Finding your way into Chile

Today is Cachando Chile’s 1st “blogiversary,” and I had hoped to put up my 100th post today, but I didn’t quite make it. This is number 99, but that’s fine. I was absolutely stunned by the amount and types of response that my recent post “Ways to Alienate a Chilean” received. And now, with a few days to reflect upon it all, it seems only fitting that that post, which details our many and often humorous failed attempts to fit in, be followed by its more positive counterpart…

There are different ways to experience a new culture. I divide them into 3 categories: tourist, missionary, and participant-observer.

Tourists are basically observers. They come, look around, say “show me whatcha got, thanks, and adios amigo.” We have all been in this position from time to time… 3 days in New York,  a week in Madrid… we take advantage of the opportunity to see and do as much as we can before we have to move on… That’s fine, and when you have little time and no personal contacts, it’s pretty hard to move beyond the tourist stage.

What gets me, though,  is the number of people who come to live in Chile (or anywhere else, for that matter) and never move beyond the tourist phase. They form fancy ghettos of like-minded, like-cultured, like-speaking folks, and even though they may travel from one end of the country to the other and are able to tell you where all the best stores and restaurants are, they leave, however many years later, never having really experienced the culture. This is a one-way cultural communication with the tourist on the taking end.

Missionaries go where they believe they are needed and where they intend to effect a change. Not all missionaries are promoting their religions, of course. There are plenty of others who believe that they are owners of the truth, that they possess the one true way, and that everyone else should change to meet their expectations. Sure, they might find a few converts out there, and the ones who arrive backed by training from organizations with decades if not centuries of experience behind them may even be welcomed in some circles, but the majority, especially those who come on some kind of personal mission, are bound to meet with resistance and destined to fail. Closed minds, intolerance, and inflexibility are the keys to frustration and not at all conducive to understanding or finding acceptance in any group. This is also a one-way communication, but with the outsider doing all the talking and more often than not, with no one on the receiving end.

Participant-observers are those who interact with the members of the new group, who try to understand the differences they encounter, and to fit in when possible. It does not mean abandoning one’s own culture, but rather making adjustments that will result in a shared experience that is rewarding for all involved. This is a two-way street in which by showing one’s willingness and desire to learn, others become interested in entering into a shared experience.

My guess is that most of the following advice on how to be a participant-observer is not Chile-specific, but would help for learning to adapt in any culture.

Learn Spanish
Number one rule. You need to be able to communicate—to understand and make yourself understood. How in the world can you possibly begin to find a place for yourself in a group if you can’t interact on any more than the most rudimentary point and grunt level? Exaggerations aside, the more effort you make to communicate, the more you will be rewarded in terms of true intercultural experience.

Use your senses. You’ve got the “common” type (although you are likely to discover that “common sense” is not something we necessarily have in common), and then there are the 5 you were born with. Put them to good use; they are nature’s way of helping you make contact and interact with the world outside your own body and certainly the best place to start in a new culture. See, hear, touch, taste, smell… and then reflect and ask and listen and repeat. It’s an ongoing process. It takes a lifetime to understand our own home culture. How many more to grasp another…

Open your eyes and take a look around you.
This may be the most obvious bit of advice, and some people are natural observers, watchers, noticers. If you aren’t, make the effort. Force yourself to really SEE what’s going on around you. How do people interact, what do they wear, how to they greet each other, do they speak to strangers on the streets? Do they read? What do they read? Do they form lines? When and where and how? Watch the blue-and-white uniformed kids as they jostle and tease, trailing their wheelie bags behind them at 7PM, and middle aged ladies as they stroll with their dogs in arms. Business men eat ice cream cones at 11 AM and 4 women in identical suits pass on their way to lunch. Litter. Men in orange jumpsuits sweep the streets with long palm fronds. A presidential motorcade whizzes by. A little shrine stands at the side of the road, a candle burning within. Christmas lights wind their way up palm tree trunks and Santa Claus sweats in 90º heat. Graffiti–tags–stencils–stickers. Dogs sleep on busy sidewalks, oblivious to passersby; hot dogs are loaded with avocado and mayonnaise, and young men sell bags of figs or trays of raspberries or bunches of flowers in the streets, while juggling boys collect coins at stop lights. There’s more, so much more. Open your eyes. Watch. Wonder. Remember.

