Working like an Immigrant

I haven’t been paying as much attention to Cachando Chile as I’d like to lately because I’ve been putting in long, long hours trying to dig my way out from under a ton of work and projects, all of which seem to be top priority. I’m not really complaining; I actually love my work, and of course I’m very happy to have the work in these uncertain times, but the pace has definitely been grueling. I can’t help but remember a conversation with a gringa friend a while back. We were both complaining about how hard we work here in Chile. We came to the conclusion that we work like immigrants… But then of course, we ARE immigrants!

Most of us who grow up in the States are raised on stories of poor immigrants—often ancestors—who arrived with the proverbial shirts on their backs and worked hard to make a life for themselves and their families. Work hard; get ahead. The American Dream. Fast forward to Chile… same story… Take a stroll through the Plaza de Armas any Sunday afternoon. It’s packed with immigrants from other South American countries, particularly Perú, enjoying their one day off a week. Their stories are tales of sacrifice, hard work, and dreams of a better future. It’s something I can certainly identify with. While my friend and I (and so many other gringas I know) didn’t come here for economic reasons, we still find ourselves working day and night and weekends and holidays to make a place for ourselves in this new world.

I’ve always been a worker (WASP complex with corresponding work ethic and all that), but the simple truth is that I’ve never worked harder in my life than I do in Chile. In large part it’s because wages are lower and expenses are generally higher here than in the US, and since I am not willing to live on the basic salary I could earn with the skills I have to offer, I do a lot of freelance writing and translating on the side. And this is the case for many ex-pats I know here (how many ESL teachers are reading this?? Been there!)

Freelance and Free time: oil and water.

Freelance work, by its very nature, is unstable. Up and down. Feast or famine. Turn a client away today, run the risk of losing them forever. It breeds an unhealthy sense of urgency and a certain aphasia when it comes to the word “no.” I practice saying it over and over in front of the mirror and hear it plain as day in my head, but then “yes” tumbles out of my mouth. And if I say I will do something, I will do everything in my power to keep my word, even if that means working on Saturday, Sunday, and Christmas. Rarely a day goes by (literally and seriously) that I do not work at least 3 or 4 hours. A normal day is more like 12 to 14, probably more.

I ask myself why it is that my friends and I end up putting in such long hours, while most of the Chileans we know work a single job and seem to make do with that. Here’s what I come up with:

Part of the reason is clearly personal. There’s a limit to how many sacrifices in lifestyle I am willing to make in order to live here. It’s not at all about luxury; my living conditions are simple, I do not own a car, and I’m certainly no clothes horse, but I do have my little extravagances—my wallet seems to have a hole in it when it comes to good food and wine, books (Amazon loves me), and photography, for example. And I insist on seeing my family at least once a year… and that means doing my share to keep Delta Airlines pilots out of the unemployment lines.

But there is also a very important part that is cultural. This side tends to be more problematic, because my Chilean friends and family have a much harder time getting a grasp on it.

No one is going to bail me out

I was raised to take responsibility for myself and for my actions. The members of my social networks do not owe me anything other than respect. (See “The Dance Card’s Full” post.) I must stand on my own two feet and pick myself up when I fall. When I married, the “I” became “we”… but only to a certain degree. We plan together and lean on each other through hard times and good, but in the end, I am still bottom-line responsible for me. And if I want something, I have to work for it. Stop working; deal with the consequences.

I do not have a social network that makes high demands on my time.

The flip side of bail-out networks and family-provided get-out-of-jail free cards is that my time is pretty much my time.  I don’t have to take my mother to the hairdresser or shop for my uncle or do my sister’s homework or go to my cousin’s birthday party (again, check out the Dance Card post). I don’t even have young kids at home, so if I want to work on Sunday, I can, which definitely has its upside and its downside.

I do not plan to get hit by a truck tomorrow.

Whenever I start planning for the future, my very Chilean husband starts with the “we could die tomorrow” argument. Sorry. We could also live another 50 years. That makes me nervous and brings out my worker-ant side, the one that works hard today to put away a little something for tomorrow… even though it often seems that I’m surrounded by cheery Chilean grasshoppers who just cannot understand why I’m working on a Sunday afternoon instead of enjoying a siesta. It’s all related to a fear of waking up under a bridge someday. I truly like the idea of a roof over my head and the occasional chicken in the pot.

So, in the end, this particular gringa immigrant is writing blog posts at 2:00 AM because it’s the first free moment of the day (okay, make that week) that I’ve been able to steal away just for me, time to write just because I want to. Overly WASP-ish you say? Gringa-style work gluttony? Immigrant behavior? Call it what you will… and look around—how many expats to you see in the same boat?

PS: Just for the record. Working freelance from home really does have significant benefits–no alarm clocks, no rush hour traffic, no time cards, no dress code (working in pajamas is perfectly acceptable), and the laptop at the beach house is as legit an office as the desk at home. In fact, once you get past the financial uncertainty and long hours, the working conditions are pretty hard to beat!

16 responses to “Working like an Immigrant

  1. Hi,
    I’m a Canadian living in Japan with my Japanese with and two children. I have my own business and I couldn’t help but nodding my head to all the observations you made about being your own boss and saying “No” in uncertain times. I work 7 days a week and the only glue that keeps me together is my wife and yoga. With those two elements I feel I can do anything. I met my wife in Chile and we married in Chile. My daughter was conceived in Chile and if all goes according to plan retirement will be in Chile as well. I wish you well and I’ll certainly touch base with you via your interesting blog.

  2. Hi John… Thanks for confirming that I’m not alone here! After I posted this piece I started to wonder if I was just over-tired and people would think I was just nuts… glad to hear that I have company on the other side of the globe as well.
    And many people have recommended yoga as a way of keeping some peace and perspective… definitely on my list of things to look into!
    Good luck with the retirement plans!

