Chilenismos and Culture Shock

Culture shock.

The name sounds like it happens suddenly, like a strike of lightening. But not here. In Chile, it sneaks up on you. It’s a slow realization, that after many weeks, something feels off.

Sopaipilla stands are everywhere. There’s no spicy food in Chile, so just add a lot of aji sauce to give it some kick.

Living with a host family and working with Chilean colleagues has thrown me head first into total immersion, and it’s been an eye-opening experience.

Chileans are some of the most considerate and warm people I’ve met. I’m constantly amazed by the generosity of strangers and their quiet, reserved nature.

Here are some thoughts and observations from the past several months…

Spicy Food. There isn’t any. (Save for their great aji sauce.) I truly, truly miss this. I’d kill for some Indian or Mexican food right now. The south of Chile loves fish, stews, meats and potatos, thanks to the strong German influence down here. And while we’re on food, never eat with your hands.  Always use utensils. (Even with french fries.)

Making ’empanadas de mariscos’, a typical Chilean dish

“Once”. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day here. If you’re waiting around for another meal after 2pm, you’re  going to have to cross the border to Argentina. Most Chileans don’t eat dinner. Instead, you have “once” around 6-7pm. It’s a snack of bread, palta (avocado), cheese, jam, and coffee or tea.  I’ve been trying to figure out why they call it “once”, the word for “eleven”, but nobody seems to know. Hmmm…

Coffee. Getting your hands on a real cup of joe here is rare.  Instant Nescafe is pretty much the common drink.

Water. I’ve never seen a Chilean drink water. I remember people asking me, “Tienes caña?”, when I was sipping from my water bottle. (“Caña” means hangover.) I told them I was just thirsty, and got puzzled looks. Whenever I see people with water bottles on buses, it’s a dead giveaway that they’re not from this country.

Superstision. If you pass the salt to someone, it means you’ll fight with them. Don’t pass the salt directly to someone, but put it on the table when passing.

Toilet paper. Never flush it down the toilet. The pipes are very narrow, so people always throw it in a wastepaper basket next to the toilet.

Central Heating. Doesn’t exist. If you’re visiting Southern Chile in the winter, get ready for real cold.  I’ve spent a winter in Denmark, and even though Denmark is colder, their houses have insulation. In Southern Chile, it’s harder to get a break from the outside temperatures because buildings and houses aren’t really insulated.  Bring your fleece and under-armor!

Greetings. Chile is a country “de la piel”, or, “of the skin.” They hug, they kiss on the cheek, and they touch arms in conversation. In the US, we merely shake hands when meeting someone, and sometimes hug.

In Chile, you always give one kiss on the right cheek when saying hello and goodbye, or when being introduced to someone (Men always shake hands.) Even in the classroom, many of my students will line up to do this when they’re coming and going.

Family comes first. I’m the first exchange student my family has hosted. It’s been an incredible experience for both of us, because I’m the first North American they’ve experienced. This also means big cultural divides. In Chile, it’s common for guys and girls to live at home long into their late 20s. The family may not be used to your independence. I once told them I was traveling alone on a bus to Argentina and they were shocked. Communicate your plans, tell them when you’re missing lunch, and just be considerate to their way of life.

It’s also rude to close your door to your room. At home in the states, I would debrief in my room with music, but in Chile, I try not to do that as much.  Chileans spend a lot of time together, and it’s not normal to isolate yourself.

Elsa, my awesome host grandmother, and host brother Rudy.

Fernando checks out what the gringos are making for breakfast.

You won’t speak Spanish. You will speak Chilean.

There’s even a book called “How to Survive in the Chilean Jungle.

Chileans speak extremely fast. To make decoding more difficult, they drop the “s” and “d” from their words. So “Mas o menos” sounds like, “Mao Meno”.   “Pescado” (fish) sounds like “Pekao.”

And once you think you’ve mastered the sounds, you’ll then realize there’s a whole new set of vocabulary to learn. They’re called “Chilenismos.” Here are some of the most common…

Cachai? ” You put it at the end of sentences as a way of saying, “Do you get it? You know?” If you spend 10 minutes in Chile, you’re bound to hear this.

• “Po”. This is the quintessential Chilean word. It doesn’t mean anything, but they add it to every sentence. “Si po!”, “no po!”, and “Ya po!” are common. Use it emphasize what you’re saying or to contradict what someone else said. Or just use it whenever you feel like it and you’re instantly Chilean.

Al tiro (Right now/ Right away.)

Pololo/Polola (Boyfriend or girlfriend)

• Never ever say “adios” in Chile. It’s always “ciao” when you say goodbye. When you get out of a taxi or leave a store you’ll hear, “Gracias, chaao, chaaao!”

Weon. It’s an insulting and rude word, except when you use it with friends. “#PreguntasWeonas”was trending on Twitter recently. It means “stupid-ass questions”. It can be a noun or adjective, and it’s uniquely Chilean.

