Every culture in the world deals with families. Sometimes it defines who a person is at their very core. Sometimes it merely defines common practices, such as holiday traditions or methods of grieving. Sometimes it defines priorities by conditioning its members to always attend weddings but not funerals, or emphasizing mealtime prayers but not homework assistance. The way culture influences family varies around the globe, but the fact is that families are observably different.
It is the rainy season right now. It has been said that rain to Peruvians is like snow to southerners. They just don’t really know what to do with it and prefer to stay home. It is tough on many families because the homes aren’t made to keep out water, and the flat roofs (left that way so that another floor can be added on later) collect water that then creeps down into the house.
Peru is an extremely Catholic country. And within that, Arequipa is an extremely Catholic city. It is woven into the culture here in a very real way. People will state that they are Catholic, even if that just means their family would claim the Catholic church over another, rather than defining their sense of self in relation to God and the world. Nominal Catholicism is widespread, with such participants attending mass on religious holidays, but relatively few times apart from those.
At first glance, Peru seems to have a similar Christmas season. Granted, it doesn’t kick off after Thanksgiving, since they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but once December rolls around, signs of the holidays are visible. The mall has trees and decorations for sale. Just about everyone at the markets is selling something with greenery or Papa Noel (Santa) or bells on it. Art and fabric stores roll out ribbons and beaded strings and glittery leafy sprays to spruce up normal plants with a holiday twist. You can
find many things with “Merry Christmas” written on them, and I’m still not sure if that is a shout out to English speakers in the city or a lack of local options requiring extra importation of such decor.
Many families to have trees, though artificial ones are the only options here. Most are small, from about 5’ tall and down to tabletop size. Larger ones are available, but less prevalent.
The differences are hidden, but very much real. Some Peruvians buy and hang stockings, but they have plenty of adornment themselves, because they don’t have the stories of Santa coming down the chimney to bring gifts (poor people can’t afford such fairy tales), nor do they have mantles on which to hang them. So the stockings end up somewhere around the living area as another piece of decoration and nothing more. The most common decoration is a nativity scene, but these include some details that we aren’t usually accustomed to. For instance, one can readily find a stable-like structure to provide the stage for the nativity, complete with painted paper or dry moss to provide a natural flooring. The nativity typically consists of the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and some animals, but families sometimes add more animals and characters over the years, so that you might see a variety of unlikely witnesses to the event. Also, as homes are made of concrete, there is very little hanging of lights on the structure of the home, especially outside where they would likely be removed by a passerby. Rather, lit decorations are placed inside the windows to be seen from the street, everything from flashing words to basic net-style lights hung without ado.
The most obvious difference is the actual celebration of the holiday. They do a big dinner of turkey and various sides, from applesauce to mashed pasas (a large white bean, kind of like mashed potatoes) to avocado slices. But they eat it on Christmas Eve. They start their family celebrations late, having dinner at about 11:00, which is strange in a country that eats a big lunch at 2 or 3 and hardly anything for dinner. This is followed by fireworks at the stroke of midnight. This is an amazing show, because rather than have a particular view in one part of the sky, the city lights up all around you. Last year, we hadn’t quite made it home when this part of the celebration started, which resulted in Kyle dodging black cats and bottle rockets those last few blocks to the house. It is only after the fireworks that families usually go back inside to share presents and additional treats, which might be followed by attending a mass at their church as well. All in all, the entire family, kids included, stays up until 3 or 4 in the morning before closing up shop. Christmas Day is just a day to rest and relax with the family.
Being invited to a family’s Christmas Eve festivities is a huge honor, like being asked to be there on Christmas morning to open the stockings and everything. We are thankful to have such an opportunity to see special moments in a Peruvian family’s life, to understand them a little better and find ourselves less tied to assumptions we had and more aware that while cultures are highly different, the concept of family and celebration needs no translation.
Now that we’re back from furlough, I have been struck anew at how powerful the concept of language really is to those of us attempting to communicate across the world. And while it is difficult enough to learn to translate our thoughts into another language, it is even more difficult to learn how to translate them into another culture and then communicate that appropriately in their own native tongue. Let me explain what I mean.
It has been great to be back in the States on furlough. One of the things we anticipated was the opportunity to eat at some old favorite restaurants and enjoy food that tasted just like we expect it to taste. But what I forgot was how the system works concerning customer service.
We have a natural assumption of having an effect on the people around us. We are taught not to stare, point, make fun, be too loud, or offend others. We are trained to be aware of the feelings of those around us, watch out for other drivers, keep the dog in the backyard and generally be considerate. The basis of these actions is the belief that we can influence the well-being of others. We act accordingly, either positively or negatively, but we know we affect others.
How someone views time can be observed in how they spend it. For some, this means time is something to be saved, and they spend lots of their days rushing around “saving” themselves time by going faster and fitting more into the number of hours they have. For others, this means that time is to be savored and they spend their days more slowly, more intentionally, stopping to smell the roses, though maybe lacking in accomplishments and efficiency
For those of us from the USA, the word “culture” typically carries a different meaning than for other people groups. In the states, when we use the word culture, it usually implies some sort of status or exposure to fine living that includes the arts, theatre, literature, etc. We also might refer to cultures within the country so as to define a slice of the population and their sub-culture that differs from the general norm in some way.
Poverty is a global reality. Every country has some percentage living below the poverty line, as defined within their economy and cultural norms. Despite the fact that Peru has a strong economy and is a growing force in the world market, the percentage of the population that is considered poor remains in the 30% range, in comparison to the US’s percentage of about 12%.