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.
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.