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Chile has made me both more cautious and less careful in my dealings with other people.

WHEN I CAME TO CHILE in 2004, I had intended to stay for a year. I imagined that I would improve my Spanish, try some new food, travel, and then bail. I did not kid myself that in a year, I would become somehow, Chilena. I imagined myself as a skipping stone, skimming across the surface of a place I believed would never draw me in. I would take some nice photos and punto (that’s it).

I expected Chile to become a blip in my history, a place I once was.

I’m eight years in now, through breakups and moves, career changes, deaths in the family, deaths among friends, mad proliferation in internet connectivity, and therefore better connection (if I want it) with the people back home. Flight prices have nearly doubled since I moved here, but I still visit my family, suitcases nearly empty, to bring back things from the United States I don’t want to do without.

I bring back technology; I bring back things that are expensive or impossible to find here. On this latest trip, six boxes of Bengal Spice tea, enough tampons to supply a swim team, and shoes that fit my feet, cranky from so many injuries, some of them sustained right here on the streets outside my apartment.

I expected Chile to become a blip in my history, a place I once was. And now it’s turned into this place where I usually am. Occasional trips take me elsewhere, but I wake up every morning in Chile. On this cool spring day, I bake Chilean cauliflower in my Chilean oven, and this weekend I will go to a concert in a Chilean park near my Chilean home to hear Chilean bands with a Chilean friend.

It’s hard for me to separate how Chile has changed me from how I have changed myself, due to being in Chile, and due to the changes that just happen, because whoops, that’s 96 flips of the calendar page, and a lot can happen in that time.

But I’m different from how I was in 2004.

Patience. Things happen more slowly here. From service at the grocery store to people making decisions, loading the bus with passengers. Someone helping you in person will answer the phone (or her cellphone) while you’re standing there. At the beginning, I wanted to jump up and down, push, be first. I won’t say that those impulses have totally quieted down, but I know now that they will be frowned upon, and most importantly, they won’t make a damn bit of difference as to how fast traffic, things, metros, buses, or women with baby carriages move. I breathe. And contextualize. It’s just two minutes, which won’t make a difference to anyone.

We are individualistic in the United States, and maybe to a fault.

Group think. I grew up in the United States. I like to say my motherboard (placa madre) was wired there. I don’t care if you want to leave a concert before I do, or if you can’t go to the feria when I can. I’m not going to leave before I want to or go another time. We are individualistic in the United States, and maybe to a fault. I would never have considered changing my plans for a group of people before, because I was the most important.

In Chile, this is not so. Not making people uncomfortable is a national sport here. If you leave that party early, they are worried. They worry you were not having a good time. They worry that you are in a bad mood. They worry that by leaving alone, something could happen to you.

I have not totally rewired to group think, but I am more conscious of it. I start to tell people I want to leave an event a full 30 minutes before I go, so they can observe me, see that I am not unhappy. I promise I will take a taxi, text when I get home, see them soon. I say goodbye to everyone, a kiss on the cheek that is so simple, and means, yes, I consider you worth saying goodbye to. In return, I suspect they pelar (make fun of me) when I go. Because that’s what groups of people do here.

Respect for my elders. In the United States, I would give up a seat on the bus to an older person, if they looked like they might (in the words of the Medellín, Colombia metro), be more tired than me. More often than not, the person would reject my offer. Here in Chile, there is an expectation that a) I will offer my seat, and b) so as not to offend me, the person will take it. The only exception is if they are getting off soon.

At the grocery store, old ladies routinely push into grocery store line whenever and wherever they want, often in front of me, because as a gringa, I leave more space between me and the next person than Chileans do. To these line-cutting old ladies, I will usually say, “adelante,” which literally means “go ahead” but I say to mean, “I know you are cutting the line, and I will cede to you, because you are an old lady.” And they nearly always say “Gracias,” because that’s how it’s done.

In Chile I have learned that when someone says, “te acompaño,” it means, “I will help you to do this difficult thing.”

