Indigenous Calendar April, 2014: A Quichua Lesson in Culture Shock

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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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There is a scientifically-grounded principle in the field of cognitive psychology that holds that perception is a function of expectation: We often see or hear what we expect to see or hear even if it is not reality. That same principle has been demonstrated in the field of social psychology. Our social expectations are largely a result of our cultural background. It takes a situation far outside the norms of our cultural background before we perceive that situation for what it really is. This is the psychological basis of the phenomenon known as 'culture shock.'

It follows that a universal principle of traveling among alien cultures is to expect the unexpected if you want to see it.

Depending on your own cultural background you may perceive in this photo one or more of the following: a young girl is sleeping; she is on her way home; she is tired after spending a long day choosing guinea pigs as new pets; she has been given the guinea pigs as a (possibly birthday or Christmas) present.

Apart from 'young girl,' 'tired,' and 'guinea pigs' your perception would be very far from the reality of the context of the photo: The girl is not sleeping and she is not on her way home — or to anywhere else. The animals are guinea pigs but they are not pets. Most Quichua do not celebrate birthdays or Christmas.

She is a young Quichua girl working at a local marketplace in a small Andean town in Ecuador. I took the photo late in the afternoon when the day's commerce had been going for about ten hours. This accounts for her tiredness. Although there are guinea pigs in her basket, had I taken the same photo when the day's commerce first began it would have been filled with them. The final ones, like the rest, are for sale. But nobody at the market was buying them as pets. They were buying them to eat.

I have never eaten guinea pig; I imagine I would only if faced with starvation and no prospect of any other food. But in many parts of South America they are not just food but a delicacy. Fortunately I knew this before I ever went to South America and I was able to perceive in this scene what I expected even though it was very far from my own cultural norm. (I still experienced mild culture shock having never seen guinea pig on sale as food before.) Without that expectation I would not have taken the photo at all.

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