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July 6, 2011 18:49:22 | in art, culture, lifestyle

Translating Peru: Fitting in as an "extranjero"

Translating Peru
Photo: Francisco Centurión

By Kelly Phenicie

It’s easy to recite the well-worn cliché “home is where the heart is.” And perhaps for most it’s really that simple.  But when you end up living in a foreign country – especially for an indefinite period of time – the concept of “home” becomes a little like the white stuff in an oreo cookie. Despite any and all attempts to keep the middle intact, opening it usually results in a haphazard mess on both sides (or am I the only person this happens to?).

The more you live somewhere, the more it becomes a part of you.  Your tastes, your opinions and your sense of what’s familiar all evolve. You change.  And yet even as you finally call this place “home,” you realize that this change is not reciprocal – despite your investment in adapting to this new place, it does not adapt to you.

Apart from your accent, ethnicity or the way you dress, there’s often a slew of cultural markers that will manage to separate you out on a regular basis.  As if subjected to an involuntarily breast implant, you draw attention in ways you hadn’t bargained for.  But in the crossover from tourist to permanent resident, you learn how to grow into your new identity without forfeiting your old one, when to adapt and when to resist.  You find your own tempo.

In Peru, tourists, expats and backpackers come in all shapes and sizes and their experiences here are as diverse as the country itself.  But the most recurring story among foreigners who eventually decide to pitch tent is that they first come as tourists and later fall in love with the country.  Whether it’s better luck finding romantic partners, being able to start your own company or lower your stress level, Peru seems to have a little something for everyone.   

Translating Peru: Fitting in as an "extranjero"
Image from the movie "Lost in Translation."

Each time my Peruvian husband hears these kinds of success stories, he smiles at me, gives his I-told-you-so shrug and chimes, “la isla de la fantasia.”  Fantasy Island.  A sort of parallel to the American dream, my spouse insists that immigrants to Peru are magically granted access to something they didn’t have before.

This is actually not far from the truth.  Despite long institutionalized informality and blood boiling "trámites" (paperwork), Peru has an uncanny tendency to make you feel closer to your dream.  Whatever the reasons behind your own personal pilgrimage, your target is within grasp as long as you have the pluck to pursue it.

This is not to say that life abroad is easy in Peru.  Most full-time foreigners will tell you there are trade-offs.  The cultural and emotional limbo of being both “home” and abroad at the same time is not always comfortable.  You’ll have ups and downs in both places. When you’re in one country, you’ll miss the other.  It’s our body’s natural way of balancing the existential yin and yang of our past and present.

In some ways this can be isolating.  Conner Gorry, an American journalist living in Cuba, claims that in addition to the adventure, “living abroad - whether it's Cuba, Malta, or Marrakesh - can also be extraordinarily lonely. Anyone who tells you different is in denial or isn't paying attention.”

If, like me, you were hoping to one day blend in you’ll have to swallow the sobering reality that you’ll never be a local.  In fact, through books like The Poisonwood Bible and movies like ‘Lost in Translation,’ I’ve realized I identify more with misplaced nationals rather than any one nationality.

And yet as the multiple-choice question of “where is home” turns into a short essay, you realize you wouldn’t have it any other way.  As boring as perfection is, intermittent spats with cultural trials or taboos are a necessary part of making any life interesting.

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# Jeremy says :
7 July, 2011 [ 07:24 ]
I have been to Peru several times (fiancee is Peruvian) and will visit again in October-November. I always have a great time there enjoying the food, drinks, seeing the sights, etc. If I could afford it, I would take a vacation there for a weekend every month. 

However, as you say there are trade-offs and there would be things I miss about the US (Currently live in FL). I even noticed that after spending a couple of weeks there last year. The most annoying thing to me is getting around. The traffic is Lima is horrendous and driving outside of Lima didn't make me want to drive in Peru either. I could not handle that every day and don't think I would ever get used to it. Also, the months of grey, overcast weather in Lima would depress me coming from FL where we have sunshine all year. For now I am content to vacation in Peru as much as possible because I really do love the country (have also visited Cusco, Nazca, etc), but I don't think I would ever want to live there for an extended period of time.
# Andrew M says :
7 July, 2011 [ 07:37 ]
Great write up.