Being generous. I also have seen the care with which my friends treat their parents. They call them “mis viejos” (the old ones), but they would never miss New Year’s Eve with the family, or a Sunday lunch, without good reason. On a trip to Patagonia I took with my mother about five years ago, I filled a Thermos with hot water, and swiped a packet of Nescafé off the table from breakfast before a long bus ride.

At some point, my mother looked at me and said, “I would kill for a cup of coffee.” And at the next stop, I took out my supplies and prepared one for her, in the middle of nowhere, at Glacier Grey, in Torres del Paine national park. She still talks about this act, this being taken care of. I have learned from my friends to make small gestures to make people feel cared about, especially with family.

Accepting generosity. In Chile I have learned that when someone says, “te acompaño” (I’ll go with you), it means, “I will help you to do this difficult thing.” I got inconclusive results from a medical test a few years ago, and an ominous letter talking of procedures I’d rather not think about. I told a friend, and she told me that for the next exam, or results pick-up, she’d go with me.

In the end, I didn’t take her up on her offer (and everything was ok), but that simple expression of “quieres que te acompañe?” (do you want me to go with you), and answering “En serio?” (really?) serves a dual purpose. It tells you that they will literally be there for you. For me, it says, I may be far from home, but I am not far from my people.

Making time for people. In Chile, an invitation to lunch is an all-day affair. I think that if you invited me to your house for lunch in the United States, and I arrived at 12:30, you would expect me to have up and gone by 3:00pm at the latest. It would be a nice, long visit, but not long enough to make anyone uncomfortable, and certainly not to take up your whole weekend day.

In Chile, people want you to stay for longer. Go over for lunch, and you’re likely to still be there for once (evening tea). If you have to make a visita relámpago (a flash visit), you’d better explain beforehand, or just decline the invitation. There’s a tradition of the larga sobremesa (long post-meal chat) that I’ve come to love. Nobody gets up and runs away after a meal. It’s expected that you will stay and stay. This is how your hosts know you were glad to be there. Because you gave them your time.

Being friends with gringos. When I first moved here, I was on a campaign to learn Spanish. I bought books in Spanish. I didn’t get a television for fear that I’d watch it in English. And I pulled away from gringos I saw, or knew, because I thought, I’m not going to be one of those expats who lives in a bubble, drinking Budweiser and getting together to watch the Super Bowl.

But now, having been in Chile for all this time, I can call it like I see it.

And then, little by little, I noticed that I could spend time with gringos who also wanted to live in Chile. Gringos with Chilean mates, who also like bike riding and going to the market, and kibitzing with the street performers when they’re not out juggling at the traffic lights. I found I had more in common with (some of) them than I’d guessed, and that they had changed in similar ways to how I had changed, and now we’re kind of this cross American-Chilean breed who gets that “on time is relative” (we actually ask, when making plans, “Chilean 8 or American 8?”) and that you can’t pop in for a quick anything, ever, and in the case of one dear friend, when someone is sick, you must bring them soup.

Being critical of Chile. When I first moved to Chile, there was the honeymoon period, in which everything was rainbows and puppies. Then there was the “grrr, nothing-works-right” period, including getting teargassed, getting my internet shut off for reasons that are still not clear to me, and feeling like I was being stood up by people who’d said that “” they’d be there, but I didn’t read the intonation to know that that “” was actually a “quizás” (maybe), which was really a no. Then there was a period of stasis, in which I accepted Chile for who she was, scorned overly critical-of-Chile gringos, and was very cautious about ever publicly saying anything negative about Chile.

I maintain a blog about being a gringa living in Chile and have achieved a tiny slice of fame because of it. I have been asked questions, interviewed, photographed, and filmed. I’ve done voice pieces about how Chile is so beautiful, and how the people (my friends) are lovely to me, and how I’ve grown to feel comfortable here. Nearly all of it positive.

But now, having been in Chile for all this time, I can call it like I see it. I don’t shy away from saying things that will raise the ire of friends and strangers. I can write a piece about how to piss off a Chilean, which was strangely and partially translated and published in the local press, to great personal insult, in English and Spanish.

