Friday, December 28, 2007

Gringa moments

When I was studying in Chile three years ago, fellow exchange student Emily gave me some very sage advice. She said that, in her view, it was pointless to worry about looking stupid while living abroad because you would pretty much look stupid whatever you did. As much as I've tried to take Emily's wisdom to heart and banish all shame, there are times when I just feel like such. a. stupid. gringa.

One of the most recent of these unfortunate episodes occurred a few weeks ago when I went to my photography class. As I've explained before, my class is held in an okupa, an abandoned building taken over by people without legal claim to the property. On this particular day, the okupa had organized a series of events and performances to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Santa María massacre, when striking nitrate workers were gunned down by soldiers in the northern Chilean city of Iquique. Death toll estimates vary widely, but it has been speculated that the massacre could have claimed up to 3,600 victims. The massacre has since become emblematic in the struggle for workers' rights and social equality. So emblematic, in fact, that it has been chronicled in a series of songs called the Cantata Santa María.

After all the programmed acts--which had included local rappers and clowns, among other performers--had wrapped up at the okupa, the Cantata Santa María began playing over the speakers that