Visiting the Motherland

I hadn’t stepped foot in the US for almost three years, and I was not sure what to expect. A lot had changed since I left. I felt very lucky to even be entering the US; as I stood in the customs line at 3am with my US passport, I couldn’t help thinking about the unfortunate situation for refugees seeking asylum, those people trying to escape dangerous living situations in their homeland or inflation where they can’t even buy the basics to live.

I was also incredibly thirsty but annoyed at the thought that I would need to buy overpriced (and Earth un-friendly) bottled water to quench my thirst.  And then I saw something magical…

A public water fountain with potable water! Something I hadn’t seen in 3 years!!!

“Welcome to the US! Let me satisfy your thirst! Don’t you miss the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and well-monitored public water systems?” The public water fountain said to me. (Don’t judge, I had just gotten off a red-eye flight; I might have been a little delirious).

“Oh yes I do! You have no idea!!” I responded, as a WASH volunteer that has spent the last 3 years living in a place where I have to boil water before drinking it and where I spend all my days trying so hard to figure out how to make rural water systems just come close to providing potable water.

My honeymoon phase of being back in the US was soon brought down to Earth when I learned that the bus from the Baltimore airport to the city (DC) had actually decreased its frequency of service, (a real disappointment after having experienced such great public transportation in Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador).

But I was quickly enamored again with my homeland after being able to get around the city (Washington, DC) on a bike share, (and later learning about the car-share service Turo).

My amazement escalated as I was introduced to tide pods (dissolvable and non-toxic polyvinyl alcohol film was really intriguing for this chemical engineer), but then my fascination was interrupted as I learned of the trend of eating tide pods. (Facepalm.)

Eating delicious vegetarian plates of locally-grown food at my favorite restaurants and seeing wonderful friends and family made me feel right at home, and again very pleased by and proud of my homeland…

Until… I realized that people were actually buying and eating jellybeans that taste like vomit and rotten eggs.

Between tide pods and rotten fish, I was thinking I might have avoided great disaster by staying out of the country for the last three years…(Or maybe my country really needed me these last three years?)

I was surprised that in my short stay in the suburbs of Denver, I found two different opportunities to keep my language skills sharp, talking with native Mexican-speakers. (Yes, that is a reference to the misleadingly-named entertainment channel Fox “News”.)

 

Tongue-in-cheek aside, I really surprised at how cheap I felt during my visit. Having lived on a tight budget, pinching my centavos for the last three years, I suddenly felt that while visiting friends and family, they (and me, prior to Peace Corps service) lived very comfortable lives of abundance, spending relatively freely, compared to how I (and those around me) have been living for the last three years.

This ability to pay for certain things is something I think we don’t even notice, especially if all the people around us have a similar ability to pay for certain things. It also really stood out to me how this then leads to certain expectations of neighbors and others around us to also pay for certain things, almost as an obligation. An obvious example is the HOA where everyone has to make sure their house and yard look a certain way (which implies a certain investment).

When I went out to eat, I had serious sticker shock with prices of food, and really had to make an effort to change my penny-pinching mindset, and it made me realize why it would be hard for people of different economic situations to be friends – it’s a real social barrier and cause of anxiety if you can’t afford the same social activities of your friends or family.

While I was in the US, busy being amazed by how things had changed since I had been gone, and how things felt different since I had been living in a different context for a few years, meanwhile, back in Oxapampa, the region was experiencing rains like never before – and landslides and floods like never before.

I received photos of entire roads and bridges completely wiped out. A friend returning to Oxapampa from Lima had to walk a total of seven hours to cross the places where roads had been wiped out to be able to arrive home. I wondered if I would be able to get back and was thankful that I still had a few weeks before I was due home.

The government of Peru has always been amazingly good at cleaning up the road after a landslide within the same day, so that traffic can pass. But they had not had a disaster of this scale before. However, they impressed me and had it the bridge repaired and the road to a passable state within a few weeks, and I was able to arrive home without any problems, and in record time.

I also learned that in my district alone, 4 different water capture points were destroyed because of landslides, leaving communities without water for a few days. Luckily, the government has policies and plans in place for emergencies and are often good at improvising. The local government (the team that I work with) was able to locate new, temporary water sources for the communities to have running water, in the interim. And upon my return, I learned they are able to access emergency funds to rebuild those affected sites.