I can walk down the street with protesters and speak about poor behavior on the part of both some of the protesters and some of the police. I can tell even Chileans, that I don’t think the protests will lead to greater social upheaval, because I think Chileans are too scared to give up the economic and political stability we currently enjoy. And that perhaps that is a remnant of Chileans having lived through the dictatorship.

I can say publicly that Chile’s rampant classism is a foil for racism, and that they don’t actually only discriminate on the basis of skin color, but also on how indigenous a person looks, as well as nationality. And I can say how the preferential treatment for gringos is abhorrent, and yet admit that it is occasionally useful, particularly for getting into fancy wine bars without a reservation on a Friday night.

I can say all of this, because Chile has changed me. Into a person who cares so much about other people and how they do things, and fitting in and not fitting in, and finding her place in this mundo ajeno (foreign world) that she is not afraid to call them on their bullshit. In eight years, I’ve earned the right to reflect on how Chile is or isn’t how I wish it could be. And I’ve mostly developed the cuero (thick skin) to be able to deal with the flak I get in return.



About The Author

Eileen Smith

Eileen Smith is the editor of Matador Abroad. She's an ex-Brooklynite who's made a life in Santiago, Chile. She's a fluent Spanish speaker who can be found biking, hiking, writing, photographing and/or seeking good coffee and nibbles at most hours of the day. She blogs here.

  • David Miller

    this is on fire.

  • PhotoJBartlett is The Adventure Freelancer

    I love this Eileen.

    “It’s hard for me to separate how Chile has changed me from how I have changed myself”.

    This is so true and I often think the same when I rethink my time in Argentina. Would I have ended up this way had I not stayed so long?

    • Eileen Smith

      It’s an unknowable factor. Glad you liked it! One day our paths will cross again! In the meantime, I look forward to your photos!

  • Sarwat High

    ”American-Chilean breed!” Oh, how you raise my spirit!

  • Abby Hall

    I love this. It makes me miss it oh-so-much.

    • Eileen Smith

      Awww, thanks Abbicita! Did you catch the slide show on my blog, by chance? Go check it out!

    • Lana Renee Puckett

      I wish I was less stubborn and let myself learn more of these things… But Im not and I like to leave a party without saying goodbye to anyone.

    • Eileen Smith

      To each her own, Lana. Chile isn’t for everyone. No place is. And some people need to keep moving. That’s ok, too.

    • Carolina Adaros Boye

      Good blog, agree with most of the observations about Chile, and as well as yours, it inspire me to resume my writing. I’ll share it in my wall!

    • Reiley Mayer Reed

      i love this! describes so well how i feel about chile, though i’m sorry to say i haven’t learned nearly as much patience as i could have down there….and i’ve only gotten worse since i moved back state side!!

  • Margaret Snook

    Here Here Eileen! Excellent. Cheers to your eight years in Chile–and to many, many more!

    • Eileen Smith

      Thanks Margaret. I know you know what it’s like. And you’ve got me beat by, ahem, a few!

  • Brennan Ryan

    This gave me goosebumps! Extraordinary!

  • Starr Dona

    Eileen, I´ve not been to South America (yet) but had a similar experience in Spain living there for several years. So many experience, mixed feelings, a tug between countries still rages in my heart. I may have been born in America, but my time living abroad has changed me irreparably and I can no longer call any one place Home. I am homesick for my friends and life in Spain just thinking of this. How grateful I am for having the courage to go, the courage to stay and the knowing that it made a difference in both my life and the lives of many others. “A smile is the same in any language.” So true.

    • Mark L Grantham

      I can relate Donna, from the minute I stepped off of the airplane in Damascus, I knew I was home. I felt welcomed in Europe, but not like I was home like I was in Damascus. My life has forever been changed, for the better, by seeing different cultures.

    • Eileen Smith

      Starr, I don’t think it matters where you are, physically, but where you are mentally. Courage, fortitude, and plain old stubbornness have served me thus far! Mostly the stubbornness, I think.