  3. This was SO great. I don’t think that I necessarily work harder than a Chilean, although I do keep my eyes open for any quick and easy translating work floating around (and now the blogging side gig), but I agree with everything you wrote about your motivations for doing so. To me it seems perfectly possible to achieve more, earn more, have more – as “materialistic consumer” as that may sound, although I’m not only referring to material things – so I wouldn’t be happy if I weren’t striving for those goals in some way or another. I think some Chileans don’t have that chip that’s always telling them to do more, whether because there’s no real “Chilean dream” or just because the class system and income disparity make it more difficult. I definitely don’t think you’re nuts!

  4. Hi, Margaret – I’ll be in Santiago for a few months interning, but I pretty much would like to stay as long as I can. I’ve been thinking about looking for freelance jobs tutoring English or whatnot, so it’s good to see (read) that it’s possible to get by down there.

  5. Hi Emily- Thanks… it’s so nice to know that others feel the same way. What you refer as the doing more and achieving more is pretty much what I’m referring to as the WASPy work ethic… Many people here think we’re all about money… that’s a part, but not all. There’s lots of work that I do cheap or free because I believe in it and just want to do it… but that also means working harder somewhere else to make up the economic side.
    This could (and probably should) be rolled into more posts looking at things from different dimensions… such as whether or not Chileans have that “chip” you refer to, and why or why not.
    Bottom line… glad I’m not nuts!

  6. Great post. It sort of hit home considering that I recently had to write a paper for my macroeconomy class about the pros and cons for the economy if the US adopted a stricter immigration policy. It was hard for me to find the cons in immigration, even illegal workers (been there, done that).

    Currently, I’m looking for some freelance jobs. Where did you find yours?

  7. Mandi- There’s always someone looking for English classes, etc. As an intern, you probably won’t have the right visa to get boletas, which you need to work legally. But there are probably more gringos working here as illegal immigrants than from anywhere else!

  8. Hi Sara-
    Freelance work is all about “pitutos”- who you know… and as time goes on it all builds up… you teach a class, the student recommends you to a friend, the friend’s boss asks for a translation, likes your work, recommends you to someone else, and so on…
    Over the years I’ve specialized in wine translations, which is a niche that works well for me given my other work in wine. But I also do other stuff as it comes along.

  9. Great post. It’s interesting to read about options beyond ESL (though that’s what I did in Chile back in my younger days)

  10. Annje- thanks. And yes, I think most of us go through an ESL phase–it’s the pretty logical choice, although there are certainly other language-related options as well… Being a native English speaker has some real advantages sometimes… Amazing how you can work years toward a PhD and end up earning your living at something you’ve been doing since you were 2!

  11. Dear Margaret,, just a quick note to confirm you indeed are nuts 😉

    I think your cultural tendency to work hard and our Chilean tendency to prefer leisure time come from the Protestant vs. Catholic backgrounds. Note I’m absolutely not a catholic and you may not be a protestant, but our respective cultures are permeated by that anyway. BTW, this thesis was first proposed by Max weber, if I’m not mistaken.

    Whatever the case, in my humble opinion the important thing is to notice these cultural biases and use that awareness to make a truly free choice, instead of doing just what your cultural background dictates. Maybe working is more important, or maybe having leisure time, or maybe that is a too simplistic dicothomy, but what is clear is that what should dictate this choice is what you think the meaning of life is.

    Digo yo…

  12. See? I KNEW someone was going to come out and say it… I’m NUTS!
    Thanks JJ, as usual, for your insightful comments! I completely agree with you on the differences between Protestant and Catholic work ethics… and yes, Weber is credited with giving it a name, drawing from certain concepts inherent in Protestant doctrine. You’re also right that whatever faith we profess (or not), we are still very much influenced by their effects on our cultural environments, but… just as it’s pretty tough to teach a new dog new tricks, it’s also pretty hard to get the WASP out of the gringa!
    Digo yo!

  13. Ay, amiga gringa… Ud. considerará que es irresponsable o inesperable de mí lo que voy a decirle, pero ya resolví en forma personal el problema chileno de trabajar-trabajar-trabajar y nunca poder surgir: prefiero la opción de la vida corta y feliz, y así existo. Saludos.

  14. Hola Criss- ¿irresponsable e inesperable? No… Cada uno evalúa sus opciones y toma sus decisiones. Que hayas optado por escapar del “rat race” y dedicarte a lo tuyo me parece bien. Y me gusta mucho los que haces… es un gran aporte y te lo agradezco!

  15. What an insightful post on the realities of surviving as a freelancer in South America. I can relate to your experiences as an expat in Peru. Salaries are low here, and I work very hard to sell articles and get freelance gigs as a writer and copyeditor.

    But, as you say, we are fortunate to be able to work in our homes.

    One point that may (or may not) bear on the situation in Child: many people inherit or own their own homes in Peru (I’m talking the upper classes), so they don’t have to cough up money for rent or mortgages. They can get by on lower salaries. Is that the case in Chile?

  16. Hmmm, I’m not sure how to answer that really.
    Young Chileans tend to live at home much longer than people in the States or Europe, and they often don’t move out until they get married. And this is often due precisely to the fact that most young professionals would have a hard time making ends meet on their starting salaries, and couples often wait longer to get married for that very reason.
    Then too, when they do get married, the families are definitely more willing to help young couples get started… and big weddings imply tons of expensive gifts and may even houses or apartments (or hefty down-payments).

    On the other hand, thinking about it, I had said that many Chileans live on what they earn, but truth be told, when I think about it, it seems that most people I know do their share of “pitutos”- odd jobs or have small businesses on the side.

    So maybe it’s more a case of just prioritizing family and friends more. (Once again, see the Dance Card post!)

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