The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Silly [North] Americans...

Okay people, it’s time you learned a hard truth;

People think you’re weird.

As you know, part of Peace Corps isn’t just working in our host community (Goal 1), it is helping them have a better understanding of US Americans (Goal 2), as well as all of you to have a better understanding of our host country (Goal 3).

Well, I’ve told you about the food, the dancing, the music, the traditions, the awkward and funny (but mostly awkward) situations I’ve found myself in. But, I haven’t talked much about how people react to me and my culture and the things I tell them about back home. And then there are the things I haven’t told them at all, but they believe to be 100% true about the US.

So, I’m going tell you what Peruvians (at least the ones I’ve interacted with) think about the US; misconceptions, things they find bizarre, troubling, and funny, and things that fascinate them.


Some bizarre things people have told me about my own culture and country. 

Everyone in the US is tall with fair skin and hair, and “light eyes” (meaning anything lighter than dark brown). If you do not fit that stereotype, you are a recent immigrant from another country.   
Sorry, I don’t help much with this misconception being as I am tall, white as a ghost, and have hazel eyes. But if they see a picture of one of my friends with dark skin and hair they ask, “Is she Spanish?” Or a friend who is black, “Are they from Africa?” It doesn’t matter that my friends might have ancestors that were some of the first to colonize the US-- if they aren’t typical “gringo” they must be recent immigrants, or first generation.
Nicole, Zack, and I perpetuating stereotypes in our region.
All African Americans are either pro-athletes, rappers, or gangsters.
That is how the majority of African Americans are portrayed in the media.

Everyone in the US has a fridge stocked with beer, all the time.
Thanks a lot, TV.

US Americans eat all of their food out of cans and cardboard boxes.
A little bit of generalizing here, as I know many people who have their own gardens and make a practice of trying to eat fresh foods often. However, in comparison to here, we do eat a lot of dry and canned goods.

US Americans eat a lot of fast food.
Oh, wait, I was talking about misconceptions wasn’t I? J/k. Obviously the same applies for this one as above, but in comparison to here, yes, we do. 

Everyone has been to, or lives near, Houston, New York, New Jersey, and Miami.
Geography isn’t a strong point here. It’s hard for them to imagine just how big the US is, but many of them have distant cousins or relatives who have moved to the aforementioned cities.

The US is cold, and almost always covered in snow.
You could say, we’re like Winterfell or “Beyond the Wall” to some Peruvians (sorry, Game of Thrones reference). Many Peruvians have never seen snow in their life, except for on TV where every Christmas movie has towns covered in snow. Meanwhile, Christmas here is the beginning of summer. We just have more seasons in some states of the US than here. But my home state of Idaho could almost fit that myth.

Standing next to the road to Boundary Creek, where I used to work for the Forest Service. This picture was taken mid-May before joining Peace Corps.


Here’s some info I’ve either passed along which has received a bit of criticism, or things they have heard that they find bizarre.

US Americans don’t often live in the same community as their immediate or extended family.
While it is becoming more common for Peruvian family members to move to different areas for work opportunities, families mostly stay in one community for generations. Everyone is surprised to hear how my brothers live in three separate states and over a day’s worth of travel in distance from one another.

We go on runs for exercise.
What are you running from?

We have no regard for the temperature of our beverages
Cold drinks make you sick. Period.

Lunches are small, often cold, and even sometimes skipped.
Lunch is a big deal here. Everyday lunch is a three-course meal with soup as a starter. A “cold lunch” just doesn’t even sound like a meal to them.

There are homeless people in the US.
Most Peruvians know about the economic crisis that our country is in, but we are still very wealthy in comparison. It is bizarre to them that anyone could live on the streets while living in the US.

We care about age and weight, and what people say about it.
Take this conversation I overheard between my host parents and host sister during dinner:

Host sister: Today my friend Lizbeth asked me how old you guys were and I said, “I dunno, I think 54 and 62. They’re old.”
Host mom: I’m 49 and your father is 52.
HS: Oh, really? You guys look so old, especially dad.

Meanwhile I am listening to this with my mouth gaping open, eyes darting between all three of them waiting for the insult to sink in. And I waited. And my host parents didn’t even bat an eye. My host dad didn't even stop eating to comment.

Finally I said, “That would’ve been considered incredibly offensive in the US. You never tell someone they look old. Same goes for telling someone they're fat.”

“Really?” they said, interested. “Strange.”

Women forsake their family’s name when they marry.
In Latin culture it is common for everyone to have two last names—the mother’s last name and the father’s last name. They find it very strange that a common marriage tradition in the US is for a woman to change her last name to that of her husband's. To them it is forsaking your family name, and also letting your children forsake it as well. Why does everyone have to have the same last name as the husband?

My host dad once told me, “When you get married, don’t change your last name. Your husband can always leave you, but your family never will.”

We don’t all have a quinceañera (or other large traditional celebrations).
While I have Mexican friends who celebrated their 15th birthday with a traditional quinceañera, it isn’t a common celebration in the US as a whole. “Sweet 16” comes nowhere close to the festivities for a quinceañera.

