Cultural Language

Two of the hardest things I've had to learn while living in Peru these past 16 months are: (1) Spanish and (2) patience.  

If I haven't mentioned it before, I'll say it now: Spanish is hard. Well, at least for someone trying to learn it in her 40s. I took six years of Spanish way back when in junior high/high school in the States. But, as you can see, that was a long f*%$# time ago (excuse my French, speaking of language). Plus, it's one thing to learn in school, but it's an entirely different thing to try to learn when you need to actually carry on conversations living in South America. So, while I wish I was further along in my efforts to become fluent, I'm really trying hard to improve. In addition to immersing myself as much as I can every day in embarrassing linguistic mistakes and conversational misunderstandings, I've been taking classes at a wonderful school here in Lima called El Sol in the Miraflores district. Another of the best opportunities to practice and improve is talking with artisans at the markets as part of my PresentlyIn work. So, my little shop has actually helped me improve my Spanish and in turn, my improved Spanish has helped me connect and build strong relationships with the artisans I do business with here. Little by little, my Spanish is improving "poco a poco".

The other thing that I've had to learn since moving to Peru is patience.  When I first moved here, my Americana Type-A self would get super frustrated every time someone would promise something on "Monday". Generally-speaking, "Monday" usually does not mean "Monday" here. It usually means that "yes, whatever was promised will happen, umm eventually, but almost never on Monday." Over time, I have learned to adjust my expectations and plan for this. But, nonetheless, it has been hard to wrap my brain around the why of what felt like inefficiency and a totally inability to correctly set expectations.

I really did not fully understand where this different way of doing things came from. Why say Monday when you know at that very moment that Monday is not going to happen? One friend from Venezuela once told me that culturally in South America saying "no" was ruder than making a false promise. That never seemed to quite comfort me but I do think there is something to that. However, this past weekend spent at the beach, I had a super illuminating conversation with my husband's Peruvian boss and friend. We were talking about the challenges of learning a second language. And how there are different stages of your learning.  For example, I have found recently that while my vocabulary has grown by leaps and bounds since we arrived last year, sometimes that literal knowledge is not enough. One day I was waiting for someone to pick me up at my house. He texted me saying, "ya llegue". Which I thought meant "I have already arrived" aka I'm here. So, I go outside and he's nowhere to be seen. So, I text back "donde estas?". It turns out that in Lima, "ya llegue" (despite its literal translation) actually is used to say "I'm almost there" and more often can mean "I just left my house and intend to get you sometime soon". So, you can imagine how a lot of misunderstandings pepper my days here. Well, back to Mark's boss. I shared this story and then we moved on to talk about how one of the hardest parts of Peru for expats to adjust to is the "Monday" promise mentioned above. He sagely shared that this is why it's not enough to just learn the language of a place but that you also need to learn the language of its culture, as well. That you can't be fluent in any language if you only know the literal but don't know the cultural language.  In Peru, there is a strong "cultural language"  as there is in my home country and of course in every place around the world. He explained that not that long ago, in the 1980s and 1990s, when terror tormented and reigned in people's lives all across Peru and all across all socioeconomic lines, and where poverty also has been deep and pervasive, time was definitely not their biggest priority. This is unlike New York, London or Chicago where you have very little time and must manage it and expectations well for survival and success. Instead, historically Peruvian people have grown up in times where managing time or expectations was not relevant to one's survival. Instead, their lives required other priorities for survival and success, like safety from terrorist shootings, bombings and kidnappings; water, food, shelter for families and so on. l suspect you get the general idea. Managing time was not at the top of the list of importance though that's starting to change now as Peru has become stable, and is growing and becoming more global. Looking at it this way gives a new perspective and hopefully a deeper well of patience the next time someone says to me "Oh yes, definitely on Monday". Why do I write this today? I guess I feel compelled to share this as I watch doors closing to immigrants and frightening challenges to the things that have always been so important to myself and my country: tolerance, protection of equal and human rights, and welcoming others to our country. Differences are not to be feared but rather understood and embraced... or at the very least respected rather than judged, welcome rather than excluded. Just because someone does something differently or comes from a different place doesn't translate to inferior, dangerous or threatening. We have more in common than we don't. So, with that, I'm okay living with a little frustration from time to time when something doesn't happen on Monday. I'm learning what it feels like to be the "foreigner" living in another culture. It's not easy but it's a learning experience in both directions. But ultimately, I'm grateful that I get this chance to do so and I'm grateful to learn another culture's language. Hopefully, I'm becoming a little more fluent in each day... poco a poco. 



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