When people first meet me, it doesn’t take very long for them to learn that I was born in Peru. Sometimes it’s because when they ask where I’m from, a part of me feels like I would be lying if I were to simply say San Francisco, even though that is where I have lived for these past 17 years. I feel the need to fill the awkward pause where I would otherwise dreadfully await this follow-up question: “No, but where are you really from?”
Other times it is because I am bored and want to dare some of the white American backpacking hipsters to think of Peru beyond Machu Picchu and its adorable alpacas. But most of the time, when I say the four words, “I am from Peru,” I am not thinking of my culture, or of my family’s history of immigrating to America, or of representing the small Peruvian population in Northern California. Most of the time, it is a prerehearsed phrase I blurt out during awkward or slow introductions, gearing myself up for an interview session I already had the answers to.
In summer 2017, I traveled to London though the Berkeley Global Internship Program, an eight-week program primarily designed to immerse students into life and culture in the U.K. through an internship in the city. I had gotten a job as a digital marketing and production intern with SubTV, a young music streaming company.
Upon arrival, London overwhelmingly stole my breath away. I had never before visited a city that operated at such a modern speed (with Tube stops connecting daily commuters every two or three blocks) while being so ingrained in the past (yes, a lot of their architecture really did resemble “Downton Abbey”). The Brits may sport a reputation for being snobbish and polite, but most of my time there consisted of breaking all aspects of personal boundaries — especially while touching noses and scraping foreheads inside the Tube during work rush hours every day.
The British work environment is very similar in nature. SubTV’s office design was an open, shared room with desks — not cubicles — facing one another to allow the back-and-forth throwing of food and witty remarks. The company’s CEO sat in front of me, and behind me sat the only other American summer intern.
On my first day, my boss went around introducing me to each department. But I had heard Brittany’s high-pitched American accent before I even entered the room. I don’t know whether it was her outfit — a The Cure T-shirt neatly tucked under some high-waisted plaid pants — or her overly laid-back yet chirpy personality, but something about her screamed Berkeley hippy chick wannabe.
One of my co-workers had a crowd hunched around her and her computer. This was my chance to make a first impression. Walking up to them, my boss and I received some kind smiles and a few nods of acknowledgement until someone finally asked, “So, where are you from in the States?”
“California, but I was born in…” Everyone’s eyes widened in amazement.
“California, like dreamland California?”
I continued to try to finish my sentence. “Yes, but I am from Peru.” My co-workers looked confused. “Peru — like Paddington, the bear?” Awkward silence. Bear, what bear? We have llamas, alpacas, “The Emperor’s New Groove,” but bears?
They didn’t care about learning where I was from. They wanted to hear about palm trees and beaches. Apparently, in the U.K., being from Peru means resembling a cartoon character, Paddington, from Michael Bond’s children’s book, who travels from the “darkest corners of Peru” to be adopted into a British family. This bear’s identity has been displaced and he is unique from everyone else, but he is alone.
I had rehearsed the mantra of being an outsider because it was an easy way of capturing people’s attention without having to give over so many details about myself. If someone were to really ask me about my country, I would not have all the answers, and that feels frightening. But it felt wrong to be able to impress my coworkers simply for being from California. They had overlooked a whole other side of me. I was “in,” but I hated it.
But what I had been doing for the past 17 years was more or less than same — exoticizing my culture in order to present an image that people would find unique and enticing. So now, no matter where I am in the world, when people ask where I am from, I say, “San Francisco.” Full stop.
Contact Luz Rioja at [email protected].