Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stand-Up, Quechua Style

It would utter arrogance to call myself much of a comedian. My sense of humor tends towards the sarcastic, called the lowest form of wit and not at all understood in most of Péru. However, in the first minutes after I met my host mom, Edita (she was picking chili pepper in the middle of a field; I was exhausted and bewildered), I had her in stitches. The joke? My name: Kaitlyn, then my second name: Keirsey and my last name: Stanhope, each of which she asked for in turn and then realized she couldn´t pronounce any of them. It was a silly moment for both of us, and I knew we would be okay—not really mother-daughter, but friends.

After 20 months here, I would like to say that my jokes have moved beyond just unpronounceable English words and into a more sophisticated realm. I do include some all purpose quechua phrases as icebreakers in a meeting or house visit. Saying something like, this is my friend; he´s come to Péru to find a wife is a sure success when presenting a visitor and, in my case, anything about doing work in the fields, Peruvian men or babies is like a Chris Rock stand-up show.

The sense of humor in my site is similarly foreign. Sarcasm is unknown and not understood (Sometimes when people ask questions like, “Are you walking uphill?” as I clearly walk up hill and I can´t help but say something like, “No, I´m knitting a sweater.” This is incomprehensible). Slapstick humor on tv and movies is quite popular and, in person, jokes range from teasing to anecdotes with punchlines that I never quite get. The teasing is easy enough: for me, it´s usually about finding a husband, or that my 34 year old mom is going to hit me if I stay out late or that I should always wear my pollera, the traditional garb. I can give and take with the best of my “paisanos” (countrymen) from Musho. The anecdotes are tougher. Usually I just stare at the storyteller at the end, thinking there is more to come, as everyone around me bursts into laughter.

My lack of humor, at least in certain situations worried me until I remember the all-purpose Peace Corps out: it´s cultural. It is, though. As there are certain things here that I find hilarious and cannot share with my host family, the reserve is also true. This makes telling and sharing jokes a sort of challenge and surprisingly rewarding. Never in my life have I been the sort to think of a joke and eagerly anticipate the telling. However, now, when I think of a funny line to tell to a quechua grandma on the street, I find myself giggling as I walk up to her.

A killer from yesterday: I saw a giant, nice SUV parked on the dirt street in Musho and one of my quechua-speaking neighbors coming down the road. I asked her (in quechua): “Is that your car?” It was amazing. She laughed and laughed, then said that no, it must be my car and I said no. Translated it´s not particularly funny, but walking away from my still giggling 70 year old neighbor, I felt so cool—the nerdy girl who has managed to get into the popular crowd. In a way, it is the same sort of thing. The likelihood of a vegetarian, sarcastic, academic-oriented, city-raised, American foreigner being able to laugh with a quechua-speaking, subsistence farming, semi-literate woman, is wonderful.

Two of the Peace Corps´s three goals are about a cultural exchange—Americans learning about Peruvian culture and Peruvians learning about American culture. We do this through food, through sports, through dance, through music, through manners and, a little bit, through laughter.

And here are some moments I have found hilarious:
My house mom dancing with her baby bundled onto her back.
And here are some moments I have found hilarious:
My house mom dancing with her baby bundled onto her back.

The tradition of shoving a birthday boy´s (or girl´s) face into their cake.
And this absurd looking pig.

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