Living the Chilean Life

With the real primary elections on Sunday, TECHO decided to have a mock election here at the office with a special category for “extranjeros” (foreigners). From all the politics that have been circulating the past couple weeks, I still only felt slightly prepared to check a name on the ballot sheet. I signed my name and stamped my fingerprint but wasn’t rewarded with the typical “I voted” sticker as I was in the last presidential elections but then again, I didn’t really vote this time. At the end of the elections, the votes were counted and the megaphone announced “Orrego!”

The conversations didn’t end there however as conversations buzzed about political opinions and discussions all weekend long until we watched the real election primary results of socialist candidate Michelle Batchelet and right-wing Pablo Longueira. Congratulations Chile on your first year of primaries! Good luck in December when it comes time to once again cast your vote.

ImageSo it turns out I’m turning more and more into a true Chilena (always while still representing my home of course wearing my Berkeley sweatshirt). This weekend was filled not only with politics but also with knitting and both cooking and eating some of the typical foods of Chile. America, step up your game because Betty Crocker has a lot of learn about cakes. After sticking a fork into a fifteen-layer manjar cake in celebration of my cousin Maya’s birthday, I don’t think I can ever go back to boxed cake mix and tub frosting. This weekend I learned how to make empanadas, yet another South American delicacy that the North is truly missing out on. After being told that they don’t come out right unless you put ‘love’ into making the dough, I packaged the little picket of dough with a mixture of meat & onions, a slice of hard boiled egg, two raisins and an olive and lined them up on to a pan to be placed in the homemade, outdoor oven. The efforts were not unappreciated and definitely worth the wait as everyone enjoyed the delicious warm, fresh bread and empanadas as they overflowed the kitchen. I was told that I’m not allowed to forget how to make them until I return home and make them for my family and my grandparents. Lunch is the largest meal of they day always filled with plenty of family and friends here in Chile.

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ImageThe other day my younger brother asked me what life was like in Chile, asking me if it was very different from life in America. Having been asked that same question already several times here as new people I talk to ask what my opinion is of Chile and the people here, I had my answer ready. The last time my brother and I had visited Chile was 10 years ago so besides the candies and manjar (that he asked me to bring home for him) he didn’t remember much. I told him that living in the big city of Santiago things are pretty similar to living in a city in the U.S. just with more stray dogs but the big differences appear in the culture and the lifestyle lived by the people. Chilean people are very nice, warm, friendly and welcoming. The women are sweet and the men are gentlemen. They value family and friends much more than work, money and luxury items, where I think a lot of people in America have these things reversed. (I realize I am categorizing and stereotyping and there are plenty of exceptions to the things I am saying but this is what I have noticed of people in general.)

The first difference I noticed upon my arrival in Chile is of course the greeting, as I have mentioned previously, everyone greets you with a short and simple kiss on the cheek. This is the greeting and the approach to saying goodbye that is in place of that awkward moment of question when making the critical decision of whether a hug, a handshake or just a wave would be the most appropriate in every encounter we make in the US. Here the rule is consistent, avoiding any opportunity for awkwardness. Whether I’m just meeting someone or I saw them the evening before I am always greeted with a short cheek to cheek kiss and a quick “Hola, como estas?” – Hi, How are you?

Aside from the greetings, the biggest difference I see here is that Chileans simply have their times wrong. Lunch is typically around 2pm here which pushed dinner back until around 8 or 9 and then going out at night is around midnight resulting in not returning to your house until sometimes as late (or as early, depending on how you look at it) as 4 or 5am. Requiring a full night of sleep, they wake up for a short and simple breakfast and coffee, never ever involving anything close to pancakes, waffles or omelets, just before the next day’s monster lunch. I personally really value my breakfasts, but the one part of these meals that I wholeheartedly approve of, and wouldn’t mind bringing back with me to America, is teatime. (While slightly less popular and consistent than the last time I was here) Teatime happens around 5 or 6 in the evening and involves your choice of tea or coffee and is accompanied by locally made bread with some kind of spread of your choice which might include avocado, jam, cheese, marmalade, or majar (which for those of you who are deprived and don’t know what manjar is, it’s a sweet caramel-like spread that is used in all sorts of deserts including things like McFlurrys at McDonalds or stuffed in churros, or used to spice up a fruit or piece of toast. It is similar to dulce de leche in Argentina and sometimes found in ice cream flavors in the U.S.)

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Meals in Chile are long and often involve several courses ending the meal with the salad and then desert follows. Meals must never be eaten alone, here that would be absurd, in America that would be called multitasking and efficient. Most of the time the meals are prepared and served by the family’s maid.

After being here for almost 2 months already, it has been hard to even remember what I do exactly for meals in the US but if I remember correctly they are much more casual and are much shorter, and often eaten out somewhere rather than home cooked. Dinners are usually the big meal in America eaten around 6 and usually only involve the immediate family, with the rare occasion of a friend or visitor but typically cooked by the mother or sometimes the father of the household. Can you imagine the number of fights that would be avoided by having a maid that does the cooking and the cleaning rather than that responsibility usually being delegated to the wife/mother of the household after a long day of work. This particular cultural difference of the middle/upper class seems to me a little strange. While maybe making life a lot easier, I still feel slightly uncomfortable handing my dirty laundry over to someone when I could easily do it myself. Almost every household here has one or two full time women to serve as maids, some with rooms and separate bathrooms of their own in the house by the kitchen. While maids here are for the most part, if not always respected and treated with love and kindness, it is still a custom that just doesn’t quite sit right with me. Shouldn’t they be at their own homes, cooking and cleaning for their own families rather than someone else’s?

When people here ask me what I think of Chilean people first I tell them that everyone I meet, no matter what their economic status may be, immediately treats me like family offering me food, something to drink and a place to stay. While they value family and extended family – as many families are extremely large in this country, I don’t think I have met a single family with less then 3 children and I most definitely haven’t met any only children. Most often this family value extends also to close family friends including boyfriends and girlfriends and best friends who call everyone the generation above them tia and tio – aunt and uncle as both a sign of comfort and also respect. That is compared to the Mr. and Mrs. that is often used in the U.S.

Most young adults attending a university here live with their parents often times into mid to late 20s. Contrasting the independence that is extremely prevalent in the states that encourages almost everyone to follow the social norm of moving out of the house and going away to school at the young age of 17 or 18. This cultural difference I’m certain leads to many externalities as well as many social and cultural differences in the youth and young adults that I could not even begin to point out. While it is very usual for the people in their 20s working at TECHO to be living with their families, if that was the case in the U.S. I think it would take many people aback. Just as strange as it is for me to explain to people here that I live in a city 6 hours away from my parents in a sorority house with 45 other girls under the age of 22 with out adults.

The final aspect of life here that I would like to bring up is humility. What I have noticed, and tried explaining to several people already, is the lifestyle and manner of living of most, if not all, of the families here is the lack of necessity for luxury items and accessories. Most households I’ve seen live comfortably but they families live in houses that don’t need to be new or perfect or large or flashy. While a living room in the U.S. is not complete without a big screen TV and a couch with factory made pillows and blankets, a Chilean living room isn’t complete without something old or homemade draped over the couch or placed on a table. This difference has stood out to me and to me this style is admirable. It shows that people obtain what they need to live a nice and comfortable life but don’t need to be extravagant with the things they own. I think that is exactly the opposite in the United States. I think it gives people in Chile a state of being humble that I really appreciate. I think this can also be seen in the clothing that is worn and the food that is bought at local, small stores close to home.

As I continue to immerse myself in the Chilean lifestyle and continue to learn about the lifestyle and costumes here, I am continuously reminded that I will never quite fit in with my terrible Spanish accent, my blonde hair and my tall stature: I will forever be labeled a Gringo.

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