The Best of Both Worlds

The Best of Both Worlds

A Story by Diego Sanchez

A young Peruvian man goes back to his home country for some rest and relaxation. However, he is confronted by the cultural identity issues he has had since his childhood.


A loud ringing interrupted Alex’s deep sleep.  He rose up immediately. What the hell was that noise?  Before he could investigate, his eyes scanned the room.  His Sony 20 inch TV was replaced with an old black and white one, a huge wooden desk took the place of his computer and the sound of the grandfather clock awoke him instead of his cell phone.  He was no longer in the United States, but in the country of Peru.

Alex had just arrived last night.  His first semester of college was finally over, and winter break was here.  He decided to tag along with his brother rather than staying home.  Not only did he not know anyone at his college, but his high school friends were becoming more distant with him.  I can always see them during summer break anyways.  Besides that, he didn’t know what to expect after being away from his home country for over five years.  The thought of coming back here was confusing:  he didn’t know what to feel.  He was excited to be back in his homeland, a place where he felt spiritually connected to and yet isolated from at the same time.  It was the huge culture gap that made him worry about how this month was going to pass by.  While his brother was going to visit his friend’s for a week, Alex decided to stay with at his aunt’s and uncle’s house.

Before Alex could hop out of bed, the door flew open.  A familiar face surfaced from the entryway.  His cousin Cesar frowned “What, you’re already awake? That’s no fun,” he grinned “well, maybe next time I’ll surprise you.”  Alex raised his hand to wave hello but was soon interrupted by the fierce hug Cesar gave him.  He felt as if his ribs were going to break.  “Hey man, it’s been five years and you want to just give me a little wave?” his cousin said in smooth Spanish.

“You’re right, I’m sorry.  Cut me some slack though…I just woke up!” Alex laughed.  While friends came and went back in the States, it was Cesar that always stayed the same whenever he came back to Peru.  The two were inseparable ever since they first met each other when they were kids.  However, Alex’s parents moved to the United States when Alex was only seven and he lived there ever since.  He came back from time to time, and it was always Cesar that made him feel like he had a place to belong.   “Having him around will definitely help,” thought Alex.

“Don’t worry about it, Alejandro.  I’m just messing with you.”  Cesar yawned and scratched the back of his head.  “Ah, Alejandro.  I’ll have to get used to hearing that now,” thought Alex.  He never used his real name outside of his family because he thought it was a hassle for people to remember.  And besides, Alex is pretty much the English version of Alejandro, so why not use it?

Alex was astonished when he saw Cesar more closely.  It felt like he was looking at a mirror:  he had his short black hair, tan skin and were both scrawny and around 5’7.  However, it was the clothes that separated the two:  Alex was wearing a “University of Chicago” shirt along with his new blue jeans and some Adidas Samba shoes.  Alex glanced over at Cesar, who was batting off dirt from his worn-down sweater.  He was still wearing the sweatpants Alex’s mother had given to him on Christmas last time he was over here.  It was as if he was seeing an alternative version of himself.

“What are you staring at?” Cesar said.

“Oh, nothing.  I’m still kind of tired, that’s all,” Alex replied.  His Spanish was extremely slow compared to Cesar’s, making him feel inferior.

Cesar looked at his sweater and shrugged, “You wear what you can afford, right?”

            “I’m hungry.  I’m gonna go get something to eat in the kitchen if you want to tag along,” Alex said, ignoring the question.

            When Alex headed over to the dining room, his aunt and uncle were relaxing on their sofa.  “Good morning, sleepyhead,” his aunt said.  “You sure slept for a long time…it’s already one in the afternoon!  I’d feel as if I were wasting my day if I slept that long!”

            Alex had difficulty understanding what his aunt was saying.   He wasn’t used to Spanish being spoken so fast.  “Yeah, well…that’s how I am, I guess?”

              Cesar patted Alex’s shoulder from behind, “I forgot to tell you Alejandro, those two pigged out this morning so we don’t have any bread left.  We’re gonna have to buy some more.”
            “Don’t you think it’s a bit too late for breakfast though?” Alex’s uncle added.

