This country is not used to foreigners in general. There isn’t a lot of immigration between Chile and other countries. Only recently has Chile seen an influx of immigrants, largely from Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. They can pick Colombians, Bolivians, and Peruvians out pretty easily, because they are physically distinct. Colombians have stronger African roots. Peruvians and Bolivians are, in general, far more indigenous than the typical Chilean. Chileans, like Argentinians, are quite European- Spanish, German, French, even Irish and English. (One of the men who led Chile to independence was named Bernardo O’Higgins. Not a joke.) There’s some indigenous blood in there of course, but not as much as you see in your typical Peruvian, Bolivian, Salvadoran, Mexican, etc. (*YES, I’m speaking in general terms. I am not accounting for every region of every country in Latin America. But you will see that there are stronger indigenous roots in some countries than in others.*)
As a result, in some parts of Santiago, an American can get on the metro and be hard-pressed to find someone who would clearly stand out in the States as Latino. A lot of Chileans are physically similar to Americans with European heritage. There aren’t a ton of blondes, but there’s a lot of light skin, lighter (if not quite blue) eyes, and lighter brown hair. You’d think, oh, they don’t look that different from me. I’m not going to stand out here. Right?
WRONG. Wrong wrong wrong. You will stand out in so many ways, even if you utter not one word of English and speak flawless Spanish. You are marked.
I spend about two hours each day on public transportation. I’ve been stared at quite a lot. But as I’ve lived here for longer and longer, I’ve started to do some staring of my own. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what makes me stand out.
And yet recently, people have been asking me for directions. As in, does this bus stop by this street? Is this such-and-such street? How do I get to this place? Does this metro route go here? And so on. And it’s never like I’m the only person around that they can ask for directions. On the contrary- usually it’s in a big crowd of Chileans that someone taps me on the shoulder or gets in front of my face and asks how to get somewhere. The majority of the time, I actually know! But it makes me ask myself again, I thought I was marked. I thought everyone knew just by looking that I’m not from here. Why am I the person they ask for directions?
These questions have led me to compile a list of what makes foreigners stand out from Chileans, and vice versa. This list, like my Things I Know About Chileans posts, is in progress. I welcome comments, suggestions, and corrections!
1) English. Don’t think that you can speak English and no one will notice. EVERYONE will notice and EVERYONE will stare at you for it. If you’re not into that- work on your Spanish (which, frankly, will still make everyone stare, even if you’re using all the cachai and po in the world) or don’t talk.
2) A lot of it is based on your clothing and accessories.
3) Backpack: anyone carrying an Xtrem or Head backpack is very likely Chilean. North Face, Jansport, other brands? Foreigner bonus points, except in certain sectors of the city where they can afford North Face. (North Face jackets are not a giveaway. Look for other clues.) Rucksack type backpacks were quite in style when I studied here last year, and all of us American girls laughed at how small and impractical they seemed. You can’t even fit a laptop in there!
And then they came into fashion in the US. And we were all proven wrong.
4) Water bottles. A reusable water bottle is a ringer for an American. No arguments.
5) Shoes. Wedge boots point to a Chilean. Boots in general point to Chileans. They wear boots all year long. Yes, in 90 degree weather, 100 degrees in the metro, women will be dressed in jeans and wedge ankle boots. I don’t understand how they can suffer like that. Wear some shorts and sandals and free yourselves! Also, the boots will usually have a heel.
6) How appropriate are their clothes for the weather? This requires asking another question: is it warm or cold today? A Chilean will be overdressed for warm weather and a foreigner (often an American who is accustomed to the luxury of central heating) will be underdressed for the cold. May through probably August, whether it’s a high of 52 or 72, Chileans gear up for the winter- ponchos, hats, gloves, scarves, all kinds of sweaters and solid winter jackets. They are layered up. Gringos think their usual North Face and a sweater underneath, plus a pair of sneakers, will be sufficient. WRONG. A high of 50 in a country without central heating means that it is 50 degrees indoors, too! You will be cold. And you will understand why you’d be willing to sweat on the metro during rush hour if you can be slightly less freezing in your office during the day.
7) For girls: are they using a scrunchie? Or black butterfly-shaped hair clips? Chilean.
8) It’s easier to tell if a blonde is Chilean or not if you’re also blonde. First, judge by the criteria above. If you are still unsure, ask yourself: am I blonde? If so, is the blonde staring back at me? If yes, the blonde is a foreigner, doing the same thing you’re doing. Chilean blondes DO NOT STARE. They know that they’re Chilean and you’re not (because remember, the Chileans win at this game) and therefore have no need to stare at you.
So how do you try and fit in? Hide the things that make you obviously a foreigner. Put away the water bottle. If you have to talk, make an effort to speak in Spanish and speak quietly (Americans- what makes us so loud?). Buy clothes and shoes here, and wear them. Not even kidding- when I bought a bunch of clothes here last year and started wearing them out, I got stared at a whole lot less. They might not even seem like clothes that are that different from what you’d wear at home, but I’m telling you, it works. Do your hair like they do it. And whatever you do, don’t stare back, and look like you know where you’re going.
As I said, I welcome all kinds of comments and suggestions!
Happy weekend, friends!