My fellow IFSA-Peru participant Alex is the daughter of Peruvian immigrants to the United States. Alex spent several years in Lima as a young child and has periodically returned to visit since. She felt she wanted to fully assume her Peruvian identity; and spend an extended amount of time in the city to develop her “Peruvianness” and get to know her family’s origins. Roughly two months into the program, she has started to reflect on her progress towards her study abroad goals and on her overall experience in Peru.
Peruvian Identity in the United States
“My parents migrated to the US when they were in their 30’s,” Alex told me. “They had me there and they wanted me and my sister to have a lot of opportunities. And because to them at the time English was the pathway to success, I grew up almost only with English”. Despite their good intentions, “They recognize now that that was a mistake because growing up, I didn’t relate at all to my culture”. From her “ethnic” food in the lunchroom to her different hair type, various parts of her Peruvian background conflicted with her attempts to fit in as a “normal” American. She struggled so much to resolve this identity conflict that it affected her relationship with her family. It even led her to reject her family’s Peruvian habits and “giveaways” that signalled her out as different from the mainstream.
Connecting with Peruvian Identity
Yet, at around twelve years old, Alex returned to Peru with her family for the first time since being a preschooler. “I don’t know what made my mom want to take [me and my sister] back to Peru,” she admitted, “But I think it was that she saw how we grew up alien to Peruvian culture and thought maybe going back to Peru would change things. And it did, a lot.”
Finally being around other families that listened and danced to the same music as hers; appreciated the same food and spoke the same way. These similarities allowed Alex to feel comfortable with that part of her identity and enjoy it; so much so that she recalls “very vividly crying my eyes out in the airport when it was time to go back to the US because I didn’t want to go”. Returning in the US, she began to seek out new opportunities to learn about and participate in Peruvian culture. She chose to formally study Spanish for the first time, she took festejo and marinera dance lessons, and learned to cook and bake different Peruvian foods with her grandmother over the phone.
Deciding If and How to Study Abroad
While Alex explained that she had always wanted to study abroad, Peru hadn’t always been the obvious destination. Yet, as she’s narrowed down her career aspirations throughout college, she noted, “My interests in environmental engineering have intersected with my background in Latin America and led me to think about living in the region and contributing to this growing sector. But you can’t implement change in a country you’ve never lived in”. In addition to her professional plans, she felt a personal obligation to her family and to herself to choose Peru. She elaborated saying, “Just putting myself in a place where my parents were makes me feel like I can get to know them and where they came from a lot better”. “I felt like I needed to do this at some point in my life,” Alex said. “That’s why I decided on Peru.”
Still, now in Peru, Alex began to worry about the new challenges she had taken on. She said she worries frequently about her American accent in Spanish and what it implies. “I worry a lot about how people look at me because I am Peruvian-American,” she confessed. “That they might think, ‘Hey, she lives over there but she’s coming here by choice and still gets to go back’ ”. Yet, she recognizes, “I am so privileged, but that’s exactly what my parents fought for”. She also debated whether to announce herself as Peruvian-American within IFSA. Alex didn’t want others in the program to treat her differently. In the end, however, she recounted, “I decided that I would be frank and honest not just with everyone in IFSA but also that I would be open with my identity in general”.
“I am enjoying almost every day here,” she rattled, excitedly. Even still, she shared, “I do feel a lot of pressure to fit in all of the time”. Alex expounded, “I feel like a kid learning a subject I like in school, and I get tested on it all the time when I get into the combi or have to speak Spanish and fit in like a normal Peruvian”. Despite still picking up on the countless cultural quirks and customs she encounters in the streets, Alex stated firmly that that doesn’t mean she’s not Peruvian. She just doesn’t see herself as a full “part of the culture” yet. “I’m more of a ‘work-in-progress’ kind of Peruvian for the moment”. “And I think I’m happy with that” as she termed herself.
Aiding on her mission to learn and adapt to a Peruvian lifestyle, “IFSA has noticeably tried to bring us into the culture,” she remarks. “While some other programs just make the arrangements for housing and studies, IFSA had a detailed orientation full of cultural crash-courses, emphasized the importance of living with a host family, and organized excursions and longer trips with sights, experiences, and interactions that go way beyond the usual tourist’s perspective,” she judged. “While the trips do include the typical touristy stuff,” she conceded. “There is a good mix of less superficial interactions and deeper learning that better reflects Peruvian reality thanks to great guides and great planning.”
Chris Harden is an International Affairs student at George Washington University and studied abroad with IFSA at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima, Peru, in Spring 2019. He is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.