Strangers in Our Strange Land

26 Dec 2006 11:13 am

When we came back from the Christmas holidays, I heard Minas had moved because they were reconstructing our building. While we use it during the week as a classroom, it is actually a church. No one would know save the moldy paintings of Jesus and water-stained portrait of the Virgin Mary, but hey, God never required anything fancy, right? Anyway, I got to wondering who ‘they’ were that would be reconstructing the school and asked Thaily as we were walking to school that Monday.

“They’re internationals.” She said. Hmmmmmmm….
“Internationals?” I asked. She nodded in reply. “Do we know where they’re from or why they’re reconstructing the building?”
“It’s a religious group I think but I don’t know where they’re from.” She said. Right. Not much information there.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Being referred to as a religious group, maybe I expected nuns and candy-stripers, I don’t know. But when we got there, I was horrified…. Shocked… Embarrassed… Gringos. Like, real live gringos. Not the British variety that is generally quietly polite and pleasing to the ear. Not the Aussie or Kiwi kind with sunkissed skin exuding genuine, homegrown enthusiasm, a sense of adventure, and a positive outlook on reality. Not even the rich Limeño kind that strives to be a gringo.

They were… Americans.

Americans in all their glory. For one, they looked like a little army, each wearing their uniform of t-shirts from various events they’d attended, sleeves rolled up to expose their sweaty white arms; Umbros or other athletic shorts rolled at the waste revealing a culturally unsound amount of sun-thirsty leg; and, of course, tennis shoes with little bitty white socks hiding their little cotton heads as if they were also ashamed of being associated with these people.

What was worse was that you could hear them from about two blocks down the hill. Those grating American accents trying to squeeze out every Spanish word they knew with no consideration to how they were pronouncing the words. Ow. It hurt to hear what I sounded like just 3 months ago, before Martin and Juan and Miguel had teased my accent so much that I finally realized how painful it must have been to hear it. Even if you never can shake your native accent, why did they have to talk so damned loud? The stereotype is true, friends. Americans could blister your eardrums with how loud they talk and what they talk about, too, as if it’s so interesting that everyone would want to hear it. Argh.

My pride was suffering as I walked past their immaculate tour bus double the size of most people’s houses in the area. They hadn’t even bothered to take a combi! Didn’t they know anything about the culture they were working in? This modest, quiet culture had been pierced with their ignorance and infiltrated with their presence. They cruised in here on their little boat of money and security to help these poor wretches who worship God in what would be classified as an utter shit hole when compared to the First Baptist Church of Trussville (lovingly referred to by skeptical Trussvillians as Fort God and Six Flags Over Jesus to name a few). They didn’t bother to consider what people in Peru wear, or how they act, or what they find embarrassing or immodest. They didn’t think about how they would be perceived and certainly didn’t evaluate what type of stereotypes they would create or perpetuate. All they knew is they were here to help someone and that was enough to justify all their cultural faux pas.

From our temporary classroom, I could see them working on the playground right outside. Half of them were building (or repairing) something and the other half were playing with kids in the street. Mostly they were just smiling and chasing the kids around with a ball and tickling them when they caught them, no doubt having already convinced themselves that a smile is the same in every language and can replace the words you can’t speak. Fair enough. But then I noticed most of them could only say a few choice words in Spanish, which bothered me to no end as I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind that their church had come up with a list of useful words and phrases that they memorized on the plane on the way down. Gag. And what’s worse, they were using their ‘useful words and phrases’ to play with our kids; the kids we’d been working with for the last three months; the kids that had been able to get past our accents and verbal errors enough to trust us; the kids who called us Mami and Papa King Kong because we’d spent so much time caring for them and making sure they were having a good day. So, add jealousy and disbelief to the list of emotions that hit me that morning.

