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What's Different About Me Now: An American in Chile

Santiago Travel
by Eileen Smith Sep 10, 2012
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.

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