Hear the sounds of the city. The hawkers’ “La Segunda-a-a-a” vie with “brother be saved”—or rather “Jesús te quiere.” Police whistles and car horns, and laughter, much laughter. Church bells, cannon fire at noon, dogs barking, running footsteps, a high-heeled woman tries desperately to follow, no match for the thief who now holds her purse; there’s music in the streets: Elvis Junior with his drums or a folk singer on the bus. The subway squeals to a stop and cards “bip” and a disembodied voice announces “Erre cuatro, Erre cuatro,” while another instructs “deje bajar antes de subir.

Shut up and Listen
Eileen Smith at Bearshapedsphere wrote a piece appropriately titled “How I Learned to Shut up and Listen”  about how her early language inefficiencies forced her to take the back seat in conversations and how much she learned in the process. Spend more time listening than talking and you will be surprised at how much you can learn about the people–and culture–around you.

Open your mouth and eat, drink, and be merry
Remember the old expression, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”? Take that to heart. People have close, emotional attachments to their foodways. Learn what they eat and drink and when and where and how and join in. The local cuisine is probably not what you’re used to and maybe not even what you like, but those around you are relishing it with gusto, and sharing a table is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to get to know people.

Smell the roses… and everything else around you; smells that delight, that repulse, that intrigue, that confuse, that alarm, that soothe; smells that say home and smells that spell trouble; smells known and unknown, smells that will become familiar as this strange place becomes yours. The señora next door is frying onions at 9:00 am as she starts preparing a lunch (why so early if they eat at 2, you wonder); warm yeasty smells waft from the bakery as people line up for hot rolls and empanadas; the Nuts for Nuts guy stirs his peanuts into the hot and sugary red syrup to make his maní confitado; a motorbike whizzes by leaving a trail of gas fumes in his wake; roast coffee aromas waft from the Café Haití; waves of stale smoke and beer are swept out of a bar before noon, an unwashed hand is extended, palm up, in front of the church; heavily perfumed men, women, and even children leave their scent in an empty hallway, on a vacant telephone, in the taxi they have just stepped out of; close your eyes and breathe deep—the market is filled with the juiciest of fruits and the freshest of vegetables, the metallic scent of recently butchered meat and the coastal smell of the daily catch. The city is teeming with smells-odors-fragrances-aromas-bouquets-stinks and scents that together spell out Santiago, or Valparaíso, or La Serena, or Santa Cruz, the Andes, the Pacific, Atacama, Patagonia… smells that burn “Chile” into your olfactory memory.

Touch the world around you. Let it touch you. Take the subway at rush hour, feel the heat on a summer day, the cold and damp on a wet winter morning, the kiss on your cheek, the firm handshake and brotherly slap on the back, kick the fútbol, fly the kite, play, embrace, dance the cueca or do the salsa, swim in the icy Pacific and stroll barefoot along its sandy shores, bask in the steaming hot springs; enjoy.

Be amazed. A sense of wide-eyed wonder is a marvelous thing. Let yourself be impressed. Be shocked, be thrilled, be delighted, be frightened. Feel it; be alive.

On a very personal note, I can say that one of the most precious things I inherited from my father was his sense of wonder and delight in the discovery of things great and simple. I am truly saddened that I can no longer share with him all the things that unfold before me every day of my life. He got it in a way that few others ever will.

Ask questions. Admit it. You don’t have all the answers. You don’t even have all the questions. Ask. Be interested. Seek out  advice, a recipe, a dato (tip, useful information) on how or where to do something. Ask people what they do on Sunday, where they go for vacation, where’s the best place for a steak or machas a la parmesana or a pisco sour or ask what they wanted to be when they grew up. Let people show you and tell you. Open the door for their explanations. Even if you disagree, an open mind will help you tune your understanding of the cultural implications of what they are telling you, to see the bigger picture.

Get out there and explore… Don’t get stuck in your comfort zone; of course we all need time to kick back and  relax and be with those who get where we’re coming from, but your comfort zone will restrict and confine you if you don’t get out there and push it beyond its limits.

And through it all–perhaps the most important of all–is to Keep your sense of humor. Learn to laugh at your own mistakes; you will make plenty.

And now, after all we’ve been through with the “Ways to Alienate a Chilean” group blogs… I invite other bloggers to participate in this one too… leave comments here and/or post to your own blog and let’s link up… on “Finding your Way into Chile.”

Maeskizzle already started with her Transcultural Vogueing “Ways to Alienate/Win Over a Chilean.”

Lucie takes a break from finals for a bit of Santiago-friendly advice: Gringa Gone South.

