I will never forget the first time I had a PB&J sandwich – it was in Tampa, Florida, at the Chamberlain Senior High School cafeteria, circa 1985. Yes, what a strange thing to remember, but for me the discovery of peanut butter mixed with purple jelly at 15 was a memorable one as it marked the first of many new and different experiences I would have during my stint as a foreign exchange student in los Estados Unidos.
My parents always had a plan: to seek better opportunities in life, even if that meant leaving their home country of Peru. I think moving to the U.S. was a logical choice for them, as they were fluent in English. They were practically newlyweds when they secured student visas and despite family objections they moved to Miami where they hoped to build a new future. Then came little I, but before I could wobble about without falling my parents were forced to return to their homeland after their visas expired. My father was a stickler to the rule of law, and staying in the U.S. without permission was not an option. I know they were disappointed, but for them it was a given that one day I would return to the place of my birth.
A few months before my 16th birthday, my mother, the progressive-thinking woman that she’s always been, decided it would do me well to get immersed in the cultura Americana, so I would know what to expect when the time came to leave the nest and find my own future in the U.S. My mom located a group that specialized in organizing the exchange between students in the U.S. and Peru. I was to be immersed in the American culture by spending most of my Summer vacation living with an American family, attending high school, working, and learning new things.
I remember being very apprehensive about this new plan my mother had concocted, even though by that time in my life I had lived in 4 different countries spanning 3 continents, spoke English fluently, some French, and even some Afrikaans and a bit of Zulu(!), which I had learned while living in South Africa. My point is – it wasn’t like I hadn’t been in new territory before, yet what caused me the most stress was that I would be away from my parents for the first time in my life.
My host family, (a father who was raising three beautiful daughters along with his second wife) waited for me at the airport with open arms. I spotted my American sisters right away – they were holding up a huge, colorful “Welcome, Gloria!” sign. Our cultural differences became evident almost immediately when I proceeded to kiss every member of the family, something that took them by surprise a bit, as I later learned that hugging was their preferred form of greeting. I initially had trouble understanding their fast-paced English, and as I walked with them to the car wearing my Peruvian knit sweater (thanks, Mom!) and eyeing their cool clothes, modern hairstyles, and perfectly applied makeup, I felt like an outsider. Little did I know that a few months later we would all be back to the same spot kissing, hugging, crying, and swearing eternal friendship.
My short experience as an exchange student in the U.S. was something that I will never forget. Simply put, it was a breath of fresh air and an opportunity to learn about another culture and about myself – and aside from the peanut butter and jelly discovery, there are many other American memories that I still hold close to my heart: My first jobs in the U.S. with my American sister, Traci – learning how to scoop ice cream for anxious customers at Baskin Robbins (still my favorite ice cream) – and babysitting (something that was so foreign to me, as my parents paid live-in maids to take care of my siblings and I as kids); getting lessons in the art of applying makeup by my oldest American sister and later cruising in her Corvette around town and feeling important; discovering Judy Blume books, high school parties, and blasting Billy Idol on my sister’s portable cassette player; going to the mall and clutching a teddy bear while getting my ears pierced for a second time; trying out for the cheerleading squad (and not making it); being picked up for my first real date with a boy (and hearing my American dad give the necessary pre-date lecture); rushing to KFC with that boy (my new boyfriend, Mike) at lunchtime and devouring hot biscuits with honey under the bleachers; skipping school for a day and driving with Mike on his Dodge pickup to Busch Gardens – and getting seriously grounded afterwards; and so many, many more.
It has been more than 25 years, but I still remember walking towards my parents at the airport sporting high top Converse sneakers, a Psychedelic Furs t-shirt, two earrings in each ear, a boom box under my arms, and Mike’s “dog tags” around my neck, and feeling like a new and improved version of myself – inside and out. I can’t thank my parents enough for being so open-minded and giving me the chance to learn about another culture, one that today I consider my own.