Embracing Discomfort: Portraits of Peru

When Shina Park went to Peru, she had three things in mind: build relationships, hone Spanish-speaking skills, and immerse herself in a foreign culture. In short, she said, she traveled to get lost.

But several weeks after her arrival, she said, I felt genuinely lost and disconnected from all things familiar. The transportation system bewildered me, I couldn’t extend beyond small talk with my host father, and I was shivering in my bed at night. It took me a while to figure out the kombi routes and to muster up the courage to ask for more blankets at night. How was I confronting my fears and embracing discomfort? I wasn’t, really.

But then I looked up, observed my surroundings, and took photographs of what I saw. During this process, I forgot about my anxieties. I no longer cared for them. To have been consumed by my anxieties would’ve been my loss, as I would’ve missed Peru. Although the following photographs do not wholly encapsulate Peru, they are few glimpses of what I’ve discovered there.


Why am I here?

Throughout my three months here in Senegal on SST, I have gotten this question from a wide range of people in a variety of forms. My place here doesn’t fit into any of the pre-existing, easily understood boxes; I am not a traditional exchange student, I am not a missionary, I am not moving here permanently. My answers to these queries of my reason for being in Senegal have never quite satisfied my listeners, and have not satisfied me either.

Why am I here?

Why have I spent the last 3 months in a foreign, developing nation where both the languages and culture were previously unfamiliar to me? In my first week or two, my only answer was that I was fulfilling a graduation requirement and expanding my worldview. I vowed to continue to ponder this puzzle, and while I am still thinking, I believe I have arrived at much more of a response. 

I am here to be. I am here to be a listener, be a participant, and be open to learning and growth. It is difficult at times to accept that I have the privilege to live a different life for 3 months and then return to my comfort. It is difficult to accept that I have spent this much time here but have not done anything visibly constructive to help this land that has welcomed me.

I have come to realize that there there is value in projects and action, but being able to act wisely and conscientiously first requires understanding. And wisdom and understanding are only gained through time, experience, and thoughtfulness. SST has opened this door of understanding wider for me, helping me to see and think more clearly without biases and assumptions. 

I have learned the value of seeing with my heart, turning the world inside-out so that it can be right-side up. I have found that all the reasoning and logic in the world mean nothing if they are not joined with caring for others and looking with love. All the cultural differences — religion, food, homes, dress, language — become beautiful in their diversity when you learn to connect with the intangibles of a place, such as hospitality, love of family, and emphasis on community.

My Sister’s Room

Out of my two families on SST, I connected the best with my study family, but especially with my little sister Julia. She was seven and speaks just about zero English, but despite the language barrier, I connected with my little sister almost immediately.

I was her jiejie (or “big sister” in Chinese) and we quickly became the best of playmates. We would sing Disney songs together, play with dolls, and practice her English on the weekends through games. Our greatest achievement together was building a Disney lego castle, which is pretty difficult when you are working in two different languages. Julia was — and is — the light of my life.

One Cannot Exist Without the Other

I could feel the upheaval as soon as I entered the room. My mom was nowhere to be seen, and my Nicaraguan host dad, Reynaldo, was shuffling around in the kitchen. It was early in the morning, and he was aimlessly pacing around. Eventually, he put away a rusty metal serving spoon, hanging it on a nail in the wall. He turned to grab a wooden bowl off the windowsill, stared at it, and put it on a different shelf. He didn’t seem to know what to do with himself.

I was new to most things in Nicaragua, but I knew for certain that my father was not the normal family cook. Although I had seen him in the kitchen several times, it was only to bring pichingas full of water, chopped firewood, and sacks full of lechuga inside for my mother.

My dad looked at me, gestured toward the steamy arroz and frijoles warming on the clay stove, and said, “Your mother is in town today for a routine doctors appointment. She made breakfast before she left this morning.”

Really? I thought to myself, She’s gone one day and my dad can’t make his own food? I knew men and women in Nicaragua were expected to fulfill certain roles in the household, but this seemed ridiculous. I finished eating my arroz and frijoles by myself and walked back to the bucket of water sitting on the wooden countertop. Normally, my mother would take away my dishes before I had a chance to wash them, but today I was on my own.

Causa for a Greater Cause

I have always loved cooking. Even ate the age of four, I can remember climbing up to my family’s kitchen counter to help make chocolate chips cookies. This passion continued throughout my life, as I worked at various restaurants and made artisan breads to sell at local farmer’s markets this previous summer. I hope to eventually have a career in food security, striving for easier access to healthy foods for all people.

While on SST in Peru, I was fortunate enough to be placed with a family during study who shared the same love for food. My host grandmother, Alicia, was the cook for our group and my father, Glicerio, was a cook at a local hotel. One Saturday I spent nearly six hours cooking with Alicia. We had a grand feast in the evening with all of our family, eating lots of Peruvian favorites, tallarín verde, causa and sopa de pollo.