not always a lot of variety beyond that, but I eat what’s on my plate, whether I like it or not.

That was, at least, until the fateful day. I came down for breakfast, still being in a sleepy daze, to find just a plain, boiled potato on a plate. While not an uncommon occurrence here, by this time in the year another potato was not a welcoming sight for me. Nothing in me wanted to eat this unflavorful potato, but being that I didn’t want to seem ungracious, I took a bite. It had the same dull taste I had tried time and time again. I could not get myself to eat all of it. With half the potato eaten, I thanked my family for breakfast, but told them I didn’t want to eat more of the potato. I had hit my limit, not just of potatoes, but also of not standing up for myself, however trivial the situation.

A typical Ecuadorian dinner

Later that day as I was laying in bed, my host grandma called me downstairs saying we were going for lunch at a cousin’s house. We arrived and sat down to a lunch of crabs and crab soup. I’ve explained many times that I cannot eat that food as I am vegetarian, but I still was greeted with a chorus of “Are you sure you don’t want to try just a little?” and “When are you going to learn to eat meat?”

In these situations I usually just politely say I’m not hungry and avoid eating altogether. There are much more limited vegetarian options here, and families are much more hesitant to let the children cook, so I eat what I’m given. But that day, something was different. I wanted to be able to eat with the family and didn’t want to passively sit at the meal. I was still fed up with the potato from the morning, so when I was served the soup, I finally found the courage to to say something. “Thank you so much, but I can’t eat this.” It sounds simple, but it took a good five or ten minutes of mental build-up for me to get there.

And then the most amazing thing happened: nobody cared. It wasn’t a big deal. They just said okay, took away the soup, and brought me some rice with a fried egg and vegetables. Everything went on as normal. The world didn’t stop spinning, no one was offended, and the conversation didn’t come to a sudden, stunned halt. I felt relieved (and a lot less hungry).

Situations of me not feeling comfortable enough to say “no” are not uncommon. The week before, the second grade teacher at the school where I’m working had asked me to cover her class the following Wednesday afternoon because she couldn’t be there for the first couple of hours. I’m not qualified to teach math and reading and writing in Spanish. On top of that, it’s extremely stressful to be in a class of 30 six-year-olds and it’s also not part of the program; I’m not supposed to be in classrooms without other teachers. I already knew that I had a busy afternoon scheduled for that day, with my Tufts class, language exchange (to practice Spanish), and a check-in with Jessye (the Tufts 1+4 Program Administrator), but I didn’t want to let the teacher down, so I said I would be there.

However, after my weekend experience of saying no, I felt empowered. I did not want to miss my three scheduled events, and much more so I could not handle teaching a second grade class. After two days of trying to tell the teacher I couldn’t make it, but backing out each time for lack of courage, I built up the confidence to timidly tell her how sorry I was that I couldn’t make it.

And then, once again, the amazing thing happened: it was no big deal. She just told me that’s fine and to have a good day. That was all. The teacher wasn’t upset or disappointed. She understood that I’m just a volunteer and I have other things going on in my life here in Cuenca.

I had finally learned to say “no, thank you.” It didn’t matter how timidly or awkwardly I had done it. I had done it. I cannot tell you how proud I am of myself. I even received a few somewhat-proud “it’s about time” and sarcastic “congratulations” remarks from my parents and friends.