My first really definable confrontation with the cultural differences between Peru and the U.S. came in the form of a birthday party. My host Dad’s birthday party, that is. I live with one other student from my volunteer group, Becca, and we were both very excited to see what this party would be like since all of the adults were making such a big deal about it. And that was the first thing- though it varies from family to family, in my experience, as people get older in the U.S., the excitement over birthdays and the amount of celebration that comes with them decreases. So Becca and I were expecting to meet some new people, chat, and maybe listen to some music while we got to know the family better. And while that is certainly part of what happened, we also ended up staying up until 4:30am with all of the adults, dancing and watching them drink themselves silly. It was so unexpected! But so much fun. Since then we’ve been to a few other birthday parties for other family members, and they all follow the same format- drinking, chatting, drinking, snacking, drinking, dinner, drinking, dancing, and drinking. It’s a little hard for me because part of the protocol of these parties is to always have a drink in your hand, and if you don’t, you’re ordered to go and get one. As someone who doesn’t drink, it’s a little awkward for me at times, but eventually people forget and we just have a lot of fun.
Among the many other differences that I’ve noticed during my time here, another that really stands out is affection. There’s so much more of it here. Even just the typical Peruvian greeting between people crosses boundaries that we tend to keep intact in the U.S., except between people who share an intimate relationship (family, significant other, etc…). What is the typical Peruvian greeting? A half-hug and kiss on the cheek between women and men and women, but it’s left at a simple handshake between men. It took awhile to get used to in the beginning, remembering that I had to kiss people I had only just met on the cheek, but now it’s like a reflex. Also, the affection that my host-brother, who is 14, shows for his mother is incredible. From the perspective of American culture it’s actually kind of weird- I’m not using that word to pass judgment, simply to point out that in the U.S. , 14 year old boys (or girls) tend to want nothing to do with their parents, and I’ve never seen anything like the physical affection between Oscar and his mother. In all honesty, in the beginning it made me slightly uncomfortable because I didn’t know what to do, or where to look, or how to react to it. Which is telling- my culture dictates that I begin individualizing from my parents right around that age, but here, where kids live with their parents sometimes far into adulthood, that process doesn’t have to begin so early.
There was one other moment the other week when I was eating desert at the dinner table, and my host mother brought me a cup of coffee and a small spoon with it, so that I could add some sugar to it. After she set it down at the table, she gasped and told me that I had three spoons (which I did- there had been one set out at the beginning of dinner that I didn’t use, one I was using to eat my dessert, and the one she brought me), which meant that I would marry 3 times, and the final time would be with an old, old man. Of course she was laughing a little as she said this- it was more of a joke than anything- but then she continued to tell me about how Peruvians, or Cusqueñans in particular, have a lot of supersticions and beliefs just like that one. For example, a single woman shouldn’t sit at the corner of a table, or she’ll never get married. There are others she told me, but I can’t remember them anymore.
But all in all, I haven’t had much of a problem adjusting to the norms, traditions, and lifestyle here. In fact, I know that I’m going to miss it a lot when I get home. But I try not to think about that yet.
Caitlin Petersen is studying abroad in Cusco, Peru, with ProWorld.