When I decided to teach English abroad, there was not one particular location in mind. Quite frankly, my only requirement was to relocate to a tropical Spanish-speaking country. After almost a year of researching online in a time where teaching English abroad was not as common as it is today, I finally found a program that was a good fit. However, there was one problem: the Spanish-speaking nation was not tropical. Sharing the longest border of a mountain range in the world with Argentina to the east, Peru to the north, and Bolivia to the northeast, Chile is a long and narrow country conveniently shaped like the vegetable that shares its name.
Skepticism from family and colleagues ensued with comments such as: “they had a bloody dictatorship, are you sure it’s safe?” and “you know they have lots of earthquakes and volcanoes, right?” Without ever stepping foot in the country, I booked a flight and decided Chile would be my new home for the next six months. Having spent a few months two years prior studying abroad in Argentina, my initial reaction was that it would be quite similar to the neighboring country. Oh boy, was I wrong! A lengthy and adventurous journey waited that would change my life, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that it would become my home for the next five years. During my stint in Chile, I learned that there are many misconceptions about Chilean culture, some of which I too was guilty of once holding. To give you a glimpse of Chilean culture and share what I learned based on my experience; here are some recommendations from yours truly.
Don’t say you are from America or that you are American – Different to our educational upbringing in the United States, Chileans, like other Latin Americans, are taught that ‘The Americas’ is one continent. Therefore, they believe that we are all Americans and it is politically correct to say either ‘Soy estadounidense’ or ‘Soy norteamericano/a’ or ‘Soy de los estados unidos.’ This topic can create an interesting conversation if it is had in an appropriate setting. I had a particularly lively discussion with undergraduate students in my English class and explained to them that although I understand why we should not say we are from ‘America’ in Spanish, in English there is no equivalent to the word estadounidense. The students in my class concluded that the sheer fact that there is no equivalent word in the dictionary is a direct implication of the dominate and colonial English language and culture.
Learn the Chilean Accent and Modismos – Chilean Spanish is famous for its modismos (slang expressions in common use in Chile) and unique accent. It can be said that this is what unites Chileans in their 4,000 mile long country. Even if you do not want to speak like a Chilean, it is vital to understand what they are saying. By making the effort to use at least a few common Chilean words such as al tiro and cachai, Chileans will take notice and appreciate it. In addition, it’s fun to learn some new vocabulary words, po! However, be careful as many of these modismos en Chile have double meanings and not all of them are something you would want to say to your host family or teacher.
Be Careful when Talking about Politics – Times are changing in Chile and although it is becoming less taboo talking about the bloody past, it is a sensitive topic for many. Despite my interest in Chilean history, I made it a general rule to avoid talking about the political past from 1973-1990 unless it was brought up in a conversation. Augusto Pinochet and Salvador Allende and with whether it was a dictatorship or a military government as well as if Allende was a communist or a socialist are still really controversial among locals. Chileans are quite divided among these topics and some have even lost a loved one, so be careful. By all means if you have the chance to talk about this, please do, but use caution not to offend anyone with your vocabulary. Remember, nowadays, Chile boasts a stable economy and government.
Chilean Food– Not typically spicy and unlike any other food you’ve probably tried, Chilean food is different from other Latin American cuisine and gets a bad reputation for being bland due to its European and indigenous influences. If you do find the food to be a little bland, add a little ají (a spicy condiment made with hot peppers) or merkén (Mapuches, indigenous Chileans, made this smoky spice blend from dried, smoked cacho de cabra chilies, toasted coriander seeds, and salt) to give it a little or a lot of spice. Make a pact to yourself before you go abroad to try the local food, incorporate it in your diet, and stay away from U.S. brands and evitable chain restaurants found around the world. And while we are on the subject of food, this should go without saying but eat all of your food on your plate, don’t waste it; it’s rude.
Do Your Research – this goes to say as much for the local culture as for your own culture and country. Research as much as you can about Chile, its culture and other aspects that you find interesting. Be prepared to be asked questions about current politics and your views and thoughts in your home country as well as Chile.
Live with a Host Family – Family is intertwined in Chilean society as it is such an important concept. What better way to learn about this than by immersing yourself in the local culture and language by living with a host family. You won’t be the only student living with a family. Chileans typically live with their immediate family or relatives until they get married.
Get to know your Host Community – Be careful not to spend the majority of your weekends traveling outside of your community. If your goal during your time abroad is to immerse yourself in the culture then spend significant time in your host community by getting to know the area and the locals. Consequently, you will more likely be able to gather a sense of community where you are, really learn the culture, and have more chances to make meaningful friendships with locals. With that said, by all means if your goal is to travel and see as much as possible, go ahead. However, remember that this will put you in a tourist bubble, which will make it next to impossible to immerse yourself in the local culture.
Go with the Flow – Remember this quote: “when you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable” – Clifton Fadiman. Part of traveling is learning about different ways of life. Often what one considers common sense will be unlike what you are used to in your home country. Be patient, keep an open mind, have a sense of humor, and learn to laugh at yourself.
Speak Spanish – Although this may be obvious to some, the temptation will be there to speak English with other native speakers or even English-speaking Chileans. Whether you find yourself in class, volunteering, participating in an extracurricular activity or out and about exploring do not exclude yourself to the only English-speaking group. Despite feeling a little uncomfortable, put yourself out there! If you only socialize with English speakers you discourage Chileans from trying to get to know you, not to mention it is disrespectful. Chileans are hospitable and will appreciate the gesture of you practicing your Spanish, even if it is limited.
Reflect – Keep a journal. Whether that is in the form of a private notebook or a public online blog by drawing or writing, one thing I really regret about my time abroad was I did not keep a journal. In my opinion, we don’t learn by doing but by reflecting on what we did. Make reflection a priority.
Like all cultures, Chilean culture, is no exception that it beats to a different drum. Despite common generalizations and stereotypes, particularly from those who tend to categorize all Latin Americans under the same umbrella, Chileans are quite different from what one probably refers and thinks of as a Latin American. If you find yourself in this stunningly beautiful country, and I sincerely hope you do, I encourage you to go with an open head and heart to this Andean nation, which welcomes foreigners with open arms.
Jennifer Ramos holds a MA in International Education from SIT Graduate Institute and recently relocated to the United States in 2013. She is passionate about intercultural immersion experiences and promoting global understanding and citizenship through international education. Jennifer is currently seeking employment in the field of international education and can be followed on twitter @JenMRamos and connected with on LinkedIn.