And I agree 110%. I've been here for two years and I agree you definitely feel that there is a lot more within your reach here. Back in the USA I find its just so competitive and expensive. Here you can really make something happen and be successful.

But there are challenges as you mentioned and the biggest in my opinion is the solitude. It's not terrible but it really never is the same as living where you grew up.

Although I personally have no problem with the fitting in part. If you live in an area long enough, yes people know you're a foreigner, but they also recognize you as living there and treat you much like anybody else. That goes in good and bad ways too.
# Rachel says :
7 July, 2011 [ 08:13 ]

Thank you so much for your article. I just moved to Lima three weeks ago (my boyfriend lives here), and am definitely still adjusting. Although I have him and all his family here, I still feel, as Gorry said, extraordinarily lonely.

I have definitely noticed the cultural differences, whether it be in a job interview, on the street, or in something as simple as means of transportation. I lived in a mid-size university city for 5 years, where public transportation did not exist. No taxis, no buses -- nothing. Everyone has cars. I am still getting used to using the public transportation system in Lima, although every time I get in a taxi, I feel like I'm going to die!

Thanks again for your article.

# Kelly says :
7 July, 2011 [ 10:10 ]
Rachel, the important thing is to remember you're not alone.  I've met a lot of people who manage to settle in very easily, como si nada, and that isn't (nor does it have to be) the case for everyone. We're different, we go through the process in different ways.  I find that it's helpful to have some friends who are also foreigners or who you can identify with on this level.  Being able to just be you and have someone get that with no further explanation does wonders.  It's all about finding the balance that works for you and it does get easier ;)

- Kelly
# S.Miah says :
7 July, 2011 [ 11:42 ]

This article is a lovely insight into what others are feeling; I was living in Lima for the past 4 months on my second long visit, and just recently returned back to the UK where I have lived all my life. However I have to say, I think I have misplaced home, I am truly confused where I class as home.


Every time I leave Peru I feel like I have left part of me behind, and actually it’s very painful leaving. This might have been because I was fortunate enough to have been living and teaching in the underprivileged community around Ventanilla, where people may have little but hearts are very kind and welcoming.


I agree with both Peru and our origins have their issues, I personally felt more at home in Peru and integrated quickly being accepted as a local person in the time I spent there. This is likely because of my South East Asia look isn’t too dissimilar to Peruvians. England is very relaxing, but I miss the spontaneous fiesta’s popping up all over the place in Lima. It’s difficult to know where my heart is, or where I see myself in the future.


Peru is defiantly different, I have worked/studied in various international locations from the Asia to Africa and Latin America, but Peru changed me.


I fell in love with Peru and I know I will be back soon, home maybe where the heart is, but deciding where the heart belongs is the question.


Thank you Kelly for this article.

# Rick Crosby says :
7 July, 2011 [ 10:08 ]
@S.Miah, make Peru your new home. I am planning to make it mine in the near future. I am half Peruvian, and I realized I and my heart belong in Peru than in the US. I have a saying, yo soy americano, peru mi corazon es peruano. 
# Jake in Dallas says :
8 July, 2011 [ 04:24 ]
Lived in Peru for a few years.  Fun and interesting at first, boring and aggravating after a while.  After 6 months, even my Peruvian companion couldn't take it anymore and we moved outta there.  Always fun to go back and visit for a week or two, stay in a good hotel (with air conditioning), but Peru is too unlivable for full time residence.

# Rick Crosby says :
10 July, 2011 [ 03:52 ]
@Jake, why would Peru become boring and aggravating? 
# Michael C in Seattle, WA says :
10 July, 2011 [ 06:57 ]
A good article, thanks Kelly!   And also a timely one, as my fiance (Peruana) and I are making plans to permanently move to Lima early next year!

