Thursday, September 11, 2008

Welcome to Chile!

The other day, when speaking to one of my American friends here in Chile, my friend rightly expressed our shared frustration to fully explain to our family and friends what exactly is “Chile” and what Chilean culture or values are.

Past May, I attempted (with the help of a few Chile culture books) a “Welcome to Chile” packet full of small tips and notes about Chilean culture to assist the visiting U.S. students with their daily life and struggles in the Chilean culture. Remembering our conversation, I showed this document to my friend yesterday. After living here for a while, we both found these common every day occurrences for us fascinating, realizing that the “odd” things have now become “normal.” After commenting that she wanted to send this information on to her family, I realized that was not a bad idea…and not a bad blog post.

And so…I post an adapted version of the short section about Chilean culture here on my blog. It is certainly not all-inclusive, but I hope that it gives you a better idea of things I have experienced within the last (almost!) 2 years!

Greetings (Saludos): When saying hello or goodbye to someone, males and females have distinct roles. Women always give an air kiss on the right cheek (thus your head goes left), regardless of the gender of the opposite person. Men, when addressing other men, shake hands. Men, when addressing women, give the air kiss. Also, it is very common for good friends, regardless of gender (even between two males or two females) to hold hands or link arms when walking together. It was a bit weird for me at first, but when some of my students or friends did this to me, I recognized it as a sign of a great friendship!

Personal space: Chileans tend to not care about personal space as much as Americans do. Do not be surprised to find a person speaking directly in front of your face during conversation, or to find a person behind you in line breathing down your neck or inadvertently poking you in the back. The lack of personal space is also very evident in the subway during rush hour when each bus and subway car is packed to the max. This is a bit aggravating but there is nothing you can do to widen the space.

Time: Time exists in Chile, but far different than it does in the United States. More emphasis and value is placed on personal relationships and what is being done in the moment rather than what comes later. Thus, many Chileans do have a schedule, but it is not uncommon to be anywhere from 30 minutes-1 ½ hours late for an appointment, especially if they are in good conversation or visiting with someone. This was frustrating and hard to get used to…but now my US friends joke that I am a bit too “Chilean” now, having adapted the whole “late” thing!

Myths and Truths: One way in which Chileans express their pride to foreigners is to downplay their performance and insult themselves. Chileans ceaselessly complain that they are lazy, disorganized procrastinators. Even though there is some truth in what they say, they must get some credit because it is the best-performing economy in Latin America.

Am I “American”?: At twice a week I hear many Chileans say they do not understand, dislike, and/or are frustrated with the fact that United States citizens say they are the only “Americans”; Chileans (and most of Latin American) learn that North America, Central America, and South America are all one continent (the continent of America). Thus, Chileans say they are Americans too. The response to these comments is very crucial in one surviving the conversation. First, I have to always acknowlege the differences between Chile and the United States in learning how many continents there are, that I learned there are 7 instead of 5. Additionally, and most importantly, I have to kindly remind them that in English, it is grammatically correct to say United States of America citizens are Americans, just as Republic of Chile citizens are Chileans. It also helps to mention that I never say I am "American" in Spanish, because that is improper Spanish. I am "Estadounidense" (United States-ian) NOT "Americana."

Family: In Chile, family is the central and most important social unit. Children live with their family until well after college, sometimes until they are married, because the concept of living on one’s own is not as pervasive as it is in other cultures. If they do move out on their parents’ house, it is not uncommon for Chileans to find a new home or build a house just down the street from where their parents live. Regardless of where they live, it is a common practice for the entire family (including first and second cousins, as well as in-laws) to gather at least once every week for a big meal.

Comida es amor. “Food is love” as they say here in Chile. Many times, although we may have stated several times that we are full and cannot eat any more, Chileans continue to offer food, particularly if they care for you or have a relationship with you. It is somewhat rude to reject the food full out, especially if it is food you have not yet tried. General unspoken rules between the gringos are the following: If you are full, take the food graciously and eat a bit, leaving the rest. It is okay to leave food on your plate. Addtionally, we have to remember that lunch is the biggest meal in Chile and it often consists of several courses – taking your time is key. And, if we think we will continued to be offered more food after, we stop eating before we are full in order to be prepared for the pressure to eat more that will follow (easier said than done of course!)

No toilet paper????!!!!: One thing about using a public restroom (in anywhere but a really fancy place): you will have to supply your own toilet paper. For some reason, it is just not an automatic part of the restroom offering, as it is other places in the world. In case we do not have any, some places offer a fee for using the bathroom, from 100-250 pesos (20-50 US cents), which covers the cost of bathroom usage and a bit of toilet paper. Most of the time it is thin thin thin – just because they provide it does not mean it is the best quality!! Some people, such as us gringos, prefer to carry a small travel pack of kleenex in our bags/purses at all times...just in case.

Additional note on toilet paper: Some septic systems in Santiago (and most of Chile) cannot handle both human waste and toilet paper. Thus, it is custom that after using it, you dispose it in a small waste bin located at the side of the toilet. In nice areas of Santiago, where fancier septic systems are located, this is not something that one has to concern themselves with. What if we are not sure if we can dispose the toilet paper in the toilet? Just look – if there is a small trash can there, we know it is a sure sign that no, we cannot put it in the toilet and need to put it in the trash can. If we are really confused, we look for a sign – they usually post something for the slow people in the world...

Nanas: Working mothers in Chile are not faced with the same problems that they are in some developed countries. Because labor is relatively cheap, most upper, and even some middle and lower-class families, hire nanas (nannies) or empleadas that not only look after the children but also clean, cook, and do the laundry. The nana is the trusted partner in raising the children and her presence is a great source of relief, and many nanas live with the family rather than live in their own house.

Paloleando – “Dating.” Dating in Chile is a very serious undertaking. Yet, it is not uncommon for Chileans, especially men, to date casually or more than one person at a time. The world “palolo” is very appropriate in describing the dating culture of Chile – the word comes from the name of a bug that buzzes around people: Once a couple is officially a couple the relationships becomes very intense and possessive. Couples spend all of their free time together and if they see their friends, they do so as a couple. Coming from a different culture, some view this as very suffocating.

PDA is a definite part of the culture. Couples are very, very, very affectionate in public. (Much more than I have ever seen in my life – I feel the last sentence is an understatement!) Young couples hold hands, embrace, and kiss passionately regardless of where they are. For many of us foreigners, this is a bit uncomfortable and despite my large amount of time here, this still remains the case. Speaking from experience, giving them dirty looks (or hollaring "get a room!" in Spanish) will not cause them to change their behavior. The reason for this is because most young couples live at home, they have no private areas where they can be intimate and take advantage of whatever time they have outside the house together.

And so, that's it! I am hoping to post some recent photos I took of me and the orphanage kids up on here within the next few weeks or so. If I do not get around to it any time soon, the next post will definitely be about Fiestas Patrias, Chile's national holiday on September 18 (check out my post from last year here.) It is coming soon and we are all anxiously awaiting its arrival!!

Hope you are all well. ¡Saludos y abrazos!

Until next time,



At 12/08/2009 6:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

just one correction: its
"pololo" -boyfriend
"polola" -girlfriend


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