Posted on | February 8, 2011 | 9 Comments
It seems like a lot of expats have a hard time with the idea of Peruvian familiarity.
There was a time in the US when people had nicknames. The tall guy was called Stretch. The short guy was called Half-Pint. The overweight dude was called Tubs. The girl with light hair was called Blondie. People look the way they look, and it wasn’t considered an insult or affront for someone to notice.
That’s the way it still is in Peru. Everyone has nicknames. EVERYONE. Sometimes it’s as simple as the diminutive of your actual name – in my case, everyone calls me Kelita. It’s like someone named Margaret being called “Maggie”.
In some cases, the nickname seems to come from nowhere. My husband’s name is Arturo, but he’s been called Johnny all his life – except here, they spell it Jhony. And pronounce it sort of “hyownee”. His brother Roman is called “Pocho”. I don’t know why – my husband isn’t even sure why everyone calls him Johnny.
By far the most common nicknames (or chapas) are those based on physical appearance. I have a theory – that might be completely wrong – that Peruvians notice differences and comment on them simply because the American Indian physical appearance is fairly standard. Black hair, dark eyes, dark skin – so anyone’s difference is noted. It makes it easier to call that person out of a crowd and to describe him or her to others.
That’s why my oldest son, who is lighter skinned and has a slight Asian slant to his eyes, is called Chino. My younger son who is considerably shorter than his classmates is called Chato (shorty). Chato actually has several nicknames at school, like Ratatouille, because he’s active and loves to climb things, like the character in the movie.
This is a commercial for Gloria Milk, about just how common the nickname “Chato” is in Peru (and if you don’t want YOUR kid to be a Shorty, give him milk!)
Husbands and wives often call each other Gordo or Flaca (fatty or skinny) – or the more loving diminutives, Gordito and Flaquita.
And this is where it gets weird for a lot of Western foreigners in Peru. We’re raised in a society where “we’re all special” and it’s considered rude to point out physical differences. Peruvians don’t feel that way at all. When they call you “Blanco” (whitey) or Rubio (Blondie) or “Robofocos” (light-bulb thief – if you’re really tall!), it’s a term of endearment.
In the US, the term “sambo” is racist and has strong feelings attached; in Peru, zambo can be a loving nickname for someone of mixed African and Indian blood, like Zambo Cavero.
The trick for us Gringos is to understand that in the vast majority of cases, no insult is intended when someone calls us by a nickname because of our appearance. In fact, it’s usually a way of saying “Hey, I like you enough to notice you”. If you’re teased about a facet of your appearance or life, you need to learn to laugh at it and give as good as you get. If you let it hurt your feelings or make you angry, your hard feelings will not be understood by the Peruvians around you.
I was at my mother in law’s house one afternoon, and a distant family member happened to be visiting. At the time, I had very light hair. During my conversation with this man, who was quite a joker, he started teasing me about my hair and asked if it was my natural color. At first I was a little surprised that someone I’d just met would ask me such a personal question.
But instead of feeling insulted, I answered “Don’t you know you should never ask a lady a question like that?” with a smile. I then went on to ask this completely bald man “But tell me, is your color natural?”
It broke up the whole room! Five years later, he still talks about it. If I’d been upset or angry over what I felt was a breach of etiquette, it would have made the visit uncomfortable for everyone. Instead, I accepted it for the good-natured ribbing that it was and gave back in kind.
And I find that in most cases, that’s the best way to respond. Remember that Peruvian culture is different from your home culture. That doesn’t make it better or worse – just different. Things that may upset you now, things that you perceive as rudeness, may in fact be the same things that endear Peru to you in the future.
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