Annje comes through again and shows her thoroughly endearing side at: Annje Unabashed.

31 responses to “Finding your way into Chile

  1. Happy Blogiversary! You’ve been so busy with comments, I have no idea how you’ve written such a lovely post. Now you can have another celebration for post 100–it’s a win-win.

  2. Pingback: Ways to Alienate a Chilean « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  3. Thanks Annje! Now it’s YOUR turn of course! Am looking forward to your side of this story!

  4. I see you had learned something …
    Good for you…

  5. You are becoming a poet of everyday life. Very nice.

    Now, some small details.

    We have only one cannon at noon (you wrote “cannons”), and I think it’s one too many. Anyway, you can’t hear it if you are three blocks away.

    It’s “Deje bajar antes de subir” (Allow for people to go out before going in). The other sentence “Deje de bajar antes de subir” means “Refrain from going out before going in”.

    In the food section you forgot to say that probably there is something you will like. Maybe “pastel de choclo”, with sugar, is not your thing but you’ll like “cazuela”. Or if ground beef is loathsome for you, you can eat “empanadas de queso” instead of “empanadas de pino”. Or find “empanadas de pino” with chopped meat. And if you think that “manjar” is too sweet, there are very big stawberries, which you are not required to sprinkle with sugar, even if many Chileans do.

  6. Thank you Pedro! My Spanish is certainly improving thanks to your gentle insistence that I get it right! The ironic thing is that I tried for ages to find someone who would work with me on this level of Spanish and never found the right person! (You don’t teach, do you?)
    I have made those corrections… and good point about the cannons… I worked at Campus Central de la Católica for a while and heard them–I mean the cannon–every day… I guess I just got carried away!
    Personally I’m a fan of many Chilean dishes! (Cazuela and costillar con puré picante are my favorites!) (and there’s a related post in the works!)

  7. I saw your call for another group post and once I finished mine and read yours, I realized how similar they must seem. It actually made me feel kind of good becuase you have a lot more experience with this stuff than I do!

    My post is up!

  8. As a born-in-Chile-and-rarely-get-back chileno, the Smell the Roses passage is “proof in the kuchen” that you love Chile and that Chile loves you. Thank you for a great post, and great writing, as usual.

  9. Thank you! And ah yes… those smells from the kitchen that stay with us a lifetime, ¿no? For me that would be a fresh batch of brownies coming out of the oven just as I got home from school… ah! getting nostalgic… must be getting close to Christmas! 😉

  10. Felicidades, Cachando!
    Gracias por enseñarnos más curiosidades de Chile!

  11. Hola Javier/Uwedoble- ¡Tanto tiempo pues! gusto verte por aquí de nuevo!

  12. Great post.

    I like the term “participant-observer”.

    Also, back in the States I have travel/geography/picture book that gives a gringo traveler’s perspective of all of the countries in the world. On each page there was a little box that does just what you’ve done, it describes the country from the senses.

    For example, for Chile it might say:
    TASTE: sopaipillas con mostaza
    DRINK: pisco sour
    SEE: the austral highway
    LISTEN TO: los jaivas, inti illimani, violeta parra

    (I believe it skipped touch and smell)

    And then it added the category:
    READ: Tengo miedo torero by Pedro Lemebel

    It’s a fun exercise 😉

  13. Maeskizzle-
    Participant-observer comes from anthropology actually, where there’s always a dilemma between how much participation is actually prudent.
    I would love to see that travel book! Sounds great (and here I thought I was being original!)
    Love your categories (anyone else wanna play?)
    This would be a great exercise when traveling!

  14. I’m having a hard time writing a post in kind because I am not in Chile right now (yay, Thanksgiving on the homefront) and am seeing it kind of as a prescription for living your life, not just for being in Chile. Anywhere you are, you have the option to skim the surface, find out more, ask questions, treat people tenderly, observe the local customs, be kind but careful and generally not be a weon. Or you can run afoul of all the social niceties and have everyone think you’re pesado.

    These are decisions we make every day, in and outside of Chile, in and outside our homes and within and outside of our selves.

    Nice post, btw, and yes, I agree. Just want to say that for me this is more of a global vision than specific to Chile, or being an expat.