            “Oh no!  I’ve been looking forward to eating the Peruvian bread rolls for a long time!” Alex said.  “There’s no way I’m skipping breakfast the first day.”

            “Then it’s decided!  Let’s get going, Alejandro.”  The two left the house and walked past the neighborhood.  The houses were all behind a security gate, and the gardens behind them were blooming with a variety of flowers.  They walked through the park filled with beautiful flora and trees covering them.  Old, run-down buildings surrounded the park, giving the area a mix of beauty and poverty. Alex remembered playing soccer there, only to be scolded by the gardener.  He chuckled at the memory.

            “So Alejandro, I always hear it’s cold where you’re from.  What’s the temperature usually like?” his cousin asked.

            “Like numbers? It’s usually around 20 to 30 degrees right now.”

            Cesar’s eyes widened, “20 to 30 degrees?! And that’s your winter?  Must be like a sauna over there!”
            “Really?  Doesn’t seem that hot to me,” Alex replied.  Oh wait, I’m thinking of Fahrenheit.  Stupid metric system!  He could never figure it out.  As they continued to go down endless streets, Alex was beginning to feel uncomfortable.  The people they passed by always stared at him, as if he was some sort of weird creature.   His newly bought clothes really didn’t fit in with the area.  Alex sighed, feeling isolated from the crowd that was huddled up in front of the bakery.

“Care to do the honors, cousin?” Cesar asked.

“I would love to.”  Alex said in a sarcastic tone.  He grabbed the two sacks his cousin had in his hands and started waving it above the crowd.  “I need two bags full of French bread rolls over here if you please!”  He cringed as he heard himself screw up that line.  He really needed to brush up on his Spanish. 

One of the bakers yelled at his direction, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”  Before Alex could say anything, the baker took another glance at him and added “Speak no English!”

            But I said it in Spanish you idiot!  Does my clothes really stand out that much?  Alex rose his voice once again in his native tongue, “Hey, I speak Spanish!  I want two bags…” the baker was no longer attention to the pair, “argh, never-“

            “Two bags of French bread right over here!” Cesar interrupted him as he flailed the bags over his head.

            “Oh, is that what he was saying?  Speak up, kid!” the baker said as he took the bags.  He came back with both bags full of hot, soft bread bundled up.  Alex slammed the change onto the baker’s hand and walked off.  The baker yelled, “A*****e! Whatever.

            Cesar soon caught up with him.  “Hey, don’t worry about that guy.  He was a total prick.”

            “Yeah.  Do you really think…?”  Wait, what if Cesar thought I really looked that foreign?


            “Never mind.”  Alex looked down at the bag of bread in his hands and felt the smell of fresh bread right out of the oven.  His stomach growled but he didn’t feel like eating.  The two cousins walked back home without saying another word.

            Alex came back to his room and lounged there for the rest of the day.  When his uncle asked if he wanted to come with them to the city of Lince, he refused.  “Jetlag….you know how it is.  Maybe tomorrow,” he replied to him.  Instead, Alex watched some old Bruce Lee flick on the nine inch television set made by some unknown company.  He was really missing the Untied States now.  He didn’t get any looks from anyone, his room was much more entertaining than this one, he could perfectly speak English…the list went on.  However, guilt set in, for Alex knew that coming back to Peru was a rare experience, something he wouldn’t have the chance of doing for awhile.

            Cesar came in the room quietly.  Alex sat up, looking confused, “What are you doing here?  I thought you went to Lince with the others.”

            Cesar shook his head, “Lince is boring!  I’ve only been there a billion times.  Are you still pissed off about this morning?”

            Alex shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah, I guess.”

            “Hey, I told you, don’t let it get to you.  They don’t know you at all, so why should you care about what they say?”

            Alex sighed and laid back down on the bed, “You don’t understand.  You’re from around here after all.”

            “And you are too.”

            “No, I’m not.”

            “Hey, you were born here and that means you are Peruvian, through and through!  Get it through your head!”  Cesar raised his voice but soon backed off.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell.”  He sighed, “But seriously, why can’t you just see yourself as being a Peruvian?  It doesn’t matter where you live now, you always have a place here.  Don’t be so stubborn.”