The U.S.A. has, and is continuing to change - sadly, not for the better.  As one of part Mexican heritage, a love for Latin America pulses through my veins. I am looking forward to absorbing Peru and all that she has to offer; as well as to give back by my own participation in the Peruvian way of life.

# Patrick in Peru says :
10 July, 2011 [ 08:58 ]
Great article.  I recently came to Peru after a three year stint in SE Asia, mostly Laos.  Some of the lessons I learned there I have applied here, and it has helped a great deal.  First of all, in agreement with the journalist in the article,  being an expat can be very lonely. But like anything, you can either hide out in your apartment and sleep away the blues or get out there and force yourself to interact.  The other lesson is don't get too caught up trying to be Peruvian (or Thai, or Laos, or Panamanian...) as I was told in Vientiane, 'you will never be one of them".  This is true - I am not Peruvian, I am an American living in Peru.  As long as you are respectful and kind and helpful, people will overlook most faux-pas.  Be yourself - if you've never worn a scarf in 65 degree weather before, don't start now.  Learn the language to the best of your ability, remember the Golden Rule and know that you are not the first nor will you be the last extranjero to set foot in the TGIF's on Ovalo Guittierez. 

# Pablo Valqui says :
11 July, 2011 [ 12:39 ]
For those from other countries living in Peru, there is an organization called that has a local community in Lima as well.
It is an organization for and by expatriates and allows to share experiences one makes as a foreigner in a new place of residence.
have been a member of the LC in Houston and I am glad I got to find this as it has provided me with numerous international friends .
# Elena CaJacob says :
11 July, 2011 [ 02:39 ]
Lovely, thank you.
# Pilar Prostko says :
11 July, 2011 [ 05:08 ]
Hi Kelly,

I very much appreciated your article. As a Peruvian living in the USA for more than half of my life now, It's great to be able to see "the other" perspective", realizing that the place might be different but we sort of feel the same.
I don't look particularly from one place or the other, but when I start to talk, you know what happens...instantly different. I've accepted this though and learned to use this extra attention in a positive way. But still is a daily reminder that I would never be an "American" (even though legally I'm one)
Yeap, guess mi corazon is Peruano

# Tommy Cecil says :
12 July, 2011 [ 11:56 ]
Thank you Kelly for an insightful, creative and informative piece of writing. What a breath or fresh air in contrast to the mundane observations and muses of most of the articles in this web site.  
# Mike Serra says :
12 July, 2011 [ 05:16 ]
I will be moving to Peru soon from the USA, to live with my girlfriend who is from Lima.  I was wondering if anyone could give me any pointers or tips about such things like jobs and spanish classes....and tips on fitting in.  I have been to Peru a few times before, and love it!......but this will be my first time staying for more than a month.  I am kind of nervous, since my Spanish is not that great yet....but I for sure hope to improve, during my trip. If anyone could give me any tips, ecspecially for finding a job...that would be so helpful =) !  Thanks!
# drew faulkner says :
12 July, 2011 [ 08:11 ]
 peru is a nice enough place to visit but living there after living in the greatest country in the world...USA, it made me realize just how special and good we have it in the states... Lima is for the most part unfriendly and the the people drive like a bunch of ass monkeys! no civilized society would allow such free for all, lawless driving. The people are all paranoid of one another...I have never been anywhere where the people are so skeptical of one is a dog eat dog society. I am thrilled every time I see Lima and Jorge Chaves in the rear view. Again, a decent place to visit...not a good place to live. I am in San Isidro and it will NEVER even remotely feel like home. Not sure how anyone could get use to listening to car alarms and honking all day and night...the people are incredibly anal to do business with as well....
# Jimmy Paleschic says :
13 July, 2011 [ 12:47 ]
Very nice article.  I have spent a couple of months in Lima during the last year.  As a life long soccer player from the USA, I frequently feel more accepted in Lima, especially when playing with the team at Jockey Club.   (Try walking into a local bar in Dallas during a Ranger game and asking for the remote so you can watch the Copa America.)  I have never felt at home anywhere but Dallas, but am sure I would be just as happy in Lima...the same highs and lows of life exist evreywhere.