  15. Hi there Lucky Thanksgiving Eileen!
    You are absolutely right… I started out to write about Chile and realized that it’s true for any time we step out of our own little cultural box… and as you very rightly say, there’s no reason to stop there… But I think we need to reinforce the message even more when we are away from the knowns and the givens, when & where our comfort level and capacity to adeptly maneuver within an environment are challenged.
    An interesting exercise (and to use an “Eileen-ism” ) would be to put your “traveling self” skills (using your senses, observing & reflecting, being aware, etc.) in your own environment.

  16. Love the post! Very beautiful! I love the idea that we need to use more of our senses in adapting to Chilean life. I also posted on this topic. The link is

    And now I can officially say “Happy 1st Blogeversity”!!!!

  17. Gracias Meastra,gracias!!! Im glad i get to read something that comes from the heart….

    Buen dia-

    P.S: Very philosophical,please keep doing what u do 🙂

  18. Zackaria- Glad you liked it… and don’t worry… there’s more where this came from!

    Lucie & Annje- you’re linked in now and ready to fly!

  19. Ha ha, I am realizing that I completely misinterpreted the group topic. Well, half misunderstood. At first glance I thought it was, “how to find your way in chile” as in how to survive the Chilean jungle ha ha. I realize now that it was actually a continuation of the last group post. Dooyyy! All this studying is getting to my head. I’ll be more on the ball next time lol.

  20. Aw Lucie! I realized what happened as I read it… you had mentioned in your last post that you didn’t want to be influenced by the others, so you did your own thing and therefore added your own take on the matter– still very sound advice!
    Good luck with the exams!

  21. I was downtown today and heard the cannon. It freaked me and my friend out and we were both like “What WAS that?” Then I looked at my watch and remembered your post and told her it was just the noon-time cannon!

    I will try to participate, but my friend’s here so no promises.

  22. Well how cool is THAT? It’s always nice to know that I’ve managed to pass along a little bit of something! and yes, everyday at noon!
    From the top of Cerro Santa Lucía!

  23. I think your post is quite original. Sometimes I think everything’s already been said and done; the originality comes from each person’s expression, whether or not it’s already been done, and whether or not we know that it’s already been done.

    Love the blog, oh and the inheritance laws are fascinating. Those are good to know of before buying property in Chile!!

  24. Maeskizzle-True enough, we all get here through an entirely different set of experiences and all that comes from behind us colors all that goes before us… making each new experience original, unique, and personal.
    Thanks for your contributions and I am so glad that you are reactivating chilensis language blog- I’ve missed it! (

  25. Hi Margaret, thank you so much for this post. We’re moving to Valpo in January (6 weeks – eek!) from London and I hope we’ll get properly immersed and into Chilean culture. I think what you say about being a participant-observer and tourist is so true. Hopefully our efforts leanring Spanish from scratch in the last few months will work out! Congrats on your 1 year blogiversary and thanks so much for helping us feel a bit more ready for the move.

  26. Ojalá mi Inglés sea algún día tan bueno como tú español. (Y ojalá mi español sea también tan bueno como el tuyo, ajajaja).

    Yo vengo llegando a Londres hace 4 meses, aún tratando de adaptarme al Cultural Shock ¡¡Tu ya eres una chilena consumada!!)

    Me encantó el blog, realmente.


  27. Hola NIco- Gracias! Ya, eso de Culture Shock es algo que te puede sorprender en cualquier momento, independente de los anyos que pueda quedarte en otro lado… ayuda mantener la vida interesante! Me alegro que te guste el blog!

  28. Congratulations on your first year! I just got to your blog thanks to my son who found it, and is already locked in my favorite list.

    We are a chilean family living in Denver, Colorado since 1991 (I guess we traded places!)

    Very interesting post about getting into the culture of an adopted country, I myself am guilty of still struggling with the language, yet the process of adapting is really fun with all the mistakes that happen throughout.

    I’ll keep coming back to read and make any contribution, although after being for so long away from Chile my guess is I’ll be learning the newer chilean slang from your blog.

    Thank you for you enthusiastic interest in Chile and its culture.


  29. Hi Raul! Yes, it really does seem that we’ve traded places!
    The process of learning to live in a new culture is always full of surprises… and just when you think you have it all figured out, something new pops up! It’s always something!
    Funny that you should mention that you’ll be learning new Chilean slang here… I find the same thing when I go back to the States… I have picked up some very Chilean ways, and my family sometimes think I do and say some pretty strange things!
    Glad you like the blog and I’ll be very interested in hearing your opinions and about your experiences ‘al reves’!

  30. Pingback: Cachando Chile is Awesome (Matador Says So) | Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

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