After Dinner Debates

I was really interested to hear more about my host family’s views of America.  They were in an interesting position to weigh in, seeing as they had been hosting exchange students for more than 10 years.  The majority of these students were from the US, but over the years they also hosted a significant number of students from other Latin American countries.

I decided to ask the members of my host family about their opinions of America in the middle of my stay.  At this point, there was also an exchange student from Brazil, Mayara, staying with us.  Throughout the course of Mayara’s stay, I had engaged in many impromptu conversations with her and my host father, Sandro, about politics, specifically about the immigration policies of Peru and the US.  As a result, I already had an idea of their opinions of the US, but wanted to know more.  I was a little saddened, but not at all surprised, by the responses of my host family and Mayara.

Sandro acknowledged that he and his family were in a unique position for forming their views of the US since they had worked so closely with American students over the years.  It was nice to hear that his personal experiences with American students contradicted the opinion he developed of the US from the news and public sentiment.  However, he was sure to let us know that the majority of his peers, and even our neighbors in the apartment below, did not share his same amiable feelings towards US students coming to study in Peru.  Sandro felt that over the past few years, especially during the Trump administration, the US has increasingly adopted a “me first” attitude, as he calls it.  He mentioned how he struggles to reconcile the view he has developed of the US as a internally-focused, culturally insensitive country with the curiosity and openness of the students he has worked with.  He imagines that this discrepancy is probably attributable to the media presentation of mainstream politics versus the behavior of individuals.

Sandro cited the ever-increasing population of Venezuelan immigrants in Cusco and the harsh US immigration policies to justify his sentiment regarding the US.  He explained that in recent years, there has been a significant influx of Venezuelan immigrants into Cusco who were barred from entering the US.  Mayara relayed similar experiences in Brazil with increasing populations of immigrants who were attempting, but unable, to enter the US.  She harbored a similar sense of disappointment with the US and its treatment of other countries and peoples.  Our conversation repeatedly returned to the issue of immigration and I wondered if this was indicative of the gravity, or the incessant media coverage, of the situation.  Regardless, I felt disheartened but lucky, to get the chance to see the effects of our immigration policies on other countries which aren’t on the forefront of current immigration debates.  This conversation also made it abundantly clear to me just how influential US immigration policy is on the global stage; something I will be sure not to lose sight of going forward.

Gabi answering my questions, using any excuse to avoid her math homework

Gabi was another story.  When I asked her what she thought of the US, she told me of all the friends she has acquired over time from the US and how she wants to visit New York one day.  She also made sure to tell me how hard it would be for her to get all the necessary “papers and autographs” she needs to be allowed to visit the US; an echo of her father’s frustration with the visa process that I found both endearing and upsetting.  It was refreshing to hear her 7-year-old view of the US that was not as riddled with frustration and lacking in hope.  I also imagine it helped that I asked her what she thought of the US shortly after explaining to her that Meaghan Markle was the first American to become a princess.  The influence of a good real-life princess story shouldn’t be underestimated.

I feel really lucky that my host family was always so open to discussing some more highly-charged subjects with me.  It was not uncommon that Sandro, Mayara, and I would discuss economics, politics, social trends, and public policy after dinner.  Initially, this mainly meant that I would listen, try and pick up as much new vocabulary as I could, and chime in when possible.  But eventually I got the hang of it and these conversations were some of my favorite moments of my trip.  Abuela, the undisputed head of the household, would often sit in on our conversations, but rarely offered up her own opinions and mainly sat silently observing our debates.  One night Abuela interjected mid-conversation to ask me how I learned Spanish.  I was caught off guard, somewhat nervous that she would follow up with some pointers for me.  Instead, Abuela quickly commended the progress I had made and returned to her tea.  I can honestly say this was one of the most exciting moments of my trip for me! To be complimented by Abuela, a woman of very few words and even fewer compliments, was extremely encouraging! I knew in this moment that my immersion program really was helping me improve my Spanish skills, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent to me.

The most amazing host family