Mike, I had an exceptional experience attending Spanish classes at El Sol Escuela de Español in Mira Flores.  It's walking distance from the Metropolitano, which I used rather than fight the ever present rush hour traffic in Lima.  I am sure there are many fine schools in Lima, but felt my money was well spent at El Sol.

Drew, Peru is not for everyone, I feel the same way you do every time I am in New York City.  EVERYTHING you said about Lima describes my experience there...except the unbelievable arts, culture, sports, food, history, theatre, etc. etc.  See you soon in Peru.
# Pablo Tur says :
13 July, 2011 [ 04:17 ]
I felt as if your article read me. I m argentine and have settled down here for a year. For several reasons I have had to bounce back and forth to and from Argentina several times and trying to explain to my friends how I feel I adopted the expression"entre dos aguas" (between two waters or two shores" from a flamenco song. That s how I feel. I felt very much understood by your expression limbo, and balancing the yin and yan of past and present. Reading this phrase helped me understand better the process I m undergoing, I fell this limbo is part of my own personal inner search, and though I also have to cope with feeling of loneliness and strangement I know that in a lorg term I will feel enrichened by the experience. Of course the trade offs are rough sometimes, Im an actor and although came here to set up a resto with a partner I now long for being back to rehearsals and stage. Thanks for your article.
# Anthony Collins says :
13 July, 2011 [ 07:30 ]
Very well thought comments, Kelly. But the curious personal experience I have had on returning for the last visit to my beloved Australia is that after many years of living in "crazy" Lima, I was actually missing the high level of stimulation here.

Aside from Lima´s insane traffic, queues etc., I missed strolling in the Larco throng at 1am for an ice cream and a coffee any weekday, Saturday night restaurant peak hours after 11pm, rocotto relleno and the eclectic markets in Surquillo, Polvos Rosados, Compuplaza ... where you can find anything from odd electronic spare parts to a "calcomania" of an Australian flag ! Not to mention a great variety of new friends and activities.

Finally, I have come to the opinion that it´s not so much Peru that I love, but that successfully assimilating life in a foreign country is intrinsically stimulating  and enriching (if you survive!). However it´s definitely an issue of finding your own NICHE, and some people just don´t ever succeed and find it impossible to adapt. So they return to their comfortable rabbit burrow ... and hopefully live happily ever after ...
# Kelly Phenicie says :
15 July, 2011 [ 11:01 ]
Thanks to all of you for your comments!  Writing about such a diverse group (foreigners) is not easy, so I'm glad that people with such different experiences were able to feel identified, albeit in different ways.  It's been really nice reading about your own experiences, thanks for sharing!

Mike - Consider getting connected to the Expat List.  I think you can subscribe via the webpage, Expat Peru.  There's also a comprehensive blog called "The Ultimate Peru List" that walks you through trámites and other issues.  Apart from that, network - I've found this is a crucial part of social and work life in building your own niche as a foreigner. Suerte!
# says :
15 July, 2011 [ 11:12 ]
¨I’ve realized I identify more with misplaced nationals rather than any one nationality¨ ' .. hear hear!

As a long-term resident in Peru, I remember that moment when I realised "I will never be considered the same as a Peruvian" however well I speak the slang and all that. And that realization actually brought some relief, because now I knew that I didn't have to try anymore either. And I could also let go of a large part of cultural identity in general, I feel much more connected with Peruvian culture than that of my birth country, but even so, I don't let that connection define who I am either... I am just me, wherever I am, whatever slang I happen the be speaking at that time.

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