While I was in Colorado, I had hoped to hike a 14-er to complement my hiking adventures in the Andes mountains of Peru (which I’ll be sharing in blog post coming soon), but ironically, Colorado was having an unusually high incidence of avalanches, with their own stories of blocked roads. Turns out both of my “homes”, the US and Peru, are being affected by climate change, (which isn’t a real thing if you have a lot of money and investments in petroleum and think that having a lot of money can save you from anything.)

It’s not easy living in two different cultures, two different worlds, two different languages, having a home and also not having a home in two different countries. But it is an incredible and enriching experience, and I feel wealthier than I ever have, (despite what my bank account may say), thanks to the amazing people I have in my life, the beauty that surrounds me, memories I carry, and the wonderful experiences and opportunities that have shaped who I am. And despite vomit jelly beans and non-potable water, I love both of these places and I am inspired by and thankful for of all the people in both cultures that have taught me so much and made me who I am today.

 

*** Geek-out reflection on the scale of the disasters in the region where I live in Peru…

There are usually a complex variety of forces that come together that make disasters worse or not as bad as they could have been. In this case, deforestation is the biggest human controlled factor that led to the extreme scale of landslides in our region. Unfortunately, the ecosystem service provided by forests of holding the soil together does not have monetary value for the landowners in this global economy, but planting food for our growing population does bring income to someone trying to feed their family.

There is a clear need for an economic incentive sufficient to make it worth it to land owners to preserve key areas. The good news is that there are organizations working on reforestation and forest protection in the area. A local non-profit that I work with, Instituto del Bien Común, is working to provide small incentives and free native trees to property owners who sign agreements with the local government to preserve the forests on their land or to reforest on their land. Additionally, the national forest agency recently awarded a grant to the local government to do reforestation efforts in the zone. Unfortunately, the efforts are not enough to make a significant enough impact to prevent the escalating rates of deforestation, but we can only hope that the funding and programs grow and become more effective so they can make it more economically viable to conserve the forests.

Wear Your Tacos

If you are an American familiar with Tex Mex food, I would like to share a few vocabulary tips for eating in Peru…

  1. Tortilla

In the US, Mexico, and some Central American countries…

A tortilla is a flat, round, flour or corn-based “masa”, great for wrapping delicious food to make tacos or burritos. (More on tacos and burritos in a minute.)

In Peru…

 

Also flat and round, but a tortilla is an omelet, usually made with vegetables like spinach, red peppers and sometimes even broccoli if you’re lucky!

 

2. Tacos

In the US, Mexico, and some Central American countries…

Tacos are a dish made from a tortilla, filled with yummy things like beans, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, and meat if you’re into that.

In Peru…

 

…you put tacos on your feet when you’re going out, going to work, (or anytime really because I feel like lots of people dress up to look good all the time here). So, in case you didn’t catch that, taco are high heels.

 

3. Burrito

In the US, Mexico, and some Central American countries…

A burrito is like a taco, but completely wrapped up in a big tortilla, and one of my favorite foods.

In Peru…

The first thing someone here thinks of when you say “burrito”, is small donkey.

Burritos, and Tex-Mex food in general, are only recently becoming a thing here, and really only in Lima (though two days ago in Huancayo we had delicious burritos at a new taco restaurant!)

 4. Chalupa

In the Texas (or at least in my family)…

A chalupa is a quickly-ready dinner: a flat and round corn-based hard shell with beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato (and avocado if you’re lucky) on top.

In Peru…

 

I’ve only heard this out in the rural areas, but a chalupa could be a skiff or canoe, or if you are on a farm where the crops are planted on a steep hill or mountain, a chalupa is a wooden ladder that is used to drag the harvest from high up in the hills, down to the main road.

 

5. Nachos

In the US, a quick snack or meal made by melting cheese over tortilla chips, often with refried beans or ground beef, topped with lettuce and tomato, and maybe olives and sour cream, if you’re into that.

In Peru…

Nacho is a guy’s name, well a common nickname really. (Thank you Nacho for being the photo example.)

6. Tuna

Ok, this a little different because it’s just a translation thing, but since I ate a tuna popsicle yesterday, I thought I would share:

Tuna in English is this very cool fish…

In Peru…

 

 

 

 

It’s that fruit that grows on cactus, and if you have enough patience to peel the skin that has hundreds of tiny spines, and deal with the million seeds inside, it’s a delicious fruit!

A Sharper Image

They say the best way to learn another language is immersion…go live in a society where no one speaks your first language. Yes, I can attest that it is as exciting, terrifying, difficult, and crazy as it sounds. And for me, it was actually a much longer process than I expected to really become fluent. Overall, language has been the most challenging, frustrating, and enlightening part of my job.

