Rearranging Prejudices

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

William James

There may have been a performance appraisal or an interview, where I’ve been guilty of claiming lofty characteristics of someone who has integrity and is highly adaptable. I’m sure it’s not just me as all the firm’s employees, in exchange for an ok bonus, are required to provide evidence on their performance against the core competencies: Demonstrate integrity! Be open minded and agile!

The perfect oxymoron.

Adaptability on a superficial level – yes, I can eat as much raw fish and onion as the next man. But insisting on certain core values can be just as self destructive when living in a completely different culture as in a performance appraisal. When every day is like the Game of Thrones between Principles and Tolerance, what happens to tolerance as a principle?

Juliet Solomon, in a funny book about starting a new life in Lima, ‘Yes…But It’s Different Here’ (which I highly recommend), describes the shock “of moving from an environment where diversity was the norm to one where conformity is essential”. While it is all good to make “fancy Power Points on Hanukkah as a class project, diversity just don’t cut on the playground”.

Take another example, the advice that both Peruvians and foreigners living in Peru are quick to share with a newcomer: you can’t trust anyone. This leaves an awkward choice between being perpetually mistrustful and cagey; or repeatedly disappointed and humiliated. Even if the advice wasn’t fact based, people act like it was, so the effect is more or less the same.

Perhaps with time I will learn the necessary coping mechanisms, and feel less autistic in interpreting people’s expressions. In the meantime, to the shame of my 20-year-old self, I have found some solace in the ‘expat’ community. This includes border-line nationalist Finnish pass-times I haven’t bothered with since the secondary school. Getting beaten at a Tuesday floor-ball (“sähly”) session by the Finnish ambassador. Or singing Finnish folksongs at an international bazar.

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Las Brujas Del Norte (the witches of the North) in their full glory.

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Last Saturday the Miraflores sports stadium Manuel Bonilla looked almost like Tottenham high street, with stalls representing Libya, Qatar, Ukraine, Russia, India… For one day it was as easy to buy British cider as to find the Russians with a bottle opener.  DD’s favourite stalls were (surprisingly) the British and the Finnish ones, although she spent all her money on the Belgian stall – nationalism meets capitalism. Almost the only thing reminding me that we were in Peru was the micro monetary system, where the vendors are unable to accept cash (never trust anyone) and instead you have to (queue to) exchange your money for non-refundable paper tokens worth five soles (one quid) each. You either end up with too much useless Monopoly money or making return trips to the queue when you really do need another Belgian waffle. I won’t even begin on the confusion when the cost of your purchase isn’t dividable by five.

Short-changed or with worthless currency, is what I feel whenever I’m exchanging something I believe in for something that makes me fit in, and this would probably make me less suited for a diplomatic career. On the other hand, while I’m not suggesting that you should severe relations over a waffle, sometimes – or especially? – even foreign ministers have to go packing.

But before I’d do that, there are many comparatively good things about living in Lima, which I’m quite sure I will miss once back in a country where buses don’t try to run me over. Here’s the list, which you can completely trust*.

(*Disclaimer: in case it doesn’t become obvious, this is based on a subjective experience of a 30-something mother hanging out in the posher neighbourhoods of Miraflores and San Isidro. For more methodological lists, one can refer to Buzzfeed.)

Ten Comparatively Good Things about Living in Lima That Are Not Food

  1. No people dressed in bathrobes bellowing ‘what a wonderful world’ to a bottle of vodka out on the street corner at 9am. Peruvians might be “bonkers” as DD summed up another incident that saw her mother employ less diplomatic language, and madness may be more evenly distributed across the society than in Britain. But, there are well-known studies that show that the prevalence of some serious psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia is far lower outside English-speaking developed countries. In case you were wondering why you should visit Peru, THIS, right up there with Macchu Picchu, could be the reason.
  2. Not being told by a passer-by that my bicycle helmet does not conform with the EU standards. No-one cares. Helmet? What’s that? As a mother of a high-energy child with what Sheryl Sandberg might call leadership skills, I’m particularly grateful that Peruvians mind their own business. Really, no-one cares.
  3. The public attitude that doesn’t cast children as either victims or villains. There’s a child friendliness to the point that a kid gives you the entitlement to jump almost any queue. (Which in practice means reclaiming your original place. But more on that on another list.) Tested last Sunday on an older posh lady claiming her right of way at a supermarket till reserved for people with “discapacidades” just as I was unloading my shopping basket. “She’s my disability,” I pointed to my 7-year-old performing cartwheels between the washing detergent promotion and bananas – with a dry tone of voice that was supposed to indicate a joke, not a closing statement of O.J. Simpson’s defence, although the effect was the latter. Child friendliness 1 – Sarcasm 0.
  4. Everyone expects that everyone is a fraudster. But no-one expects that everyone is a paedophile, which, on balance, is worse. This gives even the male members of the society the confidence, unheard of in England, to call a stranger’s kid “preciosa” or squeeze her cheeks, which I do acknowledge to DD is irritating but cheek abuse is not child abuse. (But now I’m panicking that this blog post encourages a plane full of 1980s British TV-stars heading to Peru, because of course everyone…)
  5. I used to think lateness as a sin of the dark age, but now I weigh the frustration of having had to wait for someone/Someone/ex-Someone against the elevated blood pressure when I’ve been running more than two minutes late for a meeting or school pick up (most days). I was once two hours late picking DD up from her school in the Lima outskirts, which is more than enough time for the British social services to open a case file. Here they hadn’t even called me in the first hour and no-one seemed particularly traumatised.
  6. No Islamic threat, no radicalisation of the youth, no ‘rivers of blood’, no immigration “problem”, no capsizing boats, etc that have obsessed Europe since the crusades. Boooring. How about an ex president serving time for human rights violations and corruption while his heiress and supporter is the credible candidate for the next Peruvian presidency?
  7. I’ve not been told to go back to my own country, the particular citizens of which, on the other hand, have told me just that on many occasions, even when I haven’t ranted about everything that’s fucked up about the country. Peruvians are first to react to embarrassing public services with a humble “it’s Peru – what do you expect”, but if there’s any embarrassment in this admission, it is short-lived and la vida goes on.
  8. Not one you might expect, but I feel safe. I leave the house under the cover of darkness just after 4am in a tiny pair of running shorts and headphones on to meet my running buddies in a nearby park, which I’d have never done in North London. There’s always a Serenazco – a Peruvian bobby on the beat – within sight and wishing you good morning.
  9. While diversity still has some way to go, in many ways I find Lima inclusive. In no other country I’ve been, I’ve seen patrolling police in a wheel chair. In DD’s school most classes include children with physical or developmental disabilities, and to DD this seems to be as standard as having both boys and girls in a class. Like, duh. In her British nursery or school there wasn’t one child with a visible disability. Where are they? And while the sight of the indigenous domestic slaves trailing behind and carrying their employer families’ beach gear makes me see red, seeing older or disabled people out and about with personal support, makes up for the lack of accessible infrastructure and seems a lot more humane than the alternatives normal citizens of a ‘welfare state’ could afford.
  10. Running in Lima provides me with metaphors for everything that is beautiful about Limeños. Last Saturday on our training run, separated from the rest of the group, at the 28th kilometre my running partner said she had to cut it “short” to go to work. When she realised I was clueless about the remaining 4k of the route, she decided to stay. “Won’t you be late for work?,” I asked, but she couldn’t leave me there wandering around a few extra kilometres for nothing. She’d come up with something for the boss.

…Happy Labour Day!

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British migrants in Peru. (Or a British interpretation of a Peruvian migrant in Britain back in Peru.)

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