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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3 thoughts on “Chilenismos and Culture Shock

  1. This was informative even for me :P I didn’t know “cuico” or the one about the salt! Here’s a couple more for you though – Tuesday the 13th is unlucky here instead of Friday, and “once” is apparently from when men wanted to drink a type of alcohol known as aguardiente in the evenings without telling their wives. They referred to it as “once” because there are eleven letters in “aguardiente”, and the name gradually came to mean what it does today.

  2. Pingback: Chile: Reflections Reverse Culture Shock | Mil Caminos

  3. Hey there!!! I’m an American-Chilean!! I know about the word “once”. In the North of Chile, people working in the mines would say “Vamos a tomar once??” meaning “vamos a tomar aguardiente”
    Aguardiente is a destiled alcoholic drink, and they created the word “once” to trick their bosses, so they wouldn’t know that they were off to drink alcohol :)
    The word caught on and now everybody uses it to refer to “tea time”

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