Take this example of when I had been in my new home for just 3 months, living in Peru for a total of 6 months:

Six months in Castellano: A 5-year-old professional

First of all, trying to be a professional in a language that I’ve been speaking only for about 6 months is ridiculous. I can’t think of a better word because it is a mix of hilarious, frustrating, challenging, exciting, and…just ridiculous. I know I have good ideas to share, but when I share them I sound like a 7-year-old. And half the time I don’t understand what other people are saying so I have this really weird look on my face because I’m concentrating so hard to try to understand what they are saying. They are probably thinking “what’s wrong with her?”, but they actually say, “She doesn’t understand what I just said.” And the funny thing is that I do understand that part. And usually I understand the topic, but can’t pick up the details.  

It’s a really weird world to live in. A little bit frustrating when I’m trying to gain respect as a professional and when I really want to be a part of the team and help out but have to ask people to repeat themselves when they are already pretty busy and pressed for time. But people are typically pretty awesome at being patient, speaking slowly, and explaining things. And it’s really cool when I am able to share knowledge and help solve problems, and have more fluid conversations with people. It is definitely worth it (“vale la pena”).

If you wear glasses or contacts, maybe you have experienced that moment when you put on a pair of glasses with the correct prescription and suddenly the world is so much clearer! Without your glasses (or the right prescription), you were living fine, getting around, but with the right glasses…wow! A whole new world! A sharper image! Fine edges, more brilliant colors, more detail! The world suddenly seems so much richer!

“I am speaking and living in my second language, and sometimes it feels a little bit like a handicap, something that impedes my ability to understand and communicate with people at the same level that the average person communicates with others.”

Every few months I have that experience, not with my vision, but with language. As my vocabulary grows, I begin to understand the world around me on a deeper level…even still at 2.5 years living here. It’s amazing how the dinner table conversations with family have changed from a blurry 70% of understanding the conversation to 99%.

The same has happened in my conversations with friends – suddenly in addition to just catching the drift of the conversation, I can also pick up on how their word choice adds humor or certain sentiments to the conversation that I just wasn’t able to pick up on before. Those blurry edges are becoming sharper, and I can now see the different tones of the colors! (And I realize every day how much patience everyone has had with me, considering my lack of understanding before!)

Maybe you have experienced something similar when reading a book, with a dictionary at your side. Sometimes you come across words that you don’t know, but you can guess from context clues what the word means, so you continue reading. But then when you take time to look up the word, you realize its full meaning and it actually gives the sentence – and sometimes the story – a richer meaning that you would have missed out on if you hadn’t understood the full meaning of that one word. (Or every now and then you find you were completely wrong about the word’s meaning in the first place!)

This adequately describes my verbal life as well. I usually don’t realize it when it happens, but sometimes I don’t understand every single word that someone says, but because I understand 95% of the words, I can continue with the conversation not even realizing I didn’t hear or understand one word. (This isn’t unique to speaking in a second language; the human brain is wired to fill in the blanks of what we don’t see or don’t hear, and that’s why optical illusions exist.) Usually it works out perfectly and helps the conversation flow, but every now and then it leads to a misunderstanding when that missed word was important in the communication.

It’s easy to get frustrated when someone doesn’t understand us when we’re both speaking our first language, but I’m reminded that we still come from different contexts and even the same words can have different meanings and connotations for different people. (More on this in the next part.)

I am speaking and living in my second language, and sometimes it feels a little bit like a handicap, something that impedes my ability to understand and communicate with people at the same level that the average person communicates with others.

It makes me extra grateful for the people that have a little extra patience with me. And it reminds me that we all do have different levels of understanding, communication abilities, and contexts, and it really is worth being patient with one another to try to achieve successful communication – to more fully understand each other and appreciate where each person is coming from.

Part II. Language is more than words; it’s concepts

One thing that I have learned (and now I see daily examples of this in action) is that communication is based not only in language but in what we already know, our schemas, our preconceived notions, past experiences, etc.

For example, one day, 6-months into service (and craving vegetables having been practically vegetarian before moving here), I decided I would try to order a vegetarian version of what was on the menu (knowing full well that the odds of success were low…but wanting to give it a try anyway.)

First I ask if I can have the “cau cau” without the meat part (cow’s stomach lining) because it comes with carrots and peas and potatoes, which sounded good to me. She looked at me confused and said no that was not an option.