• “Te echo de menos”  I miss you

Cuico. Use it to describe something rich or of the upper social classes. Vina del Mar es muy cuico.

Fome. If something is boring or lame. Eso-es super fome!

Ok, now I’m off to catch a bus to Púcon. Hasta luego!

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June Solstice

Today is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the southern hemisphere. In few days is also the Mapuche new year.

The Mapuche are the indigenous people of Southern Chile and Argentina, who  fought off the Spanish and Germans for hundreds of years. They keep their traditions and culture alive in modern Chile, and living here in the Los Rios region has brought me closer to their community. The New Year, or We-tripantu, is their biggest celebration. It’s a time of new beginnings. A new season.

Today, my friend Maribel gave me this new year’s gift. A fellow teacher at her school hand-made it from a small orange. It still smells like citrus. Tomorrow I’m traveling with her and some friends to the region above us where most of the country’s Mapuche people live. Until Sunday!

More Reflections on Teaching English Abroad

I can’t believe how fast three months have flown by. I’m just starting to get my feet and feel at home in this new country. Last week, all of the teachers in my region had a meeting with our regional representative here in Valdivia. We talked about our experiences so far, and gave some feedback. I had one “ah ha” moment during this day. As follows…

My seniors

“How is everyone,” the regional rep asked us, looking around the table. “Andrea,” he smiled, “You look so happy. That is good.” I had an ear infection and was drenched from the rainstorm I’d just walked through to get here. But I was smiling, and didn’t even realize it. And then I understood why. I had a cup of warm tea in front of me. I was inside a cozy room. I was surrounded by other familiar faces. Sincere appreciation of these little details is something I’ve noticed myself doing more and more here.

Here are a few of them: Falling asleep to the sound of rain on a tin roof.  Hot wine, or, “Navegado” on a cold night. Warming up next to a wood burning stove. The smell of the mountains. A conversation with someone selling sopaipillas. More simplicity, but also, more chaos. That’s Chile.

This English Opens Doors Program is a lottery, and everyone’s situation is unique. Some people were placed in Santiago, and they’re living it up with other foreigners in an international city. Others are in rural communities with populations barely above 3,000 people. Some of us teach at high-risk public schools, while others teach at semi-private “colegios”, with better resources and quality of education.

I read this quote somewhere yesterday, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” I couldn’t think of a better way to say it. But out of all of the personal transformations these last few months, it’s my student’s who’ve taught me the most. They teach me empathy, humor, and patience. They teach me about people, and how to understand moods and adapt.

One of my favorite groups. IV Medio B

It’s not easy. I have one class of 17-year-old boys who are extremely difficult on purpose. Their attitudes really suck, and teaching them in 45-minute blocks is always grueling. They clearly don’t want to be there, and getting them to do anything is a pain. But I try to act with empathy. Lately I’ve been sitting with them in the desks instead of standing up in front of the room when we start class. I think coming down to their level has caught them off guard, and so far it’s helped change the mood a bit.

III Medio B Class

However, what happened last week redeemed all of the stressful teaching moments. It was Wednesday, and I was having an off-day. I tired, and didn’t feel like leading class at all. It was the toughest day I’ve had at school so far. Even though I was still smiling and trying to get the energy together, one of my senior classes picked up on my mood.  When they left the class, I saw this on the board… It made my week.

Winter begins

Everyone warned me about the winter here. With no central heating anywhere, I was told to pack like I was going to Antarctica. This morning was pretty cold in the school…

Class with my 8th graders this morning @ 8am. We’re stocked up on blankets.

But even though it’s cold, the last few days have been gorgeous and sunny. I usually walk past the local market (“feria”) after classes, down on the Calle-Calle River. Here are some photos from this freezing cold morning…

It’s just like Pier 39 in SF.

Valdivia’s waterfront.

Pancakes & Puerto Varas

It’s been a while since the last update. All is well in the Southern Hemisphere. A few weeks ago, major culture shock hit, my language-learning plateaued, and now I’m just re-adjusting to this new phase of life in Chile. (Next post all about that coming later this week!)

The days are freezing, or “helado”, as Chileans describe it, which literally means,” ice-cream.” It’s weird seeing bare trees and short days in June. I feel like I should be getting ready for Thanksgiving.

These past few weekends I’ve been going to Puerto Varas, a lakeside town about three hours south of Valdivia in Northern Patagonia. It’s right on Lake Llanquihue, one of Chile’s largest lakes.

Last weekend I stayed with Elise and her host family in Osorno, another town south of Valdivia. We went out with her Chilean friends, and then cooked her family a North American brunch the next day. Pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, and avocados filled my life on Sunday.

Elise’s host daughter Dani invited some friends over to take part in our massive gringo brunch. It was epic.

The Chileans were amused.

getting fancy.

A masterpiece.

Post-North American breakfast with Elise’s host family.

Elise and her host sister, Dani.

Lake Llanquihue with volcano Osorno.

Puerto Varas

Puerto Varas. Couldn’t see the three volcanos in the distance today…