Overall, I would say that the difference between life in Perú and life in the United States is not terribly huge. Especially if we are talking about Lima, which is a very modern city with a similar, busy lifestyle that the US is known for. However, I live in the sierras of Ancash and there have been some cultural differentiators that have led me to re-learn a little bit of how to function day to day without judgmental glances. Here is my top 10 list of culturally acceptable things to do in the sierras of Perú that you would likely never see where I grew up in the United States:
- Picking your nose while talking to your boss, friend, family member, ANYONE
When I moved to Chacas, I started noticing a trend that I would be talking to someone and they would be staring at me with their index finger comfortably tucked inside of a nostril. As I looked around more, I saw that this did not just happen when people were talking to me, but nose picking was a widely realized habit. Eventually, I got used to it and, while I haven’t gotten to the point where I feel comfortable picking MY nose, it no longer makes me feel like I need to look away to give them some privacy to pick away.
- Everyone at the party sharing one glass
The drinking circle. The infamous drinking circle. The drinking circle is where everyone at the party stands in a circle and passes around one glass and one beer. The men pour themselves about half of a glass, drink it, throw the foam on the ground, and pass the glass to the next person. If the next person is a woman, the man pours the woman a small sip, she drinks it, throws the foam on the ground, and the glass is passed to the next person. The men get to serve themselves, while the women are served…
When I came to Perú, I refused to participate in this custom of the drinking circle because I saw it as completely unsanitary (I’ve always been a little bit of a germaphobe). Then, one day, a socio explained to me the custom of the circle and it helped me to understand culturally this tradition. The one glass is a symbol of equality as everyone is invited to participate and share. Throwing the foam on the ground is an offering to Mother Earth so that we always remain connected to her. If someone uses their own glass, it is considered rude because you are not considering yourself as equal to the rest of the group.
- Throwing Rocks or Feeding poison to a neighbor’s pesky dog
Unfortunately, this is something I have witnessed a number of times. My host family’s dog has been poisoned 3 times and lived to tell about it…she is invincible. However, I have seen several other dogs that have not had the same stroke of luck. What blows my mind still, is that this is an accepted and widely known fact that this happens. Dogs receive no training, yet are expected to behave perfectly and if they don’t, it is understood that rocks can be thrown at them and poison can be given to them. On one hand, I can understand that when dogs get into a person’s guinea pigs or chickens, that is threatening the livelihood of a family, and that is typically the motivation of giving the poison. However, this is one culturally acceptable act that I personally struggle with. I want to note that this does not make them bad people in my town. It is just part of a culture that is different from our own in the US because animals are seen as animals here- they are not considered part of the family. We have to work not to judge people as good or bad based off of cultural differences.
- Naming Someone by their Physical Attributes
In Chacas, I now turn around whenever I hear someone yell “Gringa!” Sometimes I try to explain that I do not like being called “Gringa” and prefer Caron, but the next time I see them, I’m Gringa again, so I’ve surrendered in this battle. Whether it’s “Chino” for anyone that has eyes that resemble an Asian decent (even Peruvians), “Gordita” for someone who is heavy, “Flaca” for someone who is thin, or “Moreno” for someone with dark skin, Peruvians LOVE nicknames that are considered offensive in the US. I’m pretty sure it is a way of getting out of knowing people’s ACTUAL names, but this one is tough to get used to and also very tough to explain to a Peruvian.
5. Saying yes when you really mean no
Lying is a harsh way to describe this concept, but in Perú, it is far better to accept an invitation without the intention of going than to disrespect someone by saying no. Many days, I am invited to participate in drinking circles by local men. At first, I would say no and then be bombarded with pressure to stay and enjoy in the “water of life” with new friends. I quickly realized that I could say “yes, but first I have to run to a meeting” and then just never go back. This is 100% acceptable in Perú. If you say “no”, they will think you are rude. If you say “yes”, and then never show up, they will think something came up and they will not take it personally. Peruvians do this regularly, so at times it is hard to know who is actually going to show up to my meetings. For instance, I had 70 students tell me they were coming to a class I was teaching, and in reality 8 showed up.
- Calling someone repeatedly until they pick up the phone…even if that means 20 times in a row
In the U.S., we recognize that when we call someone and they do not answer, they are likely unavailable but will call back when they have time. This is not how it functions here. If you call one time, and someone doesn’t answer, then you call again. And again. And again. If someone just sees one missed call, then the call probably isn’t very important and they do not need to call back. So, the more calls, the more important the call is. It makes me feel super awkward to continually call someone, but I’ve learned that’s how it goes.
7. Showing up to a meeting 30 minutes late
Hora Peruana is real, y’all. My first meeting at the Municipality was scheduled for 5 PM. At 5:10 PM I started going around to offices and saying that I was waiting on them to get started and the response I got 9 times out of 10 was “Hora Peruana.” Now, if I want a 5 PM meeting, I say the meeting is at 4:30 PM so that we can start on time.
- Sharing every single snack you have, no matter how big or how small
Peruvians are sharers. If one person in the office wants a snack, then they will buy enough crackers for everyone in the office to have some. If I peel a mandarin, I now know it is expected for me to share with everyone around me. Also, it is rude to NOT accept food. So it is rude for me to not offer food, and it is rude for someone not to accept the food offered to him or her. So, moral of the story is bring enough food to share with everyone or don’t bring any food at all.
- Paying the local bodega the next time you have money
My community has a lot of trust in each other and relationships are priority over money and business. I have been in stores where I don’t have enough money for something, and the owner will just tell me to bring money when I have it. This makes me completely uncomfortable, but it is a common practice. I work in my host mom’s bodega when she is running errands elsewhere, and there are pages and pages and pages of IOU’s for local community members. It drives me crazy because some people have hundreds of soles of unpaid bills, and to me this is a terrible business practice, but it is not something that I can change because it is part of the culture.
- Throwing away used toilet paper rather than flushing it
One of the more difficult adjustments for me was throwing used toilet paper away rather than flushing it, like I have for the past 27 years. Perú does not have a piping system that supports flushing toilet paper, so here, all toilet paper has to be thrown in the trash. This also weirded me out at first, but after 6 months is second nature. I’m sure when I go back to the United States it will be a difficult adjustment to start flushing it again.
The Peruvian culture is full of beautiful, interesting, sometimes confusing customs that make this country unique, special, and at times difficult for me. I came on this Peace Corps journey expecting to learn a lot about myself when faced with unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations, and that is exactly what I get to do each and every day.