Living Strong Abroad: Adjusting to a new country

Jo Self

A strengths coach describes her experience immersing herself as much as possible into the culture of Peru by using her top 5 strengths.

Living Strong Abroad: Adjusting to a new country

(Photo: Pixabay)

I came to Peru in both 1995 and in 2011, deciding to leave behind my American way of thinking (or at least minimize it) and to immerse myself as much as possible into the culture. What I discovered, both then and now, is that it was much less about assimilation and more about adapting. I think that’s what happens for many of us, though I believe that it is also dependent on why we moved here in the first place. For me, both times were voluntary.

1. I made a conscious decision to live in Lima and not travel very much while I was here. My main mission was to improve my Spanish and I didn’t want to complicate things by hearing different dialects. True or not, I was 21 and language, not travel, was the main focus. I was not going to graduate from University with a degree in Spanish and not know how to speak it (hello, #Communication and #Maximizer talent). It worked too. By the end of nearly four months, I was chatting with a street vendor about how much I was going to miss my friends, and she said, “You’ll be back home soon enough.” I let her know that the US was my home and her response was a very surprised, “You’re not Peruvian?” Mission accomplished.

2. The first 48 hours. I had a plan. It may not seem like a smart plan, but it worked. My #Activator, #Maximizer and #Strategic strengths made it happen. I had read in every guide book about all the foods and items I should avoid ingesting while in Peru. No ice, no fresh foods like yogurt, no fresh fruit you didn’t peel yourself, careful with ceviche, etc. Well, to heck with that. I was not going to live four months in a new country and not fully enjoy the food. I’ve been a big explorer since way back (at 5 years old my favorite meal was escargot followed by a PB&J cut into the shape of a plane). So, I threw myself in.

I got off the plane and ate yogurt with fresh fruit. I had anticuchos and chicha the next day. That was followed up with ceviche and Pisco sours. My first 48 hours was a whirlwind of food and flavors. The second 48 hours were mostly spent in the bathroom. And after that, I could eat anything I wanted, no consequences. Totally worth it.

3. The #WOO factor. Yep, #WOO is a talent. It stands for ‘Winning Others Over’ and it is mostly associated with being a social butterfly. And it was both my friend and my enemy as I made my way through this foreign territory.

I learned the hard way that asking new friends – more often than not males – out for a cup of coffee apparently had a secret of which I was woefully unaware: I was inviting rather unwelcome advances. I only had to make that mistake around thee times to learn it wasn’t the person, it was the habit. But on the positive side, #Positivity does allow me to see the bright side. I met quite a few people and even had a fabulous lunch with a congressional candidate and learned the ins and outs of Peru’s political system at the time. I was here during Fujimori’s second bid for President and even got to vote. OK, not really, but they did let me stick my finger in the ink and everyone thought I did.

4. Machu Picchu/Cusco, #WOOx10. This was undoubtedly the heart of my most amazing experiences in the entire four months of my stay. My first night in Cusco I ate at a lovely little restaurant called La Retama, which still exists, but not in its original location. Alone, I enjoyed the show and the hospitality quite a bit. I even invited 11 people from nine countries to dine with me again upon our return from Machu Picchu, including a couple with whom I am still in contact with today. Another night I returned with a group of English tourists I convinced to go there. The owners ended up inviting me to their home for lunch one day and I felt immediately at home.

I had a nickname in the small town (it was still small in ’95) and could hear “Chaska” being shouted at me even as I walked the streets on my own. The mother of my tour guide even invited me back to Cusco to stay with her family for a week. I was greeted with delicious cuy (guinea pig), and was woken up at 6 a.m. one morning with the whole family singing me ‘Happy Birthday’ complete with cake. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such belonging as I did in those two, 2-week visits to Cusco.

5. I cannot order a simple pizza. #Communication and #Maximizer and I did not hit it off, initially. Even though I was there to learn Spanish, I was shocked at how little I really knew. After nearly 12 years of studying and one semester away from graduating with a degree in Spanish, I quickly realized how little I really knew. Conversation is incredibly important to me – especially in travel – as connecting with people is what I most seek and I most treasure. My #Communication wanted to go all in, but my #Maximizer, the need for perfection or excellence, kept my mouth shut quite a bit. My first few days I mostly just listened, but the words I was hearing were not the words I learned in school.

For example, a phase like:
“Después de trabajo, voy a tomar unas cervezas con mis amigos”.
Was actually said more like this:
“Oye, después de chambear, tomaré unas chelitas con mis patas.”

I also could not order a pizza. I had no idea of sizes, toppings, or how to ask for delivery. My dear friend Tuco became my middle-man for pizza. I would call his house and the conversation would go something like this:

Me: “Hola, con Tuco por favor.”
Them: “De parte de quién?”
Me: “Soy Jo.”
Them: “Si eres tu, pero cuál es tu nombre.”
Me: “Mi nombre es Jo. [Sigh] Soy la gringa.”
Them: “Ah, sisisisisi, momentito por favor…”

Any other thoughts on why it might have been challenging to order a pizza? The whole name thing never gets easier.

All in all, I had a marvelous time. I learned a lot about myself and I honestly didn’t want to leave.

In the next edition of Living Strong Abroad, I’ll discuss how my strengths are helping me adapt now.

Jo Self is Peru’s only Gallup Certified Strengths Coach and is on a mission to disrupt the status quo. She believes in a world where everyone can live to their full potential, talents aren’t wasted, and happiness is contagious. As a mompreneur and expat living in Peru, she understands the challenges and rewards that both entail. When she’s not helping others create extraordinary lives, she can be found at the sewing machine, at the movies, enjoying a glass of wine with friends or horsing around with her terribly precocious little boy, affectionately known as O. Contact her through her website or by writing to jo@joself.consulting.

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