Cau Cau. Image from: https://decomidaperuana.com/receta-del-cau-cau/

So then I explained that I would like to eat a dish with just vegetables, so she nods in understanding and excitedly says “we can make a salad with lettuce and tomato and cucumber”. While that sounded good, I needed some sustenance in my life too, so I tried to explain that I’d like cooked vegetables with some rice maybe. I ask if they can make me a plate of vegetables like onion, carrots, and peppers, like “lomo saltado” without the beef.

Lomo Saltado. Image from https://wapa.pe/hogar/1264144-recetas-preparar-lomo-saltado-comida-gastronomia-peruana-almuerzo

Confused again, she shakes her head no and says “like beans and rice with vegetables?” For a split second I think she has finally got it, but having already experienced that many people’s idea of vegetables is lettuce and tomato and cucumber, I knew I needed to clarify before I get my hopes up. So I asked, “Will the beans be made with onions, carrots and peas?”.And like I expected, she says, “No, it comes with lettuce, tomato, and cucumber”. Realizing we are speaking the same language but not speaking the same language (and to her I’m probably being a difficult customer), I agree and ask for the beans and salad.

This same concept misunderstanding has happened to me too. I work in the municipality office and so paperwork is pretty much everyone’s life. And the mother of paperwork is the “cargo”, which is the copy of the document you keep for yourself and have everyone sign to verify they’ve received their copy. When I first arrived, I had 3 different people at three different times explain this concept to me, and I understood the words they were saying, but I just couldn’t get the concept. Since I didn’t have experience with the process and for some reason couldn’t imagine the concept (I guess I was just too used to the world of e-mail and digital documents), I couldn’t understand the meaning of what everyone was telling me.

Then there is the water system operator that I work with that is really hard for me to understand; I rarely catch 75% of his words and am always subconsciously filling in the blanks to carry a conversation. (And this is still, after 2 years of being here!) However, I have about 10 years of experience in engineering and rural water systems, so when the operator was explaining some technical issues about his water system, with the 75% of the words I caught, I understood him more quickly and thoroughly than my team members, who are native Spanish speakers but are much younger and just have fewer years of experience in water systems. In this interesting case, I understood something better than my native-speaking companions simply because I was more familiar with the concept.

These are just a few examples of daily occurrences where communication across cultures is made more difficult because we have different schemas – different experiences, memories, priorities, things we’ve thought of before and things we haven’t ever thought of.

I think this is so important to realize for a few reasons…

“sometimes other people are explaining something that I just have not experienced before”

It takes a different mindset to understand something that you haven’t experienced before or haven’t learned before. To understand something new, I’ve noticed my mind has to be open, like I’m sitting in a classroom trying to understand something completely new, trying to connect it to my past experiences and sometimes just taking in some new information on faith, with an open mind. Usually, my mind is not in this mode – it is in the mode of trying to understand things based on my past experiences, as quickly as possible.

When I hear something new, I try to relate it to something I’ve experienced so I can understand what is happening, how someone else might be feeling, or how I should react. But this method of understanding isn’t always the best or most appropriate way to approach communication, because sometimes other people are explaining something that I just have not experienced before. Or maybe I have experienced something similar so I immediately relate their experience to an experience I’ve had before and I am sure I understand them… but actually I end up misunderstanding and maybe offending them because their experience actually had differences from mine and I didn’t take time to try to understand that difference because I was sure I already understood them.

This happens all the time in our relationships, both on an interpersonal level, and on a larger political level. I think this is a component to the problems the US is having right now when discussing race relations, immigration, and police brutality. While we can try, the reality is that white people don’t know exactly what it is like to be a person of color, especially a black man, and those of us whose ancestors migrated to the US many decades ago don’t actually understand what it’s like to be an immigrant. If you have never experienced life as a person of color or a minority, it’s likely you haven’t experienced the blatant or the subtle racist comments and attitudes that exist in society, directed at you and who you are. If we are too quick to say that we understand the situation of racism in the US, we most likely are not even close to understanding the reality.

However, if we take a lot of time, through many conversations with many people of color and minorities, in many different scenarios, and with a very open mind every time – with that mentality open to trying to understand an experience we have never have had – we might be able to come closer to understanding what racism really is, and what forms it takes, and then we can start to create ways to live together better, to create a more peaceful and more just society.

(Header image from http://jacksonvillevisionclinic.com/lenses/4115670)