  • Sarah Shaw

    I loved this, Eileen. I think many people who have lived abroad in one place for a good amount of time can relate. I certainly can– even though I’ve been living in Korea, and only for two years.

    • Eileen Smith

      I don’t think there’s any “only” about the two years. Everyone moves at their own pace. This has taken me a long time to be able to say. But everyone’s pace is different.

  • Amit Sonawane

    Love this! I moved to Santiago 3 weeks ago and still going through the “honeymoon”. Thanks for a great perspective on Chile and my new home :)

    • Guillermo Morales

      Enjoy your life in Chile Amit!

  • Jeff Jung

    Loved reading this Eileen. I saw a lot of myself here in Colombia through your experiences in Chile.

    • Eileen Smith

      aww, thanks, Jeff, and Shelley!

  • Evan Garcia

    I first went to chile in 2005, my brother in 2003…He is now married to a chilena with a kid living outside pucon and own a distribution company and an outdoor shop in town…he is now more chilean than american! I spend 4-6 months in the cyclone of chile every year now as well. You just can’t shake that place!

    • Jack Schurman

      Haven’t been there in 11 yrs. Still have dreams of Patagonia

    • Glenn Dalgleish

      Loving it down here. Goin to Santiago/Valpo/Vina del Mar for Fiestas Patrias!

    • Adam Bixby

      great read thanks for sharing.

  • Angela Allman

    I loved the paragraph on classism as a foil for racism, Eileen. It can be applied to many places around the world.

    Chile is someplace I’ve always wanted to visit. One day, most definitely. I just watched an excellent documentary set in the Atacama desert, ‘Nostalgia for the Light’. It blends astronomy to archeology and very recent history of Chile. If you haven’t seen it, you must.

    • Pretorian Philo

      You still owe Chile a visit

  • Annjeanette Martin

    Great post Eileen, it also describes quite well, the peace-process Chile and I have been through. I feel much more accepting of what Chile has to offer this time around, for many reasonsand prickle a little when I hear unfair criticism (which is not to say there isn’t fair criticism). Also glad to be a member of the tampon-receiving swim team :-)

    • Daniel Calvo

      buenísimo eileen

  • John Smith

    I have to say, this is one of the better written articles on here. And, I love how you incorporated the Spanish phrases throughout, being that, I, too, made an effort to learn the language at one point; it was a joy, even attempting to pronounce the Spanish phrases correctly :)

  • Aníbal Andrés Concha Meyer

    Very good article! I found it funny and accurate. Greetings from a Chileno in the United States.

    • María Consuelo Oyarzún A.

      me dio nostalgia..

    • Bárbara Meyer Durán

      Lo encontré genial!

  • Nury Elizabeth Ortega Rojo

    Thanks for the post Eileen. You really understand the “chilean way”, the good and the not so good. Glad you like the country enough to live among those beautiful mountains. I enjoyed your post deeply. Love…..

  • Beatriz Orellana

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am a Chilean in USA. And I miss Chile a lot

  • Marcela Marin

    Thank you Eileen for your words that express so well how Chileans treat each other and how we are with foreigners trying to include them and make them part of our group. It really made me homesick being in the States for more than a year now, it made me realize how much I miss my friends and the chilean flow.

  • Wendy Hoechstetter

    Two trips to Chile under my belt now (a couple of months total), and the start of establishing a community with discovering distant relatives there and the Jewish community, plus new friends in my professional design community, among others, and I’ve seen the start of the things you speak of here. No, it’s obviously not a perfect place, but the more I hear and read about qualities such as these, the more attracted I am. I can’t wait to go back.

  • Brennan Ryan

    I want to be who she is! LOL

  • Eileen Smith

    That’s so sweet, the goosebumps. But you don’t want to be anyone other than yourself! I’m glad to know I could provoke emotion. So your comment might have given me goosebumps, too!

  • Guillermo Morales

    This gave me goosebumps too!
    Very good!

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