Chile is a bewildering and surprising place. After 8 months in this skinny, mountainous land, I feel I understand it less now that I did when I first arrived.
When you move somewhere new, it’s the differences you notice. Indeed, the strange idiosyncrasies of a place and its people are what make travelling so exhilarating in the first place. Some of those differences, (like long, leisurely Spanish lunches for example), are to be embraced and taken home, while others are harder to accept or get your head round. My students have given me a real insight into how people think here and it’s not always pretty.
I thought it was just my fellow expats and I that dissected Chilean culture over glasses of red, but having just finished Isabel Allende’s joyous memoir, My Invented Country, I was surprised and delighted to discover that she had already made many of the same observations. Full of love for her homeland and her compatriots but with a fair amount of scathing insight too, it’s like a beginner’s guide to the quirks of Chilean life.
So with Allende backing me up (in italics), here are just a few of the things that have turned my head.
1. Keeping it classy
Class matters in Chile. In England, people might take notice if you have a degree from Oxford or Cambridge (they’ll call you a swot behind your back) but other than that, a degree is a degree. Here, the university you went to, and indeed your address, says something about your status, and the better the university, the better the chance of getting a decent job.
Similarly, in English classes, Chilean students sometimes refuse point blank to pronounce the ‘sh’ sound of shop, because the same sound in Chilean Spanish would make them sound lower-class. It’s apparently the reason why so many people say they like ‘chopping’.
“Foreigners rarely catch on to how this shocking class system operates because social interchange is polite and friendly at every level… (but).. we Chileans have a well-trained eye for determining a person’s place in society by physical appearance, colour of skin, mannerisms and especially the way of speaking”.
“Not only do racism and class and/or class consciousness exist, they are as deeply rooted as molars”.
2. Most Chilean men wouldn’t last 5 minutes in England
A student a few weeks ago told me that he’d spent the previous day ‘helping’ his wife. When I asked what with, he told me he’d helped her with the cooking and the washing-up. This was presumably her job. Many men here live with their mothers until well into their 30’s or 40’s and never lift a finger around the house. They don’t know how to iron, cook or look after themselves and stay at home as long as possible. Call them a mummy’s boy and many of them will take it as a compliment.
“When a man washes the plate he’s eaten from, he considers that he’s ‘helping’ his wife or mother and expects to be praised for his effort. Among our Chilean friends there is always some woman who will serve breakfast in bed to adolescent boys, wash their clothes and make their bed.”
3. PC is just a type of computer
Chileans call a spade a spade. To the horror of more sensitive outsiders, friends are good-naturedly called fatty (gordito), blacky (negrito) or anything else that fits. Fat bottoms are pinched and commented on and white-skinned foreigners are all ‘gringos’. Language students sit in mute incomprehension when they hear that in England the word ‘fireman’ has been replaced by the more gender-friendly ‘fire-fighter’. Telling them about word compounds like ‘able-bodied’, ‘visually-challenged’ or ‘big-boned’ would just blow their minds.
“The first time I heard the expression ‘politically-correct’ I was forty-five years old, and I have never been able to explain to friends or relatives in Chile what it means. “
4. A voice that could break glass
A good friend of mine had the front to say that he thought all Chilean men sounded camp when they spoke. Allende even got to that one before him too.
“We Chileans have a tendency to speak in falsetto… an Englishwoman who visited in 1822 commented…. that people were charming, but that they spoke in a disagreeable tone of voice”.
5. Blondes have more fun
Chilean men lose their heads in the face of young, attractive, blondes. It’s like watching kittens rolling around in catnip for the first time. No wonder the police have so many water cannons; half of them must just get used to cool off the horny locals who hang around outside backpacker bars. Even the ugly ones set them off. I once saw two young blonde American travellers, whose faces, frankly, could be used to scare off enemy invaders, being wolf-whistled by Chilean workmen. Meanwhile a stunning Chilean girl waltzed by unnoticed. Beauty I suppose is in the eye of the beholder, or – at least in this country – in a bottle of bleach.
“Colour prejudice is so strong that if a woman has yellow hair, even if she has the face of an iguana, men turn to look at her in the street.”
6. Loving the red tape
Why fill out one form when you can fill out 3? You want your pension money back when you leave the country? No problem, just visit these 57 different offices on Wednesday between 11.01am and 11.29am, have everything stamped and copied in triplicate, visit your embassy 3 times and you’re all set.
“The Chilean is a legal animal. There’s no better job in the country than being a public notary: we want everything on paper, sealed, with multiple copies and stamps on every page.”
7. Wacky Races
Pedestrian crossings appear to have no meaning in Chile. Drivers clearly wonder what all those stripy lines across the road are for. Seat belts too cause similar consternation and are rarely used. Driving sober at the weekend is frowned upon. Racing other cars to traffic lights passes the time.
“Chileans, become savages when they have a steering-wheel in their hands”.
8. Kiss me
English people don’t understand greetings or farewells. We find them embarrassing and awkward. We never know whether to shake hands or kiss and often just end up nodding shyly at one another. We talk to strangers for hours before asking their name. Chileans are often affronted by our lack of social graces in such matters. Although we might kiss people the first time we meet them, we either forget to do it on a daily basis or can’t quite see the point and we definitely don’t understand kissing people we don’t like.
“Older people are kissed mercilessly, even against their will. Women kiss, even if they hate each other, and they kiss any man within reach.”
9. Love me not a tree
There’s practically no such thing as being environmentally friendly in Chile. Groceries are packed 3 items at a time into plastic carrier bags, recycling facilities are almost non-existent and foreign companies are pumping money into mining and dam projects that will obliterate the landscape. They’re even working to move a glacier to get at the minerals beneath. Worst of all, no-one seems to care.
“Foreign companies acquired natural resources such as forests and oceans, which have been exploited with very little ecological conscience.”
10. Don’t talk about the military coup
Chileans love to talk, except about politics. The mere whisper of the name Pinochet and the tumble weed starts to bounce silently across the room and everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats. Occasionally, the Pinochet supporters come out of the closet when you least expect it. The other day a student floored me when she said that for her “it wasn’t a military coup, but just a change of government”.
“In Chile, people try to avoid talking about the past… it may be that the rest of the population shares a collective shame regarding what took place during the dictatorship”.
“Ways were found to ignore – or pretend to ignore- violations of human rights for many years, and to my surprise, I still find some who deny these crimes occurred.”