Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Culture Shock

June 12, 2012 – Culture Shock

When my parents pick me up from the airport, the highway out is backed up to the tollbooths. Apparently someone thought it was a good idea to try and converge five lanes into one. Although it’s a merging nightmare, it seems so familiar a mess to me that I almost don’t realize it isn’t normal.

“What is going on?” Dad asks.

Mom doesn’t answer as she tries to figure out the “lanes.”

Cars weave before and behind each other with a civilized zip or acquiescence. The amazing part of it is that the entire time we inch our way to the onramp not one horn honks. Not a single one. Silence reigns golden on the street light lit streets. “This is the way it is in Lima all the time,” I say with only a bit of hyperbole. “Only with a lot more noise.”
I don’t hear a single honk the entire drive home. I’m dazed into a sort of post traumatic city stress syndrome.
The next day, my sister-in-law Marie, my niece Shea, and I walk to the AT&T store to get me set up with a temporary phone number. Not once, on any of the streets, do we get honked at, whispered to, whistled at or made kissy noises at. Not even when one year old Shea waves at the passing cars. Nor do we have to wend our way through masses of people. I don’t have to switch left to right on the sidewalk to avoid smacking into other pedestrians. I don’t find myself walking down the center line of the sidewalk (in truly Lima, Peruvian style) in order to have the best position to move from. This place is like a ghost town. We only pass one man and his son waiting for a bus during the entire walk. Texas thinking is that you have to be crazy to be out walking. It’s too hot. It’s too far. It’s too silly. But to me--with my feet as the only mode of transportation that I own--it’s just around the corner. We’re going a distance in a humidity level that is neither that far nor that oppressively heated.

After I get my business dealt with, we walk back home a different way. We pass a man near a bus stop. Out of habit, I avert my eyes and look at the ground. Marie says, “Good afternoon.”

With disorientation I remember where I am. I can talk to people without my words being misconstrued as a come-on. I can interact with male humans (maybe not all of them) without having to be ready to deflect their assumption that the conversation means I want to bear all their children and cook their dinners for the rest of my life. I can smile and say, “How’s it going?” if I want to. I square my shoulders and lift my chin. I’ve hated having to alter my friendliness in self-defense.
A weight flies off my shoulders and pops in the sweaty air.

A few nights later, I go with three of my siblings and Marie to a club in Deep Ellum to hear a band play. My high school friend (and the wife of the guitar player) Christie had texted me earlier to tell me about the concert and to say she’d love for me to come out. I rope the family into the mix and we go to see the boys we grew up around perform.

There’s a guy selling hotdogs from a metal pushcart on the corner of Elm Street. “Hotdogs!” he calls out as we walk by. I give him a smile and keep myself from saying, “Street food. South American and the United States aren’t so different.”

Christie is just getting out of her car when my sibs and I come up to Club Dada’s front door. I go over to talk with her. She’s brought her sister who I haven’t seen in years. We cluster by the parking meters and catch up some. Marie comes over too. The boys form their own clot a few yards away. The first band has gone on and the riffs spill out through the open door as people pay the cover and go in. 

“Excuse me, ladies,” a voice says, interrupting one of us midsentence. A scraggly looking guy scoots closer and holds out a cup. “Could any of you spare some change?”

“I just had to beg change off my husband to fill the meter,” Christie says.

None of us have any change to give.

“Sorry,” we say.

I look around, taking the street in. Begging and street vendors? I think, The world isn’t so different
even under different flags.

Once inside the club, we head to the back patio, out of the full range of the blaring first band’s music.

“You want some water?” my sister Jesse asks.

“Yeah, that’d be great. Does it cost?” I reach for my wallet. I’ve already had several panic attacks about cost differences since being back, mostly in the airport where price comparisons aren’t accurate anyway, but still the dollar seems to disappear with less to show for it than a sol.

Jesse drawing in Deep Ellum
Jesse looks at me a little crazy and shakes her head. Free water. Drinkable water. Oh yeah.

There are a lot of people here that I’ve known all their lives and a few who’ve known me all mine. At no time during the night does anyone that I don’t know approach me. No one comes to ask me to dance (mainly because these bands don’t play dance music). No one whistles at me to come talk to them by the bar. I feel like an island all to myself. I suddenly realize, here in this sea of people, I’m no one to stand out. I’m just another white girl in the midst of others. I don’t turn heads. Little kids don’t stare at me like I’m an anomaly. The more fashionable, the taller, the more beautiful shine me out. I can stand in plain view out of sight like a wall flower. I don’t mind this. It’s like settling back into the way things should be.

The minutes click by. We’ve left Shea with my mom and midnight has chimed turning us all into pumpkins. As we head back to the car two Mexican guys pass by me. Their sing-song words register in my head and I eavesdrop without meaning to. Their speech hits me with a familiar melody, different from Peru Spanish, but not so far off. I find a comfort in understanding them, and an even greater comfort in being able to talk in my native tongue without feeling guilty about it.

At the house, I go brush my teeth with tap water. Nowhere in the bathroom is there a sign that says Do not flush the paper so I flush away. It’s these simple things that are so easily taken for granted that mean the most, that seem so extravagant, that pull me to compare and contrast.

I haven’t settled down enough from my travel and the bustle of being with my family to know what things I’ll miss from Peru. But the silence of this world is a salve to my noise-wounded soul. The only sound I hear now is the soft ticking of the clock in my mom’s study where I’m sleeping. No car alarms, no sirens, no screaming kids, no yelling neighbors, no blaring music, no slamming doors. As I start to fall asleep I tell myself, “Welcome back to the United States of America.”


  1. "But the silence of this world is a salve to my noise-wounded soul." Wow.

  2. Welcome back, Amanda. Enjoy your time back "home" for a while.