A Lesson Learned: Culture Shock and Birthdays

Two days ago was my aunt’s 50th birthday party. I was invited by my host-dad to attend. He was excited to introduce me to his side of the family and eat panchamanca. About a week ago I was all for it. However, when the day came an interesting thing happened.

The best way I can describe how I felt about going to the party was unexcited and demotivated. I felt this way for no apparent reason; I wasn’t sick and I didn’t have other (more exciting) plans. But for some reason I was apprehensive about going. The closest I have felt to this was when I was living in Costa Rica. My roommate and I wanted to attend a friendly soccer match between Costa Rica and Paraguay. The same thing happened. A week before the event I was stoked to go. But when the time came to go buy tickets and leave for the game, I was almost scared of going. And I LOVE soccer so that’s saying something.

What these two moment have in common are how I felt leading up to an event and how I felt right before. It took me sometime to figure out why I felt the way I did, but after some reflection I was able to get a better understanding of what was happening to me. The simplest thing I can call it is culture shocked. And this is interesting because technically, I wasn’t even in the cultural experience yet. Normally, those feelings of culture shock strike right in the moment of something particularly jarring—something that flies in the face of how you were raised and understand the world. But when it came to the Costa Rican soccer game and my aunt’s 50th birthday party, I was shocked—almost debilitated to the point of making excuses (lying) in order not to go— before it even happened.

Culture shock does that to a person. It transforms seemingly benign moments, even moments that you technically enjoy such as birthday parties and soccer, into scary and culturally intensive experiences. So much so, that it feels better to try and escape the situation as opposed to face it head on. In my case, my excuse would have been that I felt sick. When in reality, I just wanted to stay in my community, play soccer after school and retire to my bedroom. I felt this way because the idea of traveling somewhere I hadn’t visited, meeting people I didn’t know, being the only gringo at the party, and balancing a group social event in my second (and third) language was entirely stressful. These reasons, among others, are why some cultural experiences in other countries feel daunting and not worth the headache. Moments of culture shock tell us that the experience will not be worth it and that we should create excuses not to experience it— ‘it’s too expensive, it’s unsafe, I don’t feel well, I’ll get home after dark, I have other plans’ etc. What I’ve learned however, is to question this process.

When culture shock hits, the best thing I can do is question myself. I turn inward to decipher why I feel the way I do. Unfortunately, however, this process sometimes happens after the fact and I miss out on a wonderful opportunity. However, when it happens in the moment, and I push through feeling debilitated and demotivated, I am often rewarded with a really fun and culturally enriching experience.

Knowing what I know now, I like to think that for every excuse I create in order not to experience something the more reasons there are to actually go. I balance each excuse with a reason to attend—a reason to defy my culturally shocked sentiments. Now, of course, take this with a grain of salt. If red flags are flying everywhere, and the thing you are trying to avoid might actually turn out to be dangerous or a bad decision, go with your gut and stay home. But hopefully, this introspective process will help guide that decision.

Like a lot of things, this process is easier said than done. But when it works, all the feelings of being timid, apprehensive and scared of something transform into being empowered and proud of oneself. You wrestled with culture shock and maintained enough autonomy to not let it rob you of an experience that enhances your life. You felt the pit of culture shock, crawled out (however slowly), and reached the peak of an entirely rewarding and beautiful experience. That is what happened to me in Costa Rica and with my aunt’s 50th birthday party. And It will surely happen again (culture shock comes in waves of peaks and valleys). However, with this process and more success stories because of it, I hope to never miss out on a culturally enriching experience ever again (but let’s be honest, I’ll probably miss one or two).

And now, a quick description of why I enjoyed my aunt’s birthday party so much!


At about 1:30 a car arrived at my school to take me, my younger brother and baby sister to the party. On the way, we stopped by the farm to pick up grandma. With more family I began to feel better about where we were going. At least I could play with the kids or talk to grandma if I really didn’t want to meet anyone new. With the windows down we bumped along the dirt road to the highway—a cool breeze and warm Andean sun guiding us along. Within about 15 minutes we arrived to the small community where the party would be held. I thought, “maybe we aren’t so far from home after all”. We found my host-dad waiting along the highway to meet us. He loaded into the car and we went down another dirt road towards the house. My nervousness about finding where we were going by myself slowly melted away.

We descended down this road about 15 minutes. I am constantly impressed with how Peruvians handle these types of roads in 2-wheel cars—some with rattling so aggressive that I swear the car is about to fall apart. On the banks of the Rio Santo we got out and finished the journey on foot. A small path following a tributary guided us to the home. We were greeted by cousins laughing and playing in a watering hole. “Hola” they said casually, without staring feverishly through my soul. “Hmm…” I thought, “maybe it won’t be so weird that I’m the only gringo here.”