            Alex covered his head with a pillow.  “Man, just leave me alone, okay?  I’m not in the mood.”

            “Right, sorry.  See you later then.”  Cesar shut the door on his way out.

            Alex threw the pillow to the side and looked at the ceiling.  His cousin did have a point, but he just couldn’t understand how it was like to be from two completely different cultures.  Even Alex couldn’t understand, he just dealt with it every time he came here. Was it always like this?  Alex thought back when he was a child, living here for a year.  Although he was born in Peru, his family departed to the U.S. when he was four.  They came back for a year when he was ten though; his parents had to do something here which he never remembered.  It was a great year though.  He went to a school where everyone treated him as a regular kid.  Even if he came from the U.S., they didn’t care and just took him as another kid from Peru.  Alex thought that’s how it would always be.

            However, his perception of his homeland changed one day.  He and his cousin were going to the video store to rent some movies by themselves.

            “Okay, so you want to watch this movie?”  Alex had asked his cousin.

            “Yeah, it sounds pretty cool…and scary too.  You already watched it though in the States, right?  Is that okay?” Cesar had asked.

            “No problem!  This movie rocks!”  The two had proceeded to the sales counter of the video store.  The store definitely didn’t look like a chain store back in the U.S.; TVs were hooked up around the room and kids to adults were watching various movies on lawn chairs.  The “store” itself was a tiny apartment that was cluttered with VCR boxes and VCR rewinders. Behind the sales counter was a big white marker board, displaying the titles that were currently in stock.  Crossed out titles were out of stock.

            “Terminator 2” was not crossed out of the board, which had made Alex smile.  The two had waited until a scruffy looking person came around behind the counter.  “What do you kids want?”

            “Yes, we want Terminator 2, please.”  Alex had said in Spanish, but with no accent.  He always wished he had an accent like the other kids.  He couldn’t even roll his r’s, for god’s sake.

            “Huh?  What did you want?”  the clerk had asked.

            “I said, I want to rent Terminator 2.”

            The clerk had looked at Alex blankly.  “What movie?”

            Alex rose his voice, “Terminator 2!”  He tried to stop himself from saying it, after realizing that he was saying the name of the movie in fluent English.  Any other person asking for it would have said Tormeenaydor Dos.  It was too late though.

            Alex would never forget the look on the clerk’s face that came afterwards.  He had frowned at Alex, as if he was disappointed in him.  He had then chuckled and shook his head.  The clerk had turned around and yelled in the back room, “Hey Carlos, help me out!  We got a gringo out here and I can’t understand what he’s saying!”  Alex winced.

            A tall, bearded man with glasses soon appeared from the back.  “What movie do you want, kid?” he said in perfectly fluent English. 

Alex began to shake, “I…Spanish…I can understand it, you know!” he said in his native language.  The voices from the customers watching TV had grown silent.

“What movie do you want to rent?” the man had asked in English again.  Whispers began to surround Alex.  The words “gringo” and “Americano” stuck in his ears.

“Speak Spanish to me, d****t!”  Alex yelled in Spanish. 

The man shook his head and sighed.  He went back into the back room, only to emerge a few seconds later, with a yardstick in his hands. The man had spoken very fast in Spanish and Alex could not keep up with him.   Alex had stood there, dumbfounded.

Cesar had whispered from behind Alex, “He wants you to point out what movie you want to rent with the stick.”

Alex’s heart sank as soon as he had heard those words.  He had grabbed the stick away from the man and angrily pointed to the scribbled “Terminator 2” writing.  The man simply had nodded and came back with a blank tape with the title scribbled on it.  Alex quickly had paid him and stormed out of the store.  Laughter filled the building as soon as the pair had left the building.

“Terminator 2…man, what a s****y movie,” Alex said to himself as he turned around to look at the TV.  The evening news had been on, meaning the Bruce Lee movie was over for quite some time now.  He checked the time; it was six in the evening.  His stomach was grumbling again.  Alex’s appetite returned this time, and he had a desire to eat anything.

He heard a knock on the door.  “Come in,” he said.

Cesar opened the door.  “What’s up couz?  Feeling better?”

“Not really.  I am hungry though.  Care to grab something to eat with me?”

