The content of this webpage, and everything associated with this webpage, is independent of the Peace Corps and the United States Government, though I think they should read it too. This blog solely reflects the experiences and observations of Jake DeBerry.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dating Across Cultures

I get this question a lot from friends back home and from people here in Peru, volunteers and Peruvians. What’s happening with my girlfriend and me? One of the first questions any Peruvian asks me is if I’m single. Many people in my site tell me they have a daughter I should meet. Old people have told me I should ‘leave my seed’ with their granddaughter because they want a grandbaby with blue eyes. I just met one of the teachers at the school here and one of her first questions was if I’m single. When I tell them I have a Peruvian girlfriend, they ask if I’m going to marry her and take her back the States. Plus, with all the pictures I’ve posted of her and me on here, you might be wondering also. It’s an honest question.

I’ve been dating Jenifer now for over a year. Just like any relationship we’ve had our ups and downs. With this relationship, there are many differences I’ve never experienced before. We have the language barrier – which is difficult but not overwhelming, especially as I improve in Spanish (she doesn’t speak English). We have the distance barrier – about 25 to 40 minutes of travel to see one another. We have different schedules. We grew up with different cultures in different societies and therefore have different expectations of each other and ourselves. We have different trajectories of where we see our lives going. We have the fact that I will be returning to the States in 5 months (5 months!).

We met in a discoteca. It was around 3am, the nights usually go until 5 or 6am. I saw her and she was wearing a skirt...so I immediately thought she must be from Lima (the capital of Peru, 8 hours away) because girls around here don’t wear skirts unless it’s the traditional clothing with wool pants/stockings underneath, but you never see that in a discoteca…no skin is ever showing. Wow, I thought...I haven’t seen nice legs in a skirt in awhile! I approached her and we started talking, turned out she is from Huaraz but with a lot of family on the coast (which explains the skirt) and I asked her to dance. As the night ended I got her phone number; I called a day later and asked her to dinner. Luckily I was in the city all week for Quechua classes (Quechua is the native language here). That’s how we began.

Something comical about our meeting was that before I approached her we made eye contact and I thought she smiled at me. Turns out that shortly before I entered the bar, she and her friends were talking about Peruvian guys and that she doesn’t like them because they are too jealous. I walked in and a minute or two later, her friends pointed out the gringos that entered, an answer to her not liking the jealousy factor of Peruvian guys and when she looked at me, I looked back over at her almost simultaneously and that’s what caused her to smile…and why I thought it safe to approach…even though she wasn’t actually smiling at me but smiling for getting caught looking at me.

Now, after a year, I still have not been to her house nor met any of her family (other than a cousin). In fact, one time I was in the post office and she walked by with her mom – we just waved at each other. In this culture, you don’t meet family until you’re engaged. There is a lot of PDA in Peru because lovers who are not married have no privacy to be alone, since everyone lives with their family until marriage. In order to be intimate, they’ll go to a hostel or in Tarica, out into the forest. Of course, parents being so strict, traditional, or just stupid doesn’t seem to prevent all the teenage pregnancies in Peru. It’s like those who won’t teach about contraceptives but only about abstinence…it doesn’t work! As Malcolm Gladwell proposes in The Tipping Point, “we should not be fighting experimentation but making sure experimentation does not have serious consequences.”

Dating someone for a year seems like a long time – and it is. In the States, we have a lot more opportunity to really get to know someone. Once you’re off to college or living on your own, if you want to spend the night with your girlfriend or boyfriend, you can. Here, even if you’re 25, that doesn’t really happen much. In the States, if you’ve been dating someone for awhile, it’s okay and probably a good idea to meet the parents/family and get to see your significant other in front of their family…and we all learn a lot about each other doing that! Here – none of that happens. Even though we've been dating for over a year, I feel like we're at the same place a 3 or 4 month relationship would be back home.

For Jenifer, dating a white guy (especially one as weird as me) is probably interesting, at times difficult. Anyone here who sees us holding hands walking down the street will immediately assume she is a “bruchera”, the term for a Peruvian looking for a ticket out of Peru or money, that I’m a tourist passing through and she is slutting it up for the couple days...not that we’ve been dating for over a year and respect each other. There are many times I’m unable to fully explain myself (frustrating for the both of us). I can’t tell her all the things she probably wants to hear because I don’t know the words. She gets attached to me and then I skip back to my previous life. She has to put up with the residuals of my culture, which also has its qualms. Those are just a few of the difficulties.

For me as well, it’s quite interesting. I doubt she understands the culture I was raised in, with its social intricacies. I’ve been living in Peru for almost 2 years now and I still don’t fully know this culture. She’s never traveled outside of her country or lived in a place that doesn’t speak your native language, having few others to converse with. She can’t possibly relate to this experience. I have to operate under this foreign culture to a large extent. Although she is like our progressive society in more aspects than most here, she was still raised in the mountains – a very, very conservative area, which would have an influence on anyone.

Of course, there are difficulties in every relationship of knowing each other, communicating, understanding one’s perspectives, and a slew of other stuff. Along with all the standard issues, we have a few different ones than I’ve known in the past. I guess part of the beauty of intimate relationships is that there really are not two that are the same. I don't mean to imply that it's a difficult relationship, because then I wouldn't be involved...just different factors.

To answer everyone’s question though – No, I will not be bringing her back to the States. Have we grown close? Yes. Will I miss her? A lot. Do I hope to keep in touch with her? Of course. She has been an integral part of my life here, but we’ve been honest with each other about the status of what we’re doing. When I leave and we end our relationship, it’ll probably hurt (though I have the joy and novelty of returning home while she goes on living in hers)…but it won’t be a surprise.

Thanks for reading,
Much love,
Jake

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