The party was to be held in a recently constructed salon de baila (dance hall). The wood still smelt fresh from being cut and the roof was still shiny. Slowly I made the rounds with my host-dad. In Peru, it’s customary to greet everyone upon your arrival, one by one and even if the room is full of people. My dad introduced me as hijo (son) and referred to the people he was introducing me to as my aunts, uncles and cousins. I was so thankful to be welcomed warmly and with curiosity. My “hijo gringo” jokes worked perfectly—the laughter of my family continuing to assuage my nervousness of being there.

We sat and waited patiently for everyone to arrive before lunch was served. While we waited, the family set up speakers and a musician slowly prepared his harp. Soon a traditional Peruvian lunch was served. First comes soup, second comes panchamanca. The soup was good but the main course was better. Panchamanca is a dish that’s been cooked in the ground using really hot rocks and wood. The translation from Quechua roughly signifies ‘earth pot’. A proper panchamanca dish comes with comote (sweet potato), papa (potato), humita (sweet bread tamale), haba (lima beans), choclo (corn), queso (cheese), ahí ( hot sauce), and some sort of animal protein. In this case we had “dos sabores”— pollo (chicken) and chancho (pig). You eat it with your hands and don’t stop until you are done. The bones and leftovers get tossed to the dogs and pigs.

After lunch, the real party started. Wine was served and some of my aunt’s children and siblings gave palabras (speeches). After each we cheered to the birthday girl and took a sip. After the heartwarming speeches, the guests presented their gifts. With hugs and kisses the gifts are given and received, only to be opened sometime after the party. Then it was time for photos. Each person or groups of persons all take turns taking a photo with the birthday girl. I went to take a photo with my aunt, and as always, jokes and laughter about how tall I am erupted. Once the presents and photos are out of the way, the dances begin. Beers were immediately opened and passed around. The musician armed his harped and played a traditional Peruvian tune. One by one, the party guests took turns dancing with my aunt. And yes, I got out there and danced. Once again, culture shock was telling me, “play it safe, don’t embarrass yourself, you don’t know how to dance.” However, I remember specially thinking in my head, “fuck it.” As my turn finished and I returned back to my seat, the applauses and smiles from my family helped me realize I definitely made the right decision.

From that point the party guests, including myself, continued to drink and dance. We switched off from live music and music from cellphones so the musician could take breaks. After all, he wanted to drink also. We sat, talked, danced and passed bottles of beer around and around in circles. I sat next to one of my cousins and my grandma. Each time she warned me only to serve myself a little or else I would get drunk. I remember thinking, “thanks grandma, but I got this.” I was invited to dance a couple times. Each time my footwork got smoother and smoother. In reality, the Peruvian style of dance is rather simple. But finding the beat was hard for me sometimes. One time, after the song had finished I thanked my aunt for the dance and tried to sit down. However, she didn’t let me. She said, “uno mas!  tienes dos ojos no?” (one more, you have two eyes don’t you?).

After a couple of hours, my host-dad had called us another taxi and it was about time to go home. I made my rounds again, saying goodbye and thank you to all the people I had met. They each were so kind. My aunt made sure to invite me back for the next party. Our walk back to the car was much more adventurous than our journey to the party. At this point, it was getting dark and there was more water from the river on the road. We hopped, skipped and balanced our way through the puddles to where the car was parked—blocked by a pile of dirt that definitely was not there earlier in the afternoon. At one point, grandma just decided to bite the bullet and take her shoes off. Walking through the deeper puddles was easier than trying to shimmy off to the side. We loaded the car and bumped our way back to the highway. My buzz was definitely settling in at this point and I sat back to enjoy the short ride back to my community. Once we arrived home, I sat on the porch in front of the house and shared stories with my host-mom would didn’t attend the party. She was pleased that I went to meet the family and spend time. I was also. Looking back, trying to avoid the party was really quite silly. I was proud that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. And like most experiences in that uncomfortable realm, I learned a lot and was more empowered because of it. FELIZ CUMPLEANOS TIA.

Chicos swimming

Cousin, birthday girl auntie and grandma

Massive speakers were hiked in for music. Unfortunately the generator broke and we resorted to cell phones.

My two younger host siblings, Justin and Brittany, with their aunt.

The house was tucked in amongst it’s farm.

The dance hall and drinking circles forming.









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