A good friend e-mailed and asked: ” What has been the biggest culture shock that you have experienced so far?” and I had to think about that one…
The grand ark in the main plaza of Huancayo.
I have to admit that I first tried to address “culture shock” in terms of trauma and anxiety – and I’ve had my share of struggles! – but really, the biggest “shock” in moving here has been very positive. I would say I’ve been most pleasantly surprised by the wealth of culture and history here. Being in the Central Andes gives me access to the Inca civilization at its core (e.g., one of the main streets through the city was once part of the Inca trail), but I also love the diversity here from Peru’s rich history before and after the Incas and from the country’s geography – the Andes seem to be like a mixing pot as the sierra is flanked by the coast to the west of Peru and the Amazon rainforest to the east. Many of the people here in Huancayo, for example, consider themselves mestizo (of mixed descent). Not to mention all the people who look like gringos (foreigners) to me, but are actually Peruvians descended from the Spanish, and all the Chinese and Japanese looking-people who have also lived here for generations. In fact, Rik, the director of my NGO, is in the Amazon right now visiting a rural community whose members all have blonde hair because their ancestors came from Germany centuries ago!
I’m ashamed to say that if I had done more research on Peru and South America, this culture shock would probably have been much less potent. At the same time, because I’m jumping with a near-blank slate, I’ve noticed that my eyes are open a lot wider, my attitude is fresher, and I’ve been able to connect more with so many people who are excited to teach me about their country (the Huancainos are so friendly!)
The Plaza Constitución is only a couple blocks away from the apartment and I love sitting there, in the centre of the city, seeing people come and go, imagining their stories. And I think of how lucky I am to be here and how my own story is unfolding.
A few nights ago, I lay in bed dripping with sweat in the sweltering heat of my enclosed bedroom – my thermostat said it was 31 degrees. I tossed and turned and tossed and turned and could not sleep. This is very rare for me. I’m usually an excellent sleeper – my body knows to sleep through what it needs to, but I can also be perky as soon as it’s time for me to wake up. I had to wake up at 2am last night and air my room out for an hour. Ironically, that afternoon, there was torrential rain.
The ladies from Tanzania knew how to start the party.
Thomas (affectionately known as “Dr. Peace”) led an insightful half-day workshop on racism the other morning. It’s funny because I was constantly telling others about Vancouver’s multiculturalism when I was in Japan, but the simple fact that Canada is a country of immigrants doesn’t mean that we’re any less segregated or any more tolerant than the next person. Brittany (one of the other interns) commented that she was surprised at some of the blatant discriminatory comments she would hear from some of her friends in Vancouver when she was on the West Coast for an internship. Her friend made a face at her for buying something from the Richmond night market and it’s true that sometimes Caucasians are viewed differently if they spend too much time participating in Vancouver’s Asian culture or with Asians. Our typical language is filled with labels – “chugs,” “FOBs,” “brown,” and it’s common for us to chill with people from our own ethnic circles (my sister vouched for that, especially based on the cultural environment in high school).
It’s also important, though, that I point out what I learned about the difference between racism and discrimination. As Dr. Peace put it, racism is discrimination + power. It’s discriminating against another ethnic group for the purpose of exerting one’s power or superiority over that group. I think both are present in Vancouver.
Maria and I had the chance to meet with Julie, one of Tara’s past interns, a couple days ago who left us with several pointers.
- Expect vicious dogs roaming the streets of Huancayo. If I’m alone, the best way to deal with them is to make like I’m going to pick up a large rock and hope that I don’t actually have to throw it.
- I’ll have to deal with the machismo culture – still not sure what to expect in terms of this.
- Some of the Peruvians in the more rural communities think that foreigners steal children and use their fat to grease railroad tracks. (!!!) Establishing that trust-based relationship will be really important.
The other day, Sophia from Tanzania nonchalantly commented that I seemed to be gaining weight (I have been eating a lot of pastries lately – I’ve gotta take advantage of this buffet!) What’s so great is that fat really is beautiful where she comes from. If only I was going to Africa. =)
I’m going to church today for the first time in years. The ladies from various countries in Africa promised that we would be clapping, singing, and dancing like they did during the Welcome Social night and I’m always up for that!