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How to Tell a Foreigner from a Chilean

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!

Much love,

Gaby

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Volando

Has anyone figured out how to make time stop yet? Or at least slow down? I’ve been in Santiago for 3 months. Which means I’ve been in Chile for about 3.5 months. Which leaves me about a month and half left.

I don’t want to talk about it. We dropped someone off at the airport last week, and I started crying. It got me thinking about how I’ll be leaving soon enough and then I’ll be one dragging my bags through the airport again and saying goodbye. My host mom just brought up how quickly the time has flown by, and I literally could not look at her because I started tearing up. I’ve had a bunch of moments like that this week, and mixed in with seeing people’s fall pictures from the States, plus a very full academic workload, it’s been emotional. I’m mostly blaming it on being tired and hormonal (you didn’t need to know that, but whatever, it’s the truth!), but we all know that that’s not the whole reason.

My real parents and my host parents have both told me that they know I will be coming back one day. And maybe it will be soon. I’ve decided to apply for an internship which would put me back here for 10 weeks next summer (or winter, in the Southern hemisphere). It would be a very valuable experience for me besides just getting some more time here, I promise. But it’s a competitive program, so who knows my chances of actually being accepted? Which means I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back. And that’s hard for me to deal with. I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do here. I didn’t really want to come here to travel every other weekend or go out three nights a week or anything. I cam here to live here. I came here in the hope that I could lay down some roots and that I would have a life here. And I do. Which means it’s going to be hard to leave.

I’ll be incredibly excited to go home and see my family and celebrate the holidays, of course. It’s gonna be an awesome Christmas. That doesn’t mean I’ll be any less sad or teary in that airport come December.

Several weeks ago, I was discussing how I don’t want to be seen as a tourist here. Then a Chilean asked me, “So what are you doing here?” And I didn’t really have a good answer for him. I am not a tourist. Do I occasionally do tourist-y things? Yes. Occasionally. Infrequently. I’m not an expatriate, because I’m not here for good. Am I just a foreigner? Just a student? Is that the easiest way to describe what I’m doing here? I wish there were a word that aptly described my temporarily-settled state. I know that, no matter how hard I try, no matter how many gringo students are overly impressed by my Spanish, I am not Chilean. Not by a long shot. So what do we think I am?

Oh hey! I finally went to a club!

Tip #1: if you want to drink, previa- or as American college students call it, pre-game. Drinks in the clubs are generally expensive, and you don’t want to fight the crowd at the bar, then have to sit at the bar with your drink while you’d rather be out dancing.

Tip #2: nothing really gets going until after 12, and a lot of people stay out until at least 4. So get yourself ready for a long night.

Tip #3: wear clothing with pockets. Try to avoid bringing a purse, because it’s hard to dance with your purse hanging off of you. It’s also easier to keep track of your stuff when it’s very close to your person.

Tip #4: take cab money to get home. Try not to ride the buses, especially alone, especially if you haven’t planned out multiple bus routes before you leave. Just take the cab.

Tip #5: try to get in for free! This is much easier for the ladies, especially the foreign ladies (sorry, guys). Covers can be ridiculous. Sometimes all it takes is getting there a little early or say you’re attending a club’s event on Facebook. But you’ll appreciate saving those 3.000 pesos or whatever it is.

Tip #6: just dance! Get in there and get going. That’s what you’re there for anyways, right?

Let’s talk about fashion! Santiago, like any other big city, exhibits a wide range of styles. You can get a good sense of it just by riding the metro. Let’s discuss some trends, shall we?

You can find every kind of sweater, or chaleco, in Chile. Like, every kind of style, knit, wool, size, shape, color you could possibly imagine. Chilean women wear sweaters in every kind of weather. It’s almost the only thing you’ll see them wearing on colder days, and I’ve even seen them when the temperature goes above 70.

Boots are also an essential part of the wardrobe, and they usually come with some kind of heel. I actually found it a little difficult to find flat boots at the beginning of the semester. Wedge boots, with laces, seem to have been the hot thing this season. Boots are still in full force now that spring has come to stay. I wonder if it’s an all-season thing.

Chilean women wear scrunchies. Not even kidding. We’ve been making fun of them for years, and they’re selling them new, in all kinds of prints and fabrics, in higher-end accessory stores. And the women make them work too! There’s nothing ridiculous about them! I might actually give one a try. Maybe we can bring it back?

There’s also a lot of acid-wash or very light denim around. Just another trend that I thought was gone with the 90’s until I got down here.

