University of Wisconsin–Madison

On Being a 21-year-old American in Lima

A birthday away from home

The week leading up to my birthday I was filled with mixed feelings. I had my first control de lectura which is basically like a quiz, and didn’t do so well. It turns out I did have to read all of the readings up to a certain point, even if we didn’t cover them in class. On the flip side, we spent two classes talking about my new favorite author, Julio Cortazar, and his strange short stories.

My Spanish is coming along. It’s amazing how I can understand nearly everything one person says and less than half for another person. I still get excited when I’m spoken to directly by a native Spanish speaker and successfully answer in an acceptable amount of time. All my gringo friends have mixed feelings about how we’re treated when it comes to speaking Spanish. I’ve rarely had a conversation when someone doesn’t ask immediately: “so where are you from?” If I have to ask someone to repeat something, they’ll usually just switch over to English. I’ll stubbornly keep trying out my Spanish most of the time, unless the situation is urgent. All the Americans are tempted to say they’re European, because we all know the allure that being European has— most of the kids from Germany or France are basically fluent in Spanish, among a couple other languages. Being a native English speaker certainly has its benefits, but I wish our educational system prepared us a bit more to be world citizens. It’s easy to revert to English when this is the language many seem to want to learn and practice on native speakers.

For my birthday we first went out for sushi, then we went to a place called La Emolienteria. I went up to the bar to order and the man behind said something, but unfortunately my only clue that he was even speaking was his moving mouth and eye contact. I asked him to repeat, in Spanish, and he rolled his eyes.

“Do you speak English?”

Reluctantly, I nodded.

“Where are you from?” he yelled.

“Los Estados Unidos,” I yelled back.

He frowned slightly and said, “Well, you’re in Peru, you should learn to speak Spanish.” My friend and I looked at each other uncomfortably, and I felt anger flare up. It was unfair in many ways. Here we were, in Miraflores, the tourist district, on my birthday, in a place where I could hardly hear who I was with, and I was getting a lesson in shame.

Being from the United States, I have a complex mix of pride and shame for what I represent. Most of the time I feel well received, but the thing about the US is that everyone thinks they know what goes on there. Everyone knows the president of the United States, everyone knows the wars we’re involved in, everyone knows about the school shootings and political wars. I am divided on many issues in our systems and government, but when I am confronted while traveling about US issues I feel a strong and unexpected need to defend my country for whatever it is, even if I might want to bash the same issue were I speaking to a fellow American.

For all the less than positive assumptions people I meet have about America, and for all the negative interactions that occur, I have to give credit to the average successful conversations I have every day. I think I can attribute the success of ALL of my weekend trips to one or two helpful Peruvians pointing us to the right bus or corner. Often people are curious about my culture and willing to stumble through my awkward phrasing and slow responses in order to swap opinions.

After the unfortunate experience at La Emolienteria, we met up with more new friends and went to a salsa club to practice our skills. I can’t say we did much, but nevertheless it was fun, and a learning experience as well. Perhaps if I go to enough salsa clubs I’ll just absorb the technique? Our group stayed off to the side a little bit, feeling a little mediocre next to these couples. The energy at salsa clubs in Lima is contagious. Everyone seems to be completely immersed in the music and refreshingly not self-conscious (though they have no need to be, everyone looked really good!).

For my birthday day, which was a Sunday, I woke up and took a long walk down the Malecon, a trail leading from Magdalena to Miraflores, passing by numerous parks bordering the endless ocean. It wasn’t sunny, but at least it was warm. There was a park dedicated to the woman who studied the Nazca lines, with flowers in the shape of these famous archeological lines, tennis courts, a skate park, and all types of people outside enjoying their day off. I felt very peaceful and content.

I came back on the bus and sat down to lunch with the family. Maria made one of my favorite dishes, Papa a la Huancaina, wine, salad, rice, and chicken. For dessert we had a chocolate cake over a couple hours of conversation.

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Though memories from home and Madison come in pretty strong some days, I didn’t miss everyone too much. I didn’t feel that anything was missing. I had a peaceful feeling that before I know it I’ll be back home, thinking about Peru in the way I think about all my other favorite places. And until then I have so much to experience!