I tried to put it out of my mind, disassociate myself with them as much as possible, and just work it off. After all, I had eight kids to welcome into the new school year. The trouble was that we couldn’t find the woman who had the key to our temporary classroom, so we spent a large part of the time walking around and waiting outside the school. That meant more exposure to the gringos. I was absolutely sure they had seen me by the time we decided to have class on the football pitch rather than wait outside all day. I was sure of it! But no one had even acknowledged my presence. No one had said hello or waved or asked me what the crap I was doing out there, another indication that they hadn’t looked at their surroundings and noticed we were the only white people in Pamplona. And if we were the only white people out there that day, what white folks would be left when they were done with their little mission trip? I raise my solitary hand…

We had a meeting with the kids to explain what would be happening this year. At that point, we only had eight kids, which would seem a dwarf class when considering the 30 five- to eight-year-olds we have in our class now! Wow. After the meeting and after we ate our bread and tiny little pears for lunch, Thaily, Carla, Ysabel, and I walked up to the reconstruction site. We just stood around watching for a while, sort of waiting for someone to acknowledge us and then perhaps let us entertain them with a few questions. Carla and Ysabel started teasing me about being a gringa. I was embarrassed enough already, then they started in and I found myself in the midst of this weird self-pity thing that I haven’t felt since Andy convinced me I shouldn’t feel bad for being a gringo. I used to beat myself up over it, for real, so this was an unwanted visit with an old, familiar feeling that made me want to avoid eye contact with anyone, especially my Peruvian friends who were brutally teasing me.

I had just started mentally cursing these people for interring those feelings when I noticed a guy walking toward us. He had been talking to someone, gave them a high five with this big cheesy smile, so he seemed friendly enough in that dorky, didn’t-get-the-memo-about-public-high-fives-being-kinda-old-school way. He was more South American looking but, as if the high five weren’t enough, he was wearing the gringo uniform and carrying a grotesquely large camera with a flash you wouldn’t bother with in the Limeño summer sun. He asked me if he could “help” me as if he should be wearing a blue Wal-Mart vest.

I felt like maliciously twisting his nipple but I decided to be civil. I launched into a stream of questions, not realizing until later that I hadn’t introduced myself or our kids that were collected around our legs looking at him and his worker cronies as if they’d just murdered a puppy. Whew. I wasn’t the only one with a wall up! But then I wondered if the kids had put their wall up following my unintentional, non-verbal cues… hmmmm.

From our conversation, I found out this guy was from Colombia and had joined up with this Youth Coalition of Peace and Justity (or some other official, yet whispy sounding name), which was a Catholic organization presumably based in the States. There were about thirty of them from colleges in Colorado, Indiana, and some city he couldn’t remember the name of. They would be working from Monday to Wednesday in Pamplona and then go to another site in Huaraz, which is a gooood long way from Lima up in the mountains in the north of Peru. I asked him if he could show us around the new school so we could see all the changes. He said sure and lead us down the road, dodging groups of over-enthusiastic Americans chasing and tickling little Peruvian kids.

He said they had planned to double the size of the building by concreting in the back yard and extending the walls down the length of the concrete. In the process, they’d go ahead and rip out the pressboard walls that the parents of our kids had just bothered repainting a fresh yet vomit-worthy lime green about a month ago, and replace them with a varnished-looking wood with windows in the front. I asked about the bathroom that was previously a concrete hole in a flimsy wood outhouse in the backyard of the school. He said they’d concrete over that and just add a new bathroom to the inside of the school. And, of course, they’d put on a new (complete) roof and electricity.

By the time I’d gotten all my information and was ready to go, I realized he had no idea who we were. He hadn’t asked and didn’t seem like he was going to so, in a really unintentionally forceful manner, I volunteered the information. I tried to explain we’d been teaching kids in the church during the week, that we worked for an NGO, and that I had been in the country for the last three months. The kids were clustered around my legs watching the workers climb up on their old school desks to lift the roof piece by piece off the building. Little Angel looked horrified and confused as he would never have been allowed to stand on those desks and now they were covered in muddy footprints and buckling under the weight of these full-grown gringos. Why hadn’t they brought (or borrowed!) a ladder? I asked Thaily who the desks belonged to and, even though they’re kid sized, she said she thought they’d belonged to the church. Whew.