Scarves are everywhere, and with the wide range in temperatures you can experience in a day, they’re a must-have item. There are two words for scarves here. You’ve got the bufanda, which is usually a larger scarf made of thicker or heavier materials. There’s also the pañuelo, which appears to be more common and certainly so in the springtime. Pañuelos- also the word for handkerchief- are smaller and made of lighter materials.

I’ve seen a lot of ponchos. Mostly in the rural areas, but I’ve seen many a little bitty Chilean wrapped up in a poncho in Santiago when it gets cold. Side note: when it gets cooler here- and I mean, in the 40’s and 50’s, so not freezing- they wrap their babies up. Multiple blankets, poncho, ski jacket, boots, hats, gloves, the whole shebang. Chilean babies do not get cold.

Last thing, and probably the most unusual: printed parachute or harem pants. You know, the pants made out of some kind of jersey-like material that are tight at the ankles but baggy everywhere else? I’ve seen them all over the place. It’s a very specific Chilean woman who wears them- young, artsy, and hip. But really. Printed parachute pants! Are common!

One thing you don’t see: a lot of athletic wear. I’ve left my house in yoga pants just once this semester. Once. I have never gone to class in anything less than jeans. I also have yet to see many shorts, particularly on women. I’ll update you soon on that front now that the weather is regularly getting above 70-75. Because I don’t know how I’ll be able to wear full-length when it gets to be 80 and brilliantly sunny every day and I have to ride a crowded metro that hits 90 degrees during rush hour.

Oh, there was another temblor! I was sound asleep and felt nothing, but apparently it was stronger than the last one. It really makes me believe what the Chileans say about weird weather (which we had again recently: a full week of sun and 70’s followed by two days of under 60 with pouring rain) meaning more seismic activity. The scientists say no, but I’m inclined to side with the locals on this one.

We’ll see what adventures or thoughts I have in store for you next time! Until then, chao chao y cuídate mucho!

With love,

Gaby

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Consultas que tengo

Guess what? I don’t have any photos for you right now. It’s been a week of orientation and learning a new campus and going to class and such. Nothing you’d really care to look at, trust me!

I did go to Policía Internacional this week to register my visa. That place is like the DMV but for immigration. Not even kidding. You show them your papers, you pay, they hand you a number, you wait, and when your number is called, you talk to an mildly unpleasant person who barely looks at you and mostly clicks around a computer. Then you’re legal in the country! Mostly. I still need to get my Chilean ID card. Based on what I’ve heard, that’s a whole other adventure.

Here are a couple of things that I’ve really wondered about this week. These are questions (consultas, in Chilean Spanish) that I have for the Chilean people:

Why is there not toilet paper in the majority of stalls? I don’t mean that the dispensers are always out of toilet paper. I mean that there aren’t dispensers at all. I know that the plumbing is iffy in a lot of places. But does making people grab toilet paper before they enter the stall make them less likely to flush it down the toilet? Was there a crisis of messy bathrooms at some point in Chilean history, and they were forced to reduce dispensers to one or two per bathroom, outside of the stalls?

Also related to sanitation: why isn’t there a soap dispenser at every sink? Why only at each end? Or one in the middle? Or none at all? And why aren’t there paper towels? Toilet paper is not the same. It does not do the job without making a mess. When there are hand dryers, why are fully functional ones so scarce? Why do they only blow air in sporadic, cold gusts? You would think that in a country which generally lacks central heating, and where the winters are indeed chilly, dry hands would be a priority.

Women of Santiago: why are you so stylish? How are you so put-together every single day? How do you walk everywhere in those beautiful high-heeled boots? How do you pull off a cape so well? (Not even kidding. The woman who sat next to me on the metro today was wearing a cape. Like a jacket, but a cape. And she looked fabulous.) Where do you find so many interesting black items of clothing?

I’m going to the mall tomorrow. I’m getting myself some boots. Flat ones. I’ll pass on the cape. I’m pretty practical. And frugal. Which really makes trying to keep up with those women a challenge.

In other news, I’ve lived in this house for a whole week now. I love it. I actually helped out with stuff around the house the other day. You have no idea how that makes me feel more at home.

It’s raining. Which is a bummer because I couldn’t run today (which adds more normalcy to my routine), but could be pretty exciting when the sun comes back out. I’ve heard that the city is gorgeous after the rain washes all the smog and grime away.

Here’s to the weekend! We’ll see what kind of adventures I have for you in the new week.

With love,

Gaby

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