Cesar smiled.  “Sure, where are we headed?”
            “How about Miraflores?”

“I like your style!”

The two left the house once again and called a cab at the end of the street.  After haggling for the fare price, the two hopped in.  Alex boarded the old, dented VW Type 1 Bug and sat down.  While he looked for a seatbelt, he noticed that they were cut off.  The engine soon came to life and its loud roar echoed throughout the street.  Mountains surrounded the night lights of the city.  As they passed through the city of Miraflores, identical cars drove by; vendor stands being run by children were in each street, selling things from candy to pirated CDs of the latest hits back in the ‘States.  Alex loved Miraflores, not only because the city reminded him of the United States but it looked entirely different from a typical U.S. city.  It was something he was familiar with, but also, a place that could never be found back in the U.S. Gardens and flower-filled parks were located everywhere around the urban setting and it oddly blended in well.  It was right off the Costa Verde too, where he would enjoy the view of the sea as well as the beaches.  Dirt roads and plain mountains were fading away, only to have fancy buildings and American hotels replace them, as well as the coastline.  The smell of the sea, smog and cooked food overwhelmed him.  He was in paradise.

The taxi dropped them off in Larcomar, a mall complex that was entirely outside with the view of the sea.  Tourists and citizens blended in the complex, buying and dining the night away.  A line was formed at the movie ticket register; the customers ranged from rich businessmen to kids wearing dirty shirts of a Big Bird knockoff, filled with holes.  Young couples were snuggling with each other at the fence facing the sea, a beautiful sight that Alex had always kept in his mind.  After walking around for a few minutes, the pair walked by a couple of tourists taking pictures with Peruvians dressed up as Incans.

“Geez, do tourists even know about the Incas?” Cesar complained.  “As long as some guy is dressed in some weird outfit, they’ll take a photo like it’s some endangered species.  They really get on my nerves sometimes,” he sighed.

“Is that so?” Alex mumbled.

“Oh, not you though!  You’re different from them, Alejandro.” Cesar said in rush.

“I don’t know much about the Incans either though.  I wasn’t in school long enough.”  Alex pressed the issue forward.  “How am I different?”

Look, you know what I mean, okay?  You were born here…so you don’t know some history!  Big deal!” Cesar forced out a laugh.  .

“If you say so. Anyways, let’s get something to eat.”  Alex replied.  How is he different from the rest?

“Alright, alright.  But if it really bothers you Alejandro, why don’t you just live here for awhile?” Cesar stopped walking.  “You don’t want to lose your culture, right?  I’m worried that you’ll forget what it’s like to be from around here, man.”

Alex’s appetite was fading away.  “I know what you mean, but I like the United States as well as Peru, Cesar.”  He wanted to say more, but he hesitated.  “Can we please not talk about this now?”

“You’re right.  We’re here to have fun.  I’m sorry.” Cesar said.  “Well, let’s go find a place to eat.”

Many of the restaurants around the mall didn’t interest Alex, most of them were things you could get back home: Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut…crappy food.  The sight of a “Hooters Peru” disgusted him even more.  For once, familiar sights did not please him. “When did this place become a fast food haven?  I want some real food, you know?” Alex said.

Cesar agreed, “Ah, you mean real Peruvian food huh?  There are some restaurants outside of Larcomar…maybe we can find something right outside of here.”

Alex nodded and the two turned around and headed towards the entrance.  Alex began to think about what Cesar said to him.  What if he stayed here for awhile, maybe over the summer?  Maybe things would improve, his Spanish skills would be more fluent and he would have his cousin right there with him the whole time.  However, he wouldn’t have the technology that he was always relying on back home and the awkward moments with people who thought he was a gringo.   The combination of hunger and nervousness was making Alex nauseous.   What should I do?  Alex felt a thump on his shoulder and was pushed back.  A white man with blond hair and blue eyes was grabbing his chest.  “Ah, perdoname!  I wasn’t watching where I was going,” he said in English

Alex simply shook his head, accepting the apology.  He didn’t want to speak English back at the tourist, especially with Cesar around.  After that speech he gave about tourists, Alex didn’t know what to think of him anymore.