Walking down the hill, Carla and Ysabel asked what all they’d said so I explained the best I could through my now over-consciousness of my American accent. They could tell something was up and started asking me what I thought about them being there. I tried the best I could to sound pleasant, not portraying any of my feelings of jealousy or disbelief or shame, and ended up saying it was just weird seeing other white folks that high up in Pamplona. I started joking about how loud they were as we were squeezing past their big tour bus that was conveniently parked in one of the narrowest streets in the neighborhood. I didn’t know what else to say. I felt stupid and I just wanted to leave.

The next day, Tuesday, I woke up with a feeling of dread in my stomach. They’d be there again today. Buttmunches. They were making me not want to go to work. I just wanted to wait until they left to go back to Minas but I wanted to see all the kids and I had promised Benedicta the day before that I’d be there on Tuesday when she came to take her make-up test. It made me shutter to imagine her walking through gringo-mania to get to our temporary classroom. Hopefully she wouldn’t ask if they were my friends or if I knew them. And God forbid she said anything about us having the same accent! Anyway, I was stuck. I had to see them again.

That morning, Thaily realized we needed to get the broom, dustpan, and hand-washing bowl from the old school so we could use them in the temporary classroom. Thankfully, their tour bus hadn’t arrived yet, leaving the school unmanned. With Angel, Jhon, and Stefany at my side, we walked in through the newly hinged and varnished door, which no longer made that old, familiar squeaking sound that used to alert us to anyone entering. We stood there at the door for a moment looking around at the massive expanse of concrete there was now that that they’d extended the building. In only a day, they had managed to change everything. Nothing but the original concrete floor and the wooden support post in the middle remained. Even though our little school had been nothing more than a shack with ugly paint and a half-finished roof, it was filled to the top with memories. How much laughter had bounced off this same floor and how much brilliance had those walls seen? Standing on the cold concrete, it felt like an empty warehouse with a lot of memory-making to do after construction was complete. But now we were in search of the remaining artifacts from a past era.

Jhon walked in and started digging through their scattered building materials in search of the broom. Stefany spotted the hand-washing bowl and ran to save it but Angel was still hiding beside me with this petrified look on his face. Jhon called us over to help him sift through some wood pieces while Stefany dumped a bunch of rusty nails out of the hand-washing bowl.

Only then did Angel start exploring. From one end of the concrete to the other, he walked, looking up and down at everything like a four-year-old contractor in training. He asked me where the bathroom went and I explained it had been covered over but that they were going to put another one inside the classroom. I was trying to be cheerful in case they were taking my non-verbal cues. Maybe I tried too hard and the Oh look how different it is! and the Oh look how much space we’ll have! came off sounding phony. After looking around a bit more, we decided the broom had perished in the rubble along with the dustpan, but we’d salvaged the hand-washing bowl. Just as we were leaving, Angel spotted the dirty old rag we used to wipe the desks off with and ran over and swiped it. Might as well loot the place, right?

It turns out while Angel was walking around, he had been forming his expert opinion. As we walked back to the school in pensive silence, he looked up at me and said,

“It’s ugly.”

I didn’t know what to say at first. I certainly wasn’t going to agree as I didn’t want to promote the looking of a gift horse in the mouth. So instead, I said it was ‘different’ not ‘ugly’ and started talking about how nice it would be to have more room and electricity and stuff like that. He didn’t look convinced. I suppose I didn’t either.

At the end of the day, we went back to the school to ask if they had seen the broom. It was quite a chore to find someone who cared. A few of our kids and I walked through the entrance of the school and walked amongst the builders waiting for someone to notice we were there. The kids got impatient and started messing around with building supplies and looking off the edge of the concrete into the backyard of the school’s next door neighbor. I finally snagged someone and asked if they’d seen a red broom. It being a different person who was looking at me like I was stealing from their organization for asking for a red broom, I explained again that the building had been our school during the week and that we didn’t get a chance to take our things out before construction started. The girl looked around briefly and said she hadn’t seen one but that I should ask everyone else. She said she was from Colorado and actually started asking me questions about Bruce Peru and how long I’d been in Peru and everything. Finally, a nice person! I gave her the run down and we went around asking everyone about the broom. No one had seen it.

