An Internship in Peru
Adapting to the Workplace
What do you do when your new boss asks to move the office into your apartment? I struggled with the answer only two weeks into my internship placement in Chiclayo, Peru. Over the five months that followed, similarly unprecedented situations confirmed my suspicions: the work culture in Peru is very different from that I have experienced in Canada.
Thanks to the synergy of Canadian and Peruvian organizations, I have had the opportunity to work with a consortium of NGOs dedicated to micro-enterprise development in Chiclayo, Peru. Each year, the Canadian International Development Agency offers young Canadian graduates the opportunity to gain international development experience by working with the overseas partners of Canadian NGOs through its International
Youth Internship Program. This year, I am one of three interns that the Canadian CED Network has placed with Peruvian partner COPEME (Consorcio
de Organizaciones Privadas de Promoción al Desarrollo de la Micro y Pequeña Empresa) tto support the micro-enterprise development initiatives of this organization. The program stands apart from most other international opportunities available to similarly qualified youth in that it is paid when you consider that all placements are in developing areas, so your living costs will be more than covered. Each year, positions are available in countries worldwide according to various development themes — including gender, environment, and health.
When I graduated last April from McGill University's History Program, I never imagined that I would soon be harvesting organic honey in rural Peru. But here I am, and harvesting honey is only the beginning. Through my internship, I have had the opportunity to interview mango farmers about their living conditions, assess youth entrepreneurial business proposals, attend policy discussions with community leaders, and meet all kinds of people innovating alternative strategies of community economic development (CED). The past few months have truly been filled with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But it has not always been a smooth ride.
While adjusting to many aspects of Peruvian living, I have experienced the most significant culture shock in the work sphere.
Separation of Private and Work Spheres in Peru
The line separating Latin America's private and work spheres is not well-defined. In your internship, you may be caught off guard by the overlap, but be prepared to say "no" when uncomfortable. Because previous bosses may have only requested tasks that they expect of you according to your job description (e.g. "draft a letter," "make a photocopy"), you are probably not used to saying "no" to your superiors. When asked by a boss whom I had recently met and was eager to impress, I was uncomfortable allowing COPEME and its four staff members to move into my apartment and split the rent. Finding a way to decline can be challenging.
In most cases, keeping a sense of humor about the situation is better than taking private/work overlap too seriously. Some behavior that may be considered unacceptable in your home country is run-of-the-mill here. Do not take it personally. For example, my office organized a "Welcome Workshop" for me, where we played team-building games and got to know each other better. Activities included sharing our happiest and most painful life memories and a game where we had to choose who among us had the prettiest eyes, hair, smile, etc. Remember the goal of such activities (in this case, team-building) rather than take offense.
Ultimately, you are responsible for drawing the line, defining your comfort zone, and deciding how much you wish to invite the office into your personal life. Do not worry too much about offending your superiors, but be diplomatic in your objection. Whatever the office loses on account of your line drawing will likely be much smaller than the benefit you will gain from it. If you hope to maintain your sanity, you will draw your invisible line wherever your comfort zone may be between your personal and work lives.
The Peruvian workplace is organized vertically. The "Boss" receives or designs projects, which his staff helps him complete. Often, rather than a division of labor (a communications specialist, a bookkeeper, etc.), everyone helps in every area until the project is completed.
In your internship, expect a different expectation of independence than you might have working for a Western NGO. Instead of having your assignments be your own, you may be most helpful to your host organization by helping them with minor tasks. Sometimes, that means doing little or nothing. Keep an open mind about the cooperative team mentality here; do not accept the idea that your way is more efficient and, therefore, better. Just enjoy the afternoons you get off once in a while as a result. Most things you learn during your internship experience will happen outside the office.
And while it may sometimes feel like tagging along, remember that your presence alone, as a foreigner, can be valuable to them. You may find yourself to be the guest of honor at some events, even though you are just an intern. But as a foreigner, you represent an important partnership with the international community in Peru.
Machismo in Peru
Although many women are rising in the ranks in many businesses and organizations, there is still strong support for traditionally defined gender roles. In the office, women tend to receive menial tasks and heavier workloads.
Defining Your Role and Dealing with Conflict
Finding a position within your organization that benefits them and satisfies your learning needs and expectations can be challenging. Though all of the CIDA internships are posted with fairly detailed job descriptions, your daily tasks will depend very much on the needs of your host organization. They may be very different from what you expected.
If you need help in your position, use language that demonstrates to the organization why changing your work situation would benefit the organization directly. Language use is important. While it may be standard in your home country to express grievances in a way that demonstrates why you are personally unsatisfied, such language is less respected in Peru. Beginning sentences with "I feel that..." means that the problem is yours and not anyone else's — and may discredit your argument entirely if you are a woman.
Do not be discouraged. If you are having trouble defining your role, I recommend, first and foremost, continuing to present alternative proposals for projects you can work on. At the same time, always recognize the value of the work you are already doing; even if it seems insignificant to you, it could benefit your organization.
Religion in the Workplace
Welcome to your new office in Peru! Here is your desk and the giant picture of Jesus that will look down at you during your stay.
Peru is a very Christian country, although, in the cities, many people do not regularly go to Church and do not consider themselves religious. That said, you will still encounter many Christian representations in the urban workplace, whether you work for a Christian organization or not. Around for Christmas? Get ready for a giant nativity scene set up — and a glass of wine and cake on Jan 6, when it is taken down.
Concepts of Time
The experience of time has been the most beautiful culture shock to me. Have a meeting at 9 a.m.? Don't expect everyone to come until at least 10 a.m. Do not get stressed about this — no one else is. Instead, embrace it. Have many things to do in your personal life (pay bills, etc)? It is perfectly acceptable to leave the office to finish them, so long as there is no imminent deadline. That is an advantage of the overlap of personal and work spheres. The 9-to-5 mentality does not exist; what is important is that projects get completed — sometimes, you will work extra-long hours, but other days, you will have the afternoon off to go to the beach.
Keep an Open Mind
Keeping an open mind and a sense of humor are the most essential recommendations. It applies to all of the above situations in which you might experience culture shock. You are not working in your home country, so do not constantly compare the two — just embrace your new work culture. Even if it is frustrating now... at least it will make for some good stories when you get home. And you will be a stronger person for surviving the challenge.
For More Information
Living in Peru (online publication for expats in Peru).
Travel Report: Peru (information on safety and security, local laws and customs, entry requirements, health conditions, etc., published by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada).