On the Road…Home?

Feel like a stranger in the country you grew up in? A tourist in the motherland? Suffering the expat syndrome? The longer I live outside the US, the more things there are that take me by surprise when I return.

I try to get back to the US at least once or twice a year, and every time I land, I arrive disoriented. It takes a while to switch from my gringa-in-Chile self to the oddball self-appointed quasi-Latina member of the family in the US.

Drinking fountains at Atlanta Airport. June 2010. photo by M Snook

Delta Terminal at Atlanta Airport, June 2010

My first reaction is always the same: people speak English here! I always have at least one layover—usually in Atlanta—which means not only do people speak English, but they do it with a twang. As buenos días, and por favor, and gracias automatically roll off my tongue without thinking, I am always a little startled to hear good morning and thank you and you’re welcome and ya’all have a good trip now in return.

I welcome those hours in the airport. I walk a lot, wander, look, listen, watch, and acclimate. I am always surprised by the diversity of ethnicities and dress and language, and am reminded of how relatively homogeneous Chile really is.

And I am surprised by little things. Drinking fountains, for example (nary a one in Chile). And restrooms with hot water and automatic soap dispensers.

Politeness among strangers. There’s nothing at all unusual about the person next to you striking up a conversation, asking if you like the book you’re reading, what you think about the latest news blaring out from the CNN monitors, or letting you know that this vending machine doesn’t work—but that one over there does. Strangers do not chitchat in Chile.

Soldiers headed home M Snook

Soldiers on their way home. Atlanta Airport, June 2010

But what always—always—has the greatest impact on me every time I’ve entered the US since September 2001 are the soldiers. Men and women, mostly young, dressed in combat uniforms wander the airports, just like me, on their way home or on their way out. People stop them and shake their hands. People thank them as they pass by. Airlines announce their names and let them board first, and the other passengers applaud them as they walk to the gate.

I have a hard time with this. Kids going to war. I choke up every time. I cannot clap, but my heart goes out. I appreciate the sacrifice they are making, but hate the fact that they have to. I hate the emotional upheaval that is attached to every one of those uniforms—for the war that will thrust them into the dark side of humanity that no one should ever see and that will force upon them experiences no one should ever live, for the anxiety that gnaws at all of those they leave behind and for the grief exuded for every one who does not return.

I forget all that when I am in Chile. We have other problems here that make me forget about a daily life that includes water fountains and soap dispensers; racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity…and war.

18 responses to “On the Road…Home?

  1. I couldn’t have said it any better myself! Of course my situation is the exact opposite. I was born and raised in Chile and have lived in the U.S and Canada. Unles I move down to Chile permanently, I believe I will always feel like a stranger there. Switching back to Spanish is not a problem for me. What is always a real problem is accepting the backward ways in which so many things are done in Chile. Fortunately for me, now that I am more mature, I try not straighten anybody out. My wife is Irish and helps me keep my perspective. She often tells me … you may straighten out that one person, but what about the rest of the country? Life is really too short.

    Chileans are a young nation and only now beginning to have contact with the outside world. They do not have the social maturity that comes from intermingling and dealing with people from other cultures for more than 150 years. The U.S. has been the world’s melting pot for a long time. Therefore, people have learned to accept and live with ethnic differences. Chile has not had that privilege.

    When I go back now, I consciously try to take in all the natural beauty that abounds, the good and TASTY food, the great weather (We go down during the summer season), and try to be an observer and not a self-appointed President.
    Chile is not and will never be the U.S. in Spanish. On the other hand neither will the U.S. ever be a version of Chile, but in English. In Canada, besides the smaller ethnic minorities, we have two major cultures, the English and the French. I fully agree with the French when they say; “Vive la difference”.

    Viva Chile, Viva the U.S. and Viva Canada. Salud!

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention On the Road…Home? | Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture -- Topsy.com

  3. True, true. I am still amazed in the US regarding the common chitchat-I had forgotten. And as you said, that the US is so diverse. Easy things to take for granted here. I will always enjoy and go back and visit Chile but getting license plates recently here was a joy in comparison. At least I understand the rules lol (for license plates, be there at 9:30 am between the morning and lunch rush). I’ll have to start writing in my blog again and fill things in.

    I struck up a conversation with a woman at the dog park(yes, try explaining dog parks to Chileans) and it struck me how very different from Chile.

    I sure agree about the military presence -it’s hard for me to see.

    Btw, a favorite book of mine is “My Invented Country” by Isabelle Allende. She left Chile under the dictatorship and went to the US and grew to love it.

  4. Hi all-I was away for a couple days, so just getting back to things now.
    @John-yes, the bottom line is that Chile is Chile and Canada is Canada. Each developed its own culture according to its own needs and circumstances. That certainly doesn’t make one better than the other. They are different and one may feel more comfortable in one place than another, but as amazing as Canada is, I definitely love living here in Chile.
    @Laura- So you’re back in the US now? How long were you in Chile? How was the transition back into life in the US. I think at this point it would be quite hard for me. I’ve made my home here.
    @Jude- I am intrigued by all that stands behind your “Wow”!!

  5. I can’t believe I have NEVER once seen a soldier in an airport. I’ve been at an airport 6 times in the past month alone, not to mention that fact that we got to the U.S. three times a year! How weird.

  6. REALLY? Are you flying a non-US-based airline maybe? (Obviously US troops would fly US airlines). I’ve flown both American and Delta since 2001 and the terminals always have lots of soldiers. In the past it was whole troops or platoons, now they’re more likely to be in groups of 3-10.

  7. Having just returned from a month in Chile, I know exactly what you mean about the disorientation. I arrived back in New York on Sunday morning and, now, I wake up in my own bed and wonder where I am. This was my 4th visit to Chile within the past 12 months. So I guess I can be forgiven for blurting out “Permiso!” instead of “Excuse me!”

  8. Wow 4 times in a year! That’s enough to disorient anyone! I’d be speaking non-stop Spanglish!

  9. @Margaret – I fully agree when you say “Chile is Chile and Canada is Canada. Each developed its own culture according to its own needs and circumstances”.
    In all honesty, If I were to ask each side of my brain where I REALLY would like live, my right-hand brain would win. My heart is still in Chile, 😦

  10. Yes,I am back in the states. I plan to come back for a few months at a time. But I became a first time Grandma and that changed everything! I lived in Chile about three years and feel fortunate for the experience. The transition-there is so much to say but 1) I can understand local Spanish fairly well and 2) I now appreciate the fact that many things in the US are cheaper but you have to fend off clever US marketing and stick to the inexpensive. I especially enjoy $1 peanut butter and $1 paperback books from Goodwill 🙂

    But a piece of my heart will always be in Chile as well.

  11. I understand you completely!! (See “Baby Brain” https://cachandochile.wordpress.com/2009/11/09/baby-brain/) Congratulations!
    And man do I miss good peanut butter that isn’t considered a luxury item!

  12. Maybe is a Santiago thing, but here in Concepcion I’ve always seen a lot of chit chat

  13. Hi Brian- Maybe it is a Santiago thing. I am very aware that much of my understanding of Chile and Chilean culture is very Santiago-centric. I come from the country outside a small town in northeastern USA, where it is very common to talk to strangers and I remember the first time I went to NYC to visit a friend from the Bronx who scolded me severely for speaking to a stranger in Central Park (country girl in the big city syndrome). So I often wonder how much is big city vs wide spread general behavior, but I have traveled through quite a bit of Chile and really have a sense that people tend to stick to themselves and mind their own business, although they are often very friendly if I try to strike up a conversation.

  14. We all should make at least one time in our life (also for a quite long period) the experience of being foreigner. When i did it in my life, I learned so much.. (It should be part of the education).

  15. I discovered your blog and listed it in my “favourite” for one year. I came to Chile for holidays to visit this country. I find your comments generally very interesting. I understand what you feel by coming back time to time to your country. I myself lived a few year in a foreign country. It is not easy every day to understand the differences, to find ones place. But I think the experience to be a stranger is one of that who brings the most in a life. And by the means of a person can change the most, can learn the most.

  16. Hi Pascale- I completely agree. I often think you learn even more about your own culture (and yourself) when you try and insert yourself in another culture. And living somewhere is certainly different than just “passing through” as a tourist! Sounds cliché, but I think it would go a long way toward building more tolerance in this world!

  17. Thanks for reading! And I hope you’ll feel free to join in the conversation regularly… Yes, it’s certainly a challenge to live abroad, but oh what a great feeling when you know you’ve met that challenge! It gives a whole new confidence, perspective, and knowledge of self and world.

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