I walked out of the school to find Thaily, Ysabel, and Carla waiting for me and watching these two American girls lead a group of Peruvian kids in a game of Down by the Bank. In case you don’t remember this old American classic from grade school, you basically just get around in a circle and place your right hand, palm up, on top of the next person’s left palm. You sing a song (“Down by the banks of the Hanky Panky where the bullfrogs jump from bank to bankie…. Remember?) and go around the circle tagging your neighbor’s right hand with your right hand. Whoever gets tagged last when the song ends is out of the game. Carla and Ysabel asked me what they were doing so I explained. The only trouble was that the girls leading the song were yelling it really loudly rather than singing, so I was distracted again by my embarrassment and trying to talk over them. Again, the Americans knew we were talking about their game and watching but they didn’t bother smiling at us or anything… they just kept screaming. How annoying.

On Wednesday, Dennis asked around to see if anyone wanted to switch schools. Andy mentioned going to Minas and I said I’d take his place at Nazareno. I felt like a wimp for chickening out on account of the gringos, but I didn’t want to see them again or be associated with them for another day. Two days was good enough. But, to be honest, I didn’t want Andy to see them either! I mean, I’m still an American, no matter how hard I try to kick my bad habits like talking too loud and stuff like that. And Andy, being the normally quietly polite Brit, still calls me out for committing those silly American abuses. I was terrified to hear what he would say about these folks and I didn’t want him to liken me to them and further remind me what an overwhelmingly culturally inept country I come from. I’ve been working for over a year to get Andy to appreciate anything about the US but him being around these obnoxious specimens could make ruin of all my efforts.

Everything turned out OK, though. He didn’t have to come in contact with them really as we’d already looted the school and had no reason to go back. He didn’t even walk down the hill to see how the construction was going. So really, all he had to do was see the tour bus and them chasing kids out in the street, which didn’t bother him nearly as much as me.

In the end, their intrusion had made me feel more connected to this place and the people. The Americans were strangers in our strange land, making me feel a little more at home. I hope to achieve expert status one day as I plan to aim my anthropological focus here. Until then, I hadn’t really thought of myself as anything more than a traveler who’d landed here for an extended stay. But I’m more than that, which made me feel a sense of urgency as far as learning the rest of Spanish and making sure any information I had about this area was not just hearsay or assumption but actually qualified by personal interviews. If I was going to act all snobby about these people being here, I should be a better representative myself.

I realized also that I was mostly being paranoid, which means I’m paranoid about being an American. I’m not sure what to say about that. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing and I think the answer would depend on who you ask, another American or someone from another country. But also, I realize that I work hard to be the better type of American – the culturally aware one – and I pride myself for it. When these goobers sailed in there with their money and their superior skills and made of themselves everything I strive not to be, I started associating myself with them just because I thought everyone else had already tossed me in with them, and felt ashamed all over again. No, I’m not ashamed of being American anymore. At one point, yes, but not now. Rather, I’m ashamed of people who perpetuate negative stereotypes with their inability to see the world from anyone else’s perspective. And I’m disappointed that so many happen to come from the same country as me.

Finally, I was forced to see, again, why Peruvians and people in other developing nations have certain stereotypes for gringos. They think we’re rich because when we go out of the country, we transplant America with our tour buses and flashy tennis shoes and when we see someone in poverty, we give them money since one of their Soles is only 33 US cents. They think we’re arrogant because we can do everything better. If they’ve got a church, we can build it better. If they’ve got something to say, what we have to say is more important. If they have cultural norms and values, we don’t have to follow them because we’ve got our own. The list goes on and on and, while a good amount of it is just misconstrued (i.e. Americans must have too much money because they spend it to come down here and help others), we are guilty for our own stereotypes. I could go for ages on this, but I’ll spare you.


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