Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sociology report: general observations about Chile

This weekend marks the two-month anniversary of my arrival in Chile. I thought I'd celebrate with a summary of my observations about this wondrous country and its people thus far:

Relative to other countries I've lived in, Chile has an extremely homogeneous population. Even in Santiago, the capital city, it's rare to see people of African, Arab, and especially Asian origins, and we "gringos" (which is not offensive, in Chile at least, but is simply used to identify white, English-speaking foreigners) while a little more common, are still pretty few and far between. Don't think for a minute that this somehow equates to less discrimination, though: Chilean society is very classist. This is reflected in derogatory words that exist for pretty much every group, such as flaites (ghetto) or cuicas (snooty upper class). Sadly, skin tones roughly correlate with class (the variations between which seem slight to this gringa's eyes, but apparently a few shades can carry a lot of meaning here). Dark skin and hair are associated with the working class, peasant indigenous populations or "morena" immigrants from Peru or Bolivia, while pale skin and light hair and eyes (here, blue eyes are not azules but a heavenly sky blue, or "celestes!") are idolized--not to mention an immediate target for sexual attention. I often hear "rubia" (blonde) hissed at me as I walk past men on the street (I can never tell if it's a come-on, approval, or just stating the obvious) despite the fact that my light brown hair ranks, at best, "dirty blond" in America. Meanwhile, flaite girls who bleach their hair to my color are distastefully called the far less flattering "rusia," a word that technically has the same meaning but carries a connotation of fake and trying too hard. Even within my growing circle of friends, the Chileans have taken to calling me Ricitos de Oro (Goldilocks) in awe of my hair.

On a more positive note, of all the countries I've traveled to, I think Chile also has the least direct relationship with/hatred of Americans, which has been a pleasant change. Here, America culture is adored, and unlike in Europe, American English is valued over British English and our vocabulary and accent is taught in schools, where nerdy students savor Americanisms and collect our slang. Students love American music and American tv shows, and don't have the same contempt for the less-than-flattering portrait they paint of us (I've learned since being here that Jersey Shore's Snookie is Chilean, so they can't hold her against us!)

Stray dogs are everywhere, and their health is usually a good indicator of affluence (dogs in the nicer neighborhoods of Santiago even had little polar fleece jackets, courtesy of some local do-gooding group). Street dogs are usually pretty street savvy, knowing to look before crossing busy roads, or to at least tail human pedestrians to avoid being run over. Once I watched a street dog eat the ubiquitous pina empanadas like a pro, peeling back the pastry and nosing out the olive to lick up the beef, then the pastry, only finally turning to the olive to knaw the fruit off of the pit. For the most part, they're pretty harmless, although they tend to get whipped into a frenzy by motorcycles and bikes and will attack the riders from time to time. I've become accustomed to the dogs that live in our neighborhood that I pass on my 15 minute walk to school, which include a white, three-legged dog that my host dad has dubbed "Tripodo" and a threesome he calls the "Flojos" (or lazies) that sleep all day on a rare patch of Antofagastian grass.

Lunch is the main meal here, and society's schedule is arranged around it. Everyone is given a two-hour lunch (or longer!) break to allow time for going home and sharing a large, multi-course meal--schools close, shops close, and work ceases until midafternoon. This puts a bit of a burden on Chilean mothers, who are expected to prepare this daily feast, regardless of whether they work or not. Some of the teachers I work with report getting up a full hour earlier in the morning to began preparing the day's lunch in their "spare time" before our first classes at 8am. Schools go until 6:15 to compensate for the long lunch break, and work schedules last till about 7. Dinner, on the other hand, is a nonevent consisting of something light--salad and juice, or bread, avacado and tea, and as such, is not even known by that word ("cena" in Spanish) but by "once," or "elevensies" (the photo on the right shows a restaurant advertising their once). Snacks throughout the day are sickeningly sweet: chocolate bars, chips, ice creams, candy and a whole rainbow of sugary sodas--although since they overload on these sweets earlier in the day (rather than splurging for a late evening desert) they seem to have plenty of time to burn off the calories. This little snack shop in the photo selling soda, ice cream, candy and chips is right across from my school, and is a pretty typical find in Chile (down to the "Hay Pan", or "There is bread!" signs that crack me up every time I see and translate them in my head, which announce that they sell the round rolls Chileans like to eat for once).

Due to delicate plumbing in Chile, toilet paper should be binned, not flushed. Nuff' said, but important for gringos to know (one boy in the problem said that he managed to block the family toilet three times, with them passing it off to "gringo problems" before they finally realized that he wasn't aware of the 'bin it' policy!)

Chileans are pretty affectionate in general, much to my delight, and they greet each other with kisses on the cheek and incorporate a lot more physical contact (arm pats, shoulder squeezes, hugs) into conversations. They also love public displays of romantic affection. I once got trapped in the corner of a shop when my path to the door was blocked by a woman whose overenthusiasitc boyfriend was practically sucking her neck off as she disinterestly browsed jewelery. He didn't even pause when I muttered a "discĂșlpeme" and pushed past to freedom. The students at my school imitate this sort of behavior with their teenage boyfriends/girlfriends, and the teachers hardly seem to notice.

Chilean Spanish is muy raro (really weird). I probably should have researched this before I came, but Chile is perhaps the hardest country in the world which to learn Spanish. Chileans speak rapidly, often dropping the ends of words, so that plural feminine nouns sound nearly indistinguishable from their singular form, (ex. las ventanas or the windows-->; "la ventana"), or omitting hard vowels, so that todos ("all" or "everyone") becomes "to-ohs" (much like one might say "aiight" instead of "all right" in English--except that here it's not slang, it's just the way language is spoken). They proudly pepper their speech with Chilenismos, or a type of Chilean slang that is so commonly used that one might well call it a dialect. Even their normal Spanish has odd variations, where words that I learned in college Spanish class, like "novio" (boyfriend), "frijoles" (beans), or "fresas" (strawberries) are replaced by synonyms: "pololo", "porotos," and "fruitzilla" (an odd word which, for me, evokes the image of a giant berry on a rampage through Tokyo). Perhaps their most common Chilenismo is their "po," which ends up at the end of everything. "SĂ­-po." "Ya-po." "No-po." The closest equivalent I could give in English would be the SoCal valley girl "like," a pointless add-on that contributes nothing to the sentence but a certain colloquialism.

Chileans, while living in a Catholic country, are actually fairly liberal overall. Gay culture is still a new thing here, but overall, there seems to be little discrimination and growing acceptance of the community at least on a societal/political level (although as could be expected, I've heard from friends that getting your family to accept a queer sexuality is another story...). Birth control and abortion are still fraught topics but are becoming more and more accepted and available. Women are respected and empowered, with many in the workforce and marriage and childbirth often delayed to even later than in the United States. Politically, socialism and even communism are not uncommon, and services like tax-funded health care are an expectation. Low cost, quality education (at the college level, too) is also an expectation, although on that is not currently being met, and that has resulted in country-wide strikes for the last several months. More on that in tomorrow's post!

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