The tourist was wearing a Yankees cap and a Miraflores shirt with the price tag still on the collar.  For some reason, he wasn’t moving on. Why are you looking at me like that? “Excuse me, would you happen to know English?  I seem to be lost, and need some help.” the tourist asked Alex in Spanish.  S**t!

Alex stayed quiet but didn’t move on.  He could just walk away from this guy easily and he would get the message. Why aren’t I moving then?

“Do you speak English?” he asked again, except in English.  Alex stayed quiet; words were not able to come out of his mouth.


“You do look like you’re from around here,” the tourist said ”but I’ve never seen someone with a University of Chicago shirt and nice shoes like that,” he added.  Damn it! I forgot to change my clothes after I bought the bread!

Cesar poked Alex from behind.  “Hey, where did you go?  I was walking and next thing I know, you’re not next to me anymore.”  Alex jumped and turned around, quickly, only sighing in relief to see that it was only his cousin.  Cesar looked at Alex and spoke gently,  “Are you alright?  You look like you just saw a ghost or something.”

Alex frowned, “Well…I think this guy is trying to find out something” 

“That’s not surprising.”  Cesar shook his head.  “Tourists really need to know where they’re going…it’s kinda annoying, don’t you think?“

“Uh, it’s not their fault.”  Alex countered.

“Sorry, man.  I’m just really hungry…I get kind of cranky when I’m starving.  Just guide him to the information booth.”

“Oh, did you say information booth?  It’s closed now, I’m afraid,” the man said in English.

“The information booth is closed, he says,” Alex translated.

“Aw man!  Well…who knows how long we’ll be if we try to figure out where he’s headed.”  Cesar was becoming less and less familiar to Alex as he continued to speak.  “The restaurants are getting pretty packed Alejandro, so if you want to eat somewhere nice, I suggest we go now.”

“But, what about the guy?” Alex asked.

Cesar was looking back and forth as if he was checking for something.  He was tapping his pants with his fingers quickly and biting his lip.  “Look, can we just go?  I don’t want…uh…”

            What, you don’t want to be seen with a gringo?  Alex shivered at the thought.  The city began to feel far away from him, and the “reassurances” from Cesar and the questions of the tourist were drowned by the sounds of silence.  Alejandro turned to the tourist again and mumbled, “Perdoname, pero no entiendo ingles.”

 “Is that so? And I thought you looked like you were from the States,” the tourist said in English.

“No speak English! No se!” Alex raised his voice slightly.  His body felt cold, regardless of the sunny warm climate they were in.

The tourist looked at Alex for what felt like forever.  He then frowned in disappointment.  “Is that so?  Perdoname, entonces.”  Alex could no longer look at him in the eye.  He simply nodded and saw him disappear back into the crowd. 

Cesar placed his hand on Alejandro’s shoulder as if nothing happened.  “I feel sorry for the poor gringo, but I’m sure he’ll be fine.  English makes me feel a bit uneasy.  Now, let’s go get something to eat!”  For the first time, his cheery voice sounded forced, something Alex was not expecting.

Cesar tilted his head to get a better look at Alex.  His eyes were fixated on him, full of fear and uncertainty.

 “Who are you?  Alex asked him in English. 

Cesar stepped back, feeling his stomach numb.  “W-w-wait…don’t take that the wrong way!”  By the time the words came out of his mouth, Alex was gone.

Alex ran from Cesar, looking for the tourist anxiously, but had no luck.  Breathing heavily, he finally stopped and gave up.  He stood still, motionless, no longer caring for dinner.  Everything looked foreign to him now, even himself.

© 2010 Diego Sanchez

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Outstanding, Diego. You took me inside Alejandro's mind as he struggled to fit back in with the culture and locale that he thought of as "home," only to realize that it had become foriegn to him. I remember going through something similar myself one time. I saw a few typos, but overall, this is an excellent piece of writing.

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Added on January 12, 2010
Last Updated on January 12, 2010
Tags: peru, identity, gringo


Diego Sanchez
Diego Sanchez

Saint Paul, MN

I'm a recent college graduate that's always had a passion for writing. Now that school's over (for now), I hope to get back into it and work on the novel I've had in my mind since high school. more..