Photo: Karol Moraes/Shutterstock

8 Ways to Learn Who Chileans Really Are

by Elyssa Oct 22, 2014
1. Drink anything but water.

If you’re caught drinking water, Chileans will become very concerned and ask if you’re feeling okay. They’ll even warn you that “agua te hace mal” (water makes you sick). In reality, the tap water in Chile is fine for drinking, but locals have a preference for soda, wine, and liquors such as pisco, chicha, and pipeño.

They’re especially proud of their Cabernet Sauvignon and will often cite Chilean folk singer Tito Fernandez’s song: “Me gusta el vino porque el vino es bueno. Y cuando el agua brota, pura y cristalina, de la Madre Tierra, más me gusta el vino.”

Translation: “I like wine because wine is good. But when I see the water, pure and clear, gushing from Mother Earth, I like wine even more.”

2. Don’t make any sudden noises or movements.

Burping audibly is a faux pas right on par with farting. If you burp audibly in public, you’ll either be teased or glared at and thought of as maleducado (impolite). It’s also considered bad form to stretch or yawn openly in public, and some even suggest retiring to the bathroom for such unsavory bodily functions.

That said, it seems to be forgiven among good friends or family. One night while sitting at the once (tea time) table with my two little host sisters, I felt a burp approaching. The air bubble entered my esophagus and, in slow motion, inched its way up as I prepared to deal with the repercussions. I allowed myself to burp audibly and immediately feigned embarrassment, “Dios mio, I’m sorry!” While they both chuckled a bit, my host sister was very sweet and understanding. “It’s okay, it’s natural,” she reassured me, “It’s nothing bad in this house. We all do it.” And with that burp, I became part of a Chilean family…which everyone knows is the best kind of family there is.

3. Forget Spanish; learn Chilean.

Contrary to the information you gathered from the CIA World Factbook, the official language of Chile is not Spanish; it’s Chilean! Chilean is a variant of Spanish combining modismos (slang), garabatos (profanities), and even the occasional random word derived from the indigenous Mapuche language. In order to speak like a Chilean you must talk quickly, drop consonants, and only pronounce half of each word. Chileans also punctuate each word or sentence with “po” — a filler word with no meaning — and “cachai?” which means roughly “y’know?”

4. Subsist solely on sandwiches and sausages (along with bread and avocados).

When you think of Latin American cuisine, you probably think of ceviche, empanadas, and carne asada. While all of these things are readily available in Chile, Chileans have an overwhelming preference for sandwiches and hot dogs (called completos). Chileans also eat an unprecedented amount of avocados (palta) and bread in various forms (marraquetas, hallullas, pan de molde, pan amasado) and try to incorporate corn (choclo) into any dish they can.

5. Kiss everybody.

In Chile, you always begin and end interactions with people with a kiss on the right cheek. (This is between two women or between a woman and a man. Men greet each other in the emotionally deadened way we’re accustomed to in the US, essentially by yelling, “Yo homo!” at each other while they slap hands.)

The whole kissing thing adds a level of confusion, tension, and excitement to most social interactions. When I walk into the teachers’ lounge in the morning, am I supposed to kiss everyone? Apparently, yes, I am. But I only want to kiss my friends! Then there are other moments when you get lucky, like when you’re leaving a bar and your male friends decide to greet the handsome busboy on the way out. This means a handshake for them, but you, you lucky girl, you get to go in for a cheek kiss!

6. Marry your middle-school sweetheart.

Chile is, at heart, a Catholic country, and the culture here is very much based around mating for life. Even among very young couples in middle and high school, the overarching goal of relationships seems to be to remain together forever. Entering a high-school classroom or taking a walk through a park is like boarding Noah’s Ark — everyone’s paired off.

7. Get in a car with strangers.

Colectivos are a really convenient, economical way to get around certain parts of town, and they’re fun because you get to practice your Spanish with locals. Also, the drivers are always honest. In one of my first colectivo rides from home to work, I was the only person in the car besides the driver. He stopped 10 minutes from my destination, returned my money, and said, “You can walk from here, right? I have to go to the bathroom.”

8. Clog a toilet.

Signs posted in public bathrooms throughout the country will ask you to throw toilet paper in the garbage bin rather than in the toilet. You’ll usually abide by the flyer’s plea, but, like any true Chilean, you’ll occasionally be tempted to throw caution to the wind and throw your paper in the toilet. You’ll inevitably clog it up, and I must warn you that googling “how to fix a Chilean toilet” yields no useful results.

If this happens to you at a friend’s house rather than in a public restroom, you can either ignore it and leave it for the next bathroom user to deal with (which may be how you got into the situation in the first place), or you can have the courage to ask for help, all the while insisting that “it was only a number one.”

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