We don’t celebrate the dead.
Every year on the birthday or anniversary of the death of a family member, that person is remembered and celebrated. This continues for decades. Twice I have spent the afternoon in the cemetery eating and drinking with my host family while they sang, shared stories, and sat in prayer next to the tomb of my deceased host-grandfather. The whole day is taken off by all of the family members so that they can attend, and the celebration is moved from the cemetery to a family member’s house. At first it felt a little strange, but I’ve come to look forward to these celebrations. Even years after his death, the gatherings are filled with tears and laughter.

We have so much, yet we are so unhappy.
Clearly, screwed up stuff happens everywhere. Peruvians are by no means saying we as a society are more screwed up than they are. But one thing that some Peruvians can’t wrap their heads around is how unhappy we are as a society. We have some of the best technology in the world, access to clean water and food, decent public education, more materialistic goods than we know what to do with, and yet all they hear about us on the news is how we’re on anti-depressants, constantly at war, have high suicide rates (we rank 38 out of 107 countries—Peru 95), committing hate crimes against people of different races and religions, and people are busting into schools, churches, businesses, and movie theaters and shooting off a couple rounds into crowds of innocent people.

It’s a complicated subject to breach, but I’ll say that just because Peru is a 3rd world country doesn’t mean they are unhappy. But they sure wonder why the country in world power is.

We don’t eat guinea pigs.
They just laugh and laugh and laugh when I tell them guinea pigs are cherished pets in the US.

It goes both ways

Misconceptions and misunderstandings abound when it comes to inter-cultural exchange, especially when people have had limited exposure to that culture before. How many of you thought that because I’m in South America I eat spicy food, people drive low-riders, and everyone is dreaming of crossing the border into the US? On the other hand, I can’t even begin to tell you how many Peruvians have assumed I own a smart phone, lived in New York, and personally know Justin Bieber.

Trying to iron out misconceptions and give people a better idea of the US is all part of the job. Some days, with how many roadblocks prevent me from working, it is the only part of my job I can say I’ve done for the day. So, I’m trying my best down here. I only hope I’m somewhat helping on the other end and giving you a better understanding of my part of Peru. Because even when I joke around, or am frustrated with certain aspects of the culture, I love it here. There is so much about Peru I could never convey. Peru is a beautiful place I have come to care about very much, and I will never forget the kindness and acceptance the people here have shown me. Yeah, Peruvians think you’re weird, but they also think you’re lucky and are fascinated by you. It's a hard job, being the only white girl in town and the first US American many of them have ever met and been friends with. I’m trying to be an “ambassador” of our country and let them see that while I'm American, I am not everything they think our country is. At the same time, I'm trying to tell all of you back home about a country and culture that has taken me in as family and a friend and hope that I can come even close to giving a proper portrayal. 

So friends and family, laugh at yourself a little. People think you do crazy stuff, and you kinda do.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Steps Forward

If you were to ask me what one of the biggest problems in my community in Peru is, I would say the lack of communication and education on safe sex. Within my first three months in site, three teenage girls had to drop out of the high school due to being pregnant; they we all 16 and younger. In this last school year, we’ve lost two more girls to pregnancy, ages 15.

My host mom accompanied me to a Peace Corps training in March to work on project design and management, and she immediately agreed the biggest project we needed to work on is teen pregnancy prevention. It is a very personal issue for her, as her own daughter had to drop out of college at 19 when she became pregnant.

Since then my host mom, other community counterparts, and I have been working on projects in my site that work towards the goal of HIV/Aids and adolescent pregnancy prevention. Part of that is having an “Escuela para Padres” (school for parents) to help them develop better communication with their teens, especially concerning delicate subjects. The other part is having a health promoters group.

The health promoters group, or Pasos Adelante (Steps Forward), is a Peace Corps Peru developed program that trains teens in the high school to be peer health educators. I’m working side-by-side with the local obstetrician to capacitate a group of teenagers (all of whom applied to join the group) with the Pasos Adelante manual, a 12-session program that goes over: good decision making practices, puberty, gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy, STI’s, HIV/Aids, looking for an ideal partner, abstinence, condom use, and drug and alcohol abuse. After they are done with the 12 sessions, they will move on to do sex-ed presentations in their own classrooms with their classmates. We will also train the teachers on sex education, and discuss this more in depth with the Escuela para Padres

The Pasos Adelante group is by far one of my best projects, as it is directly addressing a need of my community, the kids love it (I mean, we’re talking about sex. All the time), and I have found one of the best counterparts I could ever ask for to do the project with me. There is so much disinformation about sex out there that many teens believe in, as well as unsafe practices that put them at risk (ie: a common rite of passage for a teenage boy to “become a man” is to be taken to a brothel to lose his virginity to a prostitute). The obstetrician, Lupe, is the most reliable person I have worked with in my community. She is motivated, helps in all the session planning, and is just a nice person to be around in general. I am really enjoying working with her.
Lupe, talking about reproductive organs
Talking about "what we know" of the opposite sex. Some of the boys were too embarrassed to draw body parts, so their girl's reproductive organs are being modest.

Playing the game of "the sinking boat" and deciding whose life is more valuable to save, and who can be left to die. TRICK QUESTION! Everyone's life has value!

