I ended my first day in Santiago washing strawberry cake off of dishes at a sink built for a woman a foot smaller than me. I kept thinking someone should take a picture of me, oddly tall, occupying too much space in the tiny, rectangular kitchen, while a petite, 75-year-old Chilean woman buzzed around me insisting I drink more tea, and finish her cake.
“Eres bastante flaca, Chiquita.”
“You are too skinny, little one.”
I declined politely for the fourth or fifth time, enjoying the irony of the situation, and the word chiquita, as I hit my head (again) on the low-hanging ledge over the sink.
This funny little scene actually ended up being the perfect metaphor for how I have felt in Chile thus far; a little awkward, a little out of place, but happy nonetheless.
Growing up comfortably in a white, middle class background in the United States has had its perks. I have a warm, supportive family. I have financial security. I have been able to travel, play club sports, and attend a private university.
I enjoy the luxury of being part of the majority; the dominant class. I blend in with the masses, while walking down any given middle class neighborhood. I speak the same language, and understand the idioms of my teachers, friends, and co-workers.
This background has given me an incredible amount of opportunities, and without these privileges I would have never been able to study abroad in Santiago. I recognize that I am incredibly fortunate in this respect. But these advantages have also left me ill-prepared for certain experiences. I think one of the most interesting parts of studying abroad thus far has been relinquishing some of the comforts I have become so accustomed to. When I walk down any given street in Santiago, I instantly stand out as una extranjera (a foreigner). I am tall, and pale, and have blue eyes. I pull over-sized maps out of my backpack, and ask for directions in Spanish with a thick accent. I walk down the street with my other friends from the United States, speaking a comical version of Spanglish as we piece together Chilean modismos and colloquialisms. It has been difficult to remain inconspicuous.
For the most part, people have been kind, understanding, and open. They slow down their rapid-fire Spanish, sometimes even switching to English, and tell me the parts of the country I must visit while I am abroad. They tell me to wear my backpack on the front of me siempre, mihijita (always, my daughter). They offer to walk me to the nearest bus stop, while telling me which barrios to avoid at night. An old man with blue eyes even offered me his hand in marriage so that I could become a Chilean citizen and stay as long as I wanted in this country. “Voy a morir aqui,” he said, “I will die here. It will always be the home I love.” Perhaps the most obvious example of the kindness of the Chilean people can be seen in the way they greet one another, with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, thus greeting even strangers with a simple and open expression of affection.
When I consider the role that the United States has played in the history of human rights and governance in this country, I marvel at the way the Chilean people treat me. They have every reason to despise the US government, and me by extension. We deteriorated the validity of their Democracy. We allowed awful human rights violations to occur at the hands of a man we supported both financially, and ideologically. We conservatized and privatized a country that was trying to stand on its own. And then, with the wealth we have gained through such exploitation, we send American students to the Chile, expecting the very people we destroyed to take care of our students without any qualms. The paternalism is palpable.
And yet, when I ask for directions in broken, gringa Spanish on the street, they smile, point me the right way, and welcome me into their beautiful country. Whether this is the result of a rupture in the collective memory of the nation, or simply indicative of the generosity of everyday people, I am extremely grateful.
I try to remember this when being a foreigner becomes a nuisance, because, of course, sometimes the process is incredibly frustrating. Chilean Spanish is what they call picadero. They speak very quickly, and hardly ever pronounce the s’s in words. Furthermore, the slang is abundant. Many words are different than the Mexican version of Spanish I grew up learning, so I often miss the meaning of entire sentences and conversations. As such, I have found myself in a constant state of apology; apologizing for bad grammar, maldichos, and for continually asking people to speak “un poco mas despacio por favor,” (a little more slowly, please). My Chilean alter-ego, it would seem, is a polite, self-conscious, shell of my self. Luckily, una taza de vino Chileno (a glass of Chilean wine) usually helps to ease the nerves.
So I guess I should return to that scene in the kitchen. (I know this is cheesy, but sometimes you cannot help but make use of life’s most obvious metaphors.) Like the kitchen, Chile was not a country created for my benefit. I am often too tall, too white, too rich, too gringa. It is not my home, and I will continue to feel out of place. But even as I continue to hit my head on the metaphorical low-hanging ceilings that confront me on a daily basis, I will continue to learn and thrive. Chile may not be here for my benefit, and it may not be built to my size, but it can serve to teach me a few lessons just the same.