While in Peru last week, I had an experience where I was silenced in a new way--not by my own doing or by my own feelings of awkwardness--but by my surrounding circumstances, my gender, and my inability to understand what was being said around me.
The community leaders of the small town where my brother lives and works as a Peace Corps volunteer wanted to honor his work with a celebration. They told him that they would like to honor him when his family was visiting, so last Thursday, we had an appointment for a ceremonial lunch at the community center when we came into town.
We hiked down into the village from a big mountain range that we'd been climbing for the past two days. We rolled in sweaty, dusty, un-showered and exhausted, and I worried about attending a luncheon in my hiking boots and yoga pants, no matter how many times my brother assured me that it would be fine.
As we walked toward the community center, three dirty men in sandals, one wearing a soccer jersey, the others in similarly casual attire, greeted us with limp handshakes (the custom in Peru). They spoke to my brother in Quechua, and led us into an empty room, filled with nothing but stacks of chairs and a small, beat up table around which 6 chairs were placed.
They gestured for us, the honorary guests, to sit first.
These men were the community leaders and thus, the other guests at the luncheon. This room was our banquet hall, this table where we would feast, and at this moment, I realized that "luncheons" were very different in this small, Peruvian village, and that the dress that I had wanted to bring and change into would have been extremely out of place in this scenario.
Inca Cola was brought out to the table along with small, plastic cups. I don't ever drink soda, but I hid my water bottle under the table so as not to be rude.
Our first course was brought out, a soup course, and I ate slowly, being mindful not to bite down too hard; My brother recently broke a tooth when he bit down on a rock while eating soup in his village.
I'm a messy eater, so as my soup dribbled down my chin, I struggled to mop it up with my hands because there were no napkins in sight. As I used my only utensil, a spoon, to try and pull some chicken off of the drumstick that sat in the middle of my bowl of soup, I accidentally tipped my bowl into my lap, covering my legs, sunglasses, and shirt in the greasy liquid.
No one really noticed, so in an effort to not draw attention to the fact that we had no napkins (By this point in the trip, I had learned that paper goods aren't readily available in Peru), I just patted the soup into my pants and hoped it would dry before we had to get up.
Eventually, as the meal got messier, someone brought out a roll of thin toilet paper to use to mop up the grease, but by then my soup spill had already started to dry in the hot midday sun, leaving a hazy stain on both of my thighs.
As the only woman at the table and the person with the worst Spanish in the room, I stayed silent. I could follow along with the Spanish conversation, but couldn't add to it and could really only smile. When the language switched to Quechua, I just focused on eating and did my best to act like I had some idea of what was going on. I felt out of place, somewhat invisible to the men, and more silent than ever before.
When the main course came out, it was cuy, or roasted guinea pig. Head and paws still attached, a small version of the animal that we used to have as a pet was stretched across a pile of potatoes, ready to be enjoyed by the town's honorary guests.
Prepared for this, my brother swiftly explained that his sister wouldn't be enjoying the guinea pig today, "She used to have one as a pet," he said. The men all laughed at this silly idea, and at the silly, silent woman who sat at the end of the table. I was then given a bowl of plain potatoes, a little cuy sauce drizzled over them to add some flavor.
Near the end of the meal, the men asked my father's age, because they wanted to remark, as everyone does, how young he looks (He's 63). Then one of them turned to me and asked, "How old are you?"
Excited that my two years of high school Spanish had prepared me for this moment, I answered, "Treinta!"
He then asked a follow-up question, "How many kids do you have?"
"None," I replied.
He looked at my brother, and asked him a question that I didn't understand.
Although I couldn't follow everything that my brother said next, I was able to gather enough to know that he had launched into quite a diatribe. I heard him say that she and her husband are both very focused on their education and careers, and then describe what I do for a living. He explained that we wanted to wait until we were financially stable before having kids, and that it's common in the U.S. to wait until mid-to-even-late thirties to have children.
Satisfied that my brother had said enough to explain why such an "old" lady doesn't have any children, I continued silently eating my potatoes, picking around the parts covered in sauce.
The meal continued in this way: I smiled, followed-along as much as I could, and then passed on the final course, a shared beer, drank at intervals as it was handed around the table. My brother explained to the men that 2pm was a bit early for me to drink, and again, the men laughed at the silly woman.
It wasn't until later that night, when we were going over our day, that I found out what the man had asked my brother when he learned that I was 30 and didn't have any kids. His question was much more harsh that I had previously thought: He'd asked, "Whose fault is it? His or hers?"
Although I will never see any of those men again and they live in an entirely different world, I found myself feeling violated by this question, this judgment. My brother's immediate defense of me and my values took on much more meaning than it had before, and I became even more proud of him for starting a Women's Empowerment Group for the ladies in his village.
I've sat through many an awkward luncheon in my day, socially and professionally, but I can say with confidence that this one was the most challenging to get through. More than ever before, I was acutely aware of my womanhood, my white skin, my height, my privilege, my inability to speak for myself, and the stark contrast between my life and theirs.
Even as the meal ended and we were given a tour of the community center--and as we climbed a rickety ladder to the top of the building to inspect the solar panels that my brother installed on the roof, so that this community can power their lights and the few computers that he's purchased for the kids in the village--I felt the great expanse between these men's lives and my own.
In the U.S., men and women don't have the same experience of the world, but for the most part, I feel like an equal. And in situations where I don't, I have the ability to speak up (Whether or not I actually speak up is another story).
At this meal in Peru, I was a silent, non-child-bearing, non-cuy-eating, non-beer-drinking hermana. That was all I had to offer, and it didn't feel very good.
With this experience under my belt, you'd better believe that the next time I'm at a luncheon meant to honor someone--my water glass within reach, my fork and knife at the ready, my napkin resting in my lap (on top of the fabric of my clean, tidy dress)--I'll remember this Peruvian lunch like a hazy dream, and experience an enormous sense of gratitude for my life, my situation, and my currently childless, yet-completely-fulfilling existence.