There have been some roadblocks with the group that have delayed the progress of the program. It started with a bang and was included as part of the school schedule with 25 participants, but then the teachers went on a month long strike in July and it was impossible to round up the kids to do any sessions. Lupe and I decided to wait until school was back in to continue, but when it recommenced the director wouldn’t allow us to work within the school anymore. Since then we have finally started having group outside of school, but we have lost about half of our members. A second teachers’ strike has recently begun, but this time Lupe and I were prepared and set up sessions during the week while the kids are out of class.

Our first day of meeting during the teachers’ strike only three kids showed up. Three. So, Lupe, the three girls, and I walked all around town, door to door, finding the kids that were supposed to be at the meeting. Two hours of walking around. Many of them were in their pajamas, some of them had left their house as early as 4 am to work in the fields, and others just forgot. It is difficult to have the group outside of school because many teens are needed at home to help with house chores and working to bring money in for the household. The attendance of girls in my group has drastically lowered, as they are the ones kept home to cook. It is very frustrating, and can be a big source of anger and resentment for me towards the director who has stopped allowing us to work within school hours. But, we have 13 who are still coming, and that is better than none, so I’m hoping those same 13 can continue to come and finish the program so that we can start doing presentations for the entire school.

When my host mom and I were developing this project, she often became overwhelmed and teary eyed, feeling the weight of the world sitting on her shoulders. “There is just no way we can stop them all from making bad decisions,” she fretted as the magnitude of what we were up against came down on her. 

It was really hard to see her so upset and all I could say was, “You’re right, there is no way. All we can do is hope we can help a few, and if we can do that, we’ve achieved part of our goal.”

Funny how words said in a moment of consoling another are the ones I often have to repeat to myself. So, even while the schools are shut down and other things aren’t working out, as long as I get some information to these 13 kids, I am happy.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Asi es

Down the street from my house. Pretty typical sight on any day of the week.
In my first months in site a few fellow volunteers were passing around a link to a blog called, “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like,” which both pinpointed and poked fun at some common traits of the aforementioned.

One of the posts was titled, “#44 Blogging for the folks back home,” where it discussed all the usual posts and subjects typical in a blog of a person volunteering in a developing country. The similarities between what they say is “typical” and my own blog are uncanny, and thus quite embarrassing. (For example: “Your blog is where you rail against the gender discrimination you find around you.” Have you read my post Machismo?)

After it lists endless stories you are bound to tell (and I’ve already told) it says:

“Over time, your blog will change in tone, or perhaps you’ll stop blogging for the folks back home altogether, as culture shock ebbs and you go about your normal business and things don’t stand out as strange anymore.”

Life in Peru has become just that—life. I have become so used to everyday things that I have a hard time thinking of stuff to write about.

I would never stop blogging about my time down here in Peru because that’s not who I am. A writer always finds something to write about. But as we are in the midst of September and I haven’t posted a blog yet I keep wondering, “What do I say?”

I’ve considered writing more in depth about what I’m going through on a personal level aside from projects and anecdotes, but something about that seems too, well...boring.

And let's be honest here, when life starts to feel comfortable and normal, what is it if not a little boring?

I am somewhat grateful for that, because I know it won't last long. Over one year in and I have less than one year left in service. In the midst of the biggest adventure I’ve ever been on I am able to look back at how much I’ve grown but still the future looms ahead, larger yet. I am more or less comfortable with where I stand in my community and with my work, yet still have anxiety and doubts.

Sometimes (or a lot of times) I worry about my time left.

Will I achieve everything I want to? And what should my focus of achievement be? Numbers and figures, or relationships and memorable moments?

How many more girls will get pregnant and have to quit high school before the sex-ed program runs its course? Will the parents in my “escuela para padres” ever actually improve their communication with their teens?

Will my English students ever remember how to respond when I say, “Hi, how are you?”

Will my host family ever stop giving me the best cut of meat or the largest plate of food, an offering typically given to guests?

A lot of times I worry about going back home.

I have anxiety about social situations with people I will not have seen in over two years. About how the first words out of my mouth for a long time will be, “One time, in Peru…” and everyone’s eyes will glaze over.

I have anxiety about speaking Spanglish or Spanish on accident and how people won’t understand or might even think I’m pretentious for using a 2nd language in everyday conversation. I also worry about not speaking Spanish and forgetting it.

I worry about jobs. About transitioning into the fast and furious lifestyle American’s have and not being able to catch up.

I worry about technology and the advancements I’ve missed out on.

I know the only people who will truly empathize will be spread out all over the USA as we return to our homes, once living “close” in our country of service.

But, I still have 11 months left. 11 months that maybe look like a lot but I know will be gone in a blink of an eye.

So in the meantime, I’m here living life in Peru. I’m working and living in a community in which I was once a stranger and now am an honorary member. And I’m still writing, but I guess I need to be more creative, or at least force myself into more uncomfortable situations to have more to write about.

Friday, September 7, 2012


My two-year-old host niece is not always the sweetest of children. On any given day she can be the spawn of Satan.

But, today she was just what I needed.