You know what “gringo” means, for the most part. In Chile, there’s a bit of confusion about the parameters of gringo-ness/ gringosity. Some believe everyone who is not from Latin America is a gringo. Others use gringo to refer solely to people who are from the United States. There’s no consensus on this but either way, I am a full-on gringa. “My ancestors are from Eastern Europe” won’t get me out of that. The term “gringa fria” refers to a gringa who is cold natured, who is not accustomed to the lack of personal space typical in a South American culture.
These past couple months here in Chile have been a period of perpetual adjustment. Chile is, to me, not so much a country as it is a force to be reckoned with. It’s strange in a lot of ways I can’t quite put my finger on. Here are some of the things I can put my finger on:
Better out than in! Not.
Burping here in Chile is right on par with farting. Sure, it’s a natural part of being a living, breathing, gas excreting human, but it’s not okay here. If you burp audibly, you will either be teased or thought of as gross/ impolite/ maleducado. One night while sitting at the once (sort of dinner only in that it’s a “meal” that takes place at night) 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, lo siento!” (“Oh my God, I’m sorry!”) While they both chuckled a bit, my 11 year old 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.”
I’ma buy you a drank
The fact that Chileans eat what they eat and still think burping is rude boggles my mind. First, Chileans simply don’t drink water at all ever. Generally, I only like drinking water, sometimes beer and, on special occasions, Emergen-C. Here, my preference for water over soda is met with confusion. I get teased and called “water girl.” If, at some point, I give in and decide to accept a glass of soda, my host family cheers. “She’s one of us,” they say. Chileans will not start a meal unless there is a 2 liter sized bottle of Coke, Sprite, or Orange Crush on the table. Classrooms in my school are actually decorated with posters of Orange Crush. Soda is their idol, their rock star, their lifeblood. I honestly doubt there is a country out there that drinks more soda than this one. Bonus, they like to mix Orange Crush with cheap beer and voila, a fancy yet economical Chilean cocktail.
“Food” Oh good lord the food here.
Before moving to Chile, I thought I was probably the person in the world with the worst diet. I could not imagine that a living human person, much less an entire population, could eat a greater quantity of truly terrible, nutritionless, sometimes probably even dangerous food. Then I moved to the White Bread Capital of the world, a land where bags (yes, pouches) of ketchup appear on the table at every meal, where natives possess an enthusiasm for mayo scarcely seen even on the “before” side of a Weight Watchers pledge. Where artificial sweetener tablets are used instead of sugar, where salt is added before a taste test, where it is totally normal to eat an entire sleeve of cookies for breakfast (I actually love this about Chile).
Notes on food.
-I love empanadas and each time I leave the house, I’m essentially just on a quest to find them and then eat them.
-Completos are all the rage here. They are hot dogs. Most completes have some type of mayonnaise on them. Some also have avocado and ketchup. They are quite delicious, especially if you’ve just had a beer or two, but beware because your regular pants will probably become palta pants right before your eyes, and avocado is surprisingly difficult to wash out.
Kissing the Busboy
In Chile, you always 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 Western cultures: Essentially by yelling “no homo!” at each other while they slap hands.) I’m usually more of a hugger than a cheek kisser, but I’ve come to enjoy this small, warm gesture of affection. In school, my students often run up to me to hug and kiss me. I’m usually all for this. I love that people like me! But when a sweaty, fresh from P.E., 7 yr old girl comes running at you with puckered lips, heading full force toward a mouth kiss, it’s time to play the gringa card.
The whole kissing thing adds a level of confusion, tension, and excitement to most social interactions. When I walk into the teacher’s lounge in the morning, am I supposed to kiss everyone? Apparently, yes, I am. But I only want to kiss my friends! I don’t know half of the people in there! How can I kiss, like, 1 person in a room of 20 without being completely gringa fria? Then there are other moments when you get lucky, like when you’re leaving a bar and your male friends decide to greet the 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! Other times, I want to go in for the kiss but the moment simply passes or I’m not sure if I should so I just stand there awkwardly waving at someone who’s standing 2 feet in front of me. This is my life now. In some ways, this has always been my life.
Here in Chile, you’re supposed to meet your soul mate in high school, have babies [also in high school, I think], and get married by 25 it seems. Sometimes, the timeline is a little off and this can occur in college. Entering a high school classroom or taking a walk through a park is like boarding Noah’s Ark. Everyone is paired off. I am pretty much considered a 22 year old spinster. A common question I get asked [by cab drivers] is, “Do you have a boyfriend?” “No” “Why not?” I’m learning to lie about this. Unless you are talking to a person who you want to potentially date, the answer to “Do you have a boyfriend?” is ALWAYS “Yes.”
May I iron your panties?
There are no dryers here in Chile. Laundry is set out to line dry and then ironed. I miss the anonymity of a dryer! I’d be able to throw my clothes in with the rest of the family’s and then happily collect my things from the pile without my undergarments being scrutinized or even noticed. If I were allowed to do my own laundry, this would not be a problem, but usually my host “dad” or the housekeeper does it. By the time I get downstairs to steal my own clothes, a 29 year old man is already hanging my delicates out in the sun. I can either run away and act like I didn’t see anything or offer my help, which would be weird. I instead choose to stand there and watch him lay out my thongs while we talk about the weather. On days when the cleaning lady comes, she’s downright baffled when I collect my panties from the family pile of clothing before she has a chance to iron them.
Let’s all go to the mall!
Chileans love malls! Chile is actually a great place to shop! But these are the overpriced, gringo-friendly exception. Something very strange, old school, and probably very Latin American about Chile is that there are entire streets dedicated to stores selling the same thing. Imagine Pajama Avenue, Plastic Bag Street, Sunglasses Way…
How to Fix a Chilean Toilet
“How to fix a Chilean toilet” is something you can’t be afraid to Google (or ask, if you’re ballsy enough). You’re technically not supposed to flush toilet paper here, and you will inevitably clog the toilet. It might not be your fault, but it will happen to you. You can either ignore it and leave it for the next bathroom user to deal with it (which may be how you got into the situation in the first place) or you can have the courage to ask for help.
Can I give you half a ride?
Colectivos are a very convenient, economical way to get around certain parts of town. They’re essentially shared taxis that run along a set route. You get in, pay the driver the set fare and then drive up and down nearby streets looking for other passengers to fill the car before you head to the destination. Colectivos can be fun because you get to practice your Spanish with locals (or more likely, you get spoken to in terribly broken English). And they’re reliable too! In one of my first colectivo rides from home to school, I was the only person in the car besides the driver. He stopped ten minutes from my destination, returned my money and said, “You can walk from here, right? I have to go to the bathroom.” and left me on the side of the road.
A good 67% of Chileans smoke, inside and outside. Street vendors do it near the food they sell. I’m pretty certain that this is at least ½ the reason why there’s a huge problem with air pollution in this city.
The Nine Hour Lunch
I like my alone time. I like my alone time, sometimes, more than I like being with people. Something I’ve learned about myself here in Chile is that I don’t like talking when I eat. Unless I have agreed to go out to dinner with a friend, when I sit down for a meal I’m signing up for food and quiet time. If you’re trying to discuss masonry and the upcoming elections, don’t expect a response from me. I’m busy shoveling noodles into my mouth and probably wondering whether Judi Dench is satisfied with her career or at what age I have to stop putting candy on my grocery lists.
Lunch is the main meal here in Chile. Sometimes, I can get on board with a family meal. It’s often the only time I actually get to talk to my host family, so I agree to join them at the grandparents’ house for what I expect to be a three hour visit, tops. Nine hours later, we emerge from the house. The sun is down and it’s cold. Lunch ended long ago. I’ve missed other social commitments and have a lot of work to catch up on. I’m grumpy, tired, and my jaw hurts from chewing. I’m simply not built for a Chilean lunch.