I think the honeymoon is over.
There are several phases to culture shock. The same phases apply during a return trip. The first phase is the honeymoon. You’re thrilled to be back, everything is awesome, you only see all of the good things that you missed so much while you were gone. The past couple of weeks, I was up to my ears in palta and tea and I still loved the metro and I was pretty much euphoric to be back.
Then it rained and got cold. And I was like, okay, this is kind of a bummer. But it’s winter. What did I expect? I knew that was coming. And I dealt with it.
Then I wasn’t sleeping great. And when I don’t sleep well, I lack the energy to exert myself and keep talking and thinking in Spanish. It’s also more difficult for me to understand Spanish. In general, lack of sleep makes my life here even more difficult than it does at home.
Then the little things started to get to me. Like how the metro station only had ONE cashier available to reload metro cards…during rush hour. And then the self-service machine wouldn’t work for me. So then I had to get back in the long line AGAIN. And then I got stuck behind slow people when I got off the metro, and I was already running late. That lack of efficiency is actually pretty standard. I don’t meant for that to be an indictment of this country or its culture. But on that morning in particular, it was infuriating. In my head I was yelling, Come on, people! It’s Monday morning! We’ve got places to be and things to do! Let’s GO! Yup. I was one of those gringas that day. I was not proud of it. And so I entered the second stage of culture shock: irritability and hostility.
Lessons learned that morning: 1) Gringas stand out on their own. A gringa on a tear, like I was that day, stands out even more. 2) This is real life. This is not vacation. And not every day is going to be wonderful and perfect and easy.
I knew this day was coming, of course. I tried to prepare myself for it. No place is perfect, and there are always bad days and good days. It’s important to acknowledge that when you go abroad, and even more important if you’re returning somewhere that you really loved, and maybe idealized a little bit while you were away.
I’m still enjoying being back, though. That was just a rough couple of days, like any I would have at home in the States. My job is great and keeping me very busy. I’ve seen plenty of my friends recently and am ready for quieter, more restful weekend. It’s hard when you have so little time and feel pushed to take advantage of absolutely everything and say no to nothing…but I’ve learned that I can’t really enjoy it if I’m beat, and I know how to respect my limits.
Things I’ve noticed, or maybe have just remembered:
I need to read, talk, think, and listen more in Spanish. I have to be better immersed. It’s difficult because my work day usually involves some time spent reading and writing in English. But three weeks in now (well that was fast), I need to do a lot more reading and listening besides emails and work stuff, and besides the occasional Spanish-language song that pops up on the radio station I listen to at work all day. That’s the thing with a second language- it’s your second language, so it’s not permanently ingrained into your brain, and it takes work to activate it and keep it activated. You do lose it if you don’t use it!
I will say, though, that my Salvadoran coworker asked me why I talk like a Chilean. And a taxi driver complemented me on my Spanish and asked how I got so good.
There is a significant and noticeable demographic shift between my home metro station and where I get off for work. I am largely surrounded by professionals and upper-middle, upper-class students when I get on the train. When I change trains halfway, the station is packed with a mix of the entire city- suits, school uniforms, university students, push-up jeans and big earrings, moms in sweatpants carrying their babies wrapped up in blankets. When I get off my second train and get on the bus, it’s largely a working and lower-middle class crowd. It’s a population that obviously has stronger indigenous roots than the people who got on the train with me at the beginning. At the top of the trip, there really aren’t that many people you can look at and identify as “Latino,” as we think of it in the US. At the end of it, chances are much higher that anyone with light hair and light eyes is a foreigner. Very few people from my part of town work out where I do, and vice versa. This is a cosmopolitan city in certain parts, but anyone who tells you that it’s well-integrated is flat out lying.
You can’t put a limit on Chileans’ time. In the States we apologize for taking up too much of someone’s time. I have still not figured out how to translate that correctly in Spanish. Probably because the concept really doesn’t exist. This is not to say that they don’t value your time. On the contrary- I think they value it so much that they will take up as much of it as they can! Besides, there isn’t too much of a schedule here. Work starts out pretty slowly. Most everyone arrives by 9:30, and even then people will drop off their things and go to the supermarket to get breakfast and snacks. Lunch starts at 1, and most people aren’t really working again until about 3. This isn’t to say that they don’t work hard- the Chilean economy wouldn’t be what it is if they were lazy!- but it’s certainly more relaxed.
Also, their cookies aren’t as good. Toddy brand cookies are all right. But the other ones…they’re kind of just crunchy things are vaguely reminiscent of chocolate and other flavors. That’s really irrelevant. But it does mean that I think it’s finally time for me to introduce real, homemade chocolate chip cookies to my host family and my Chilean friends.
Santiago looks like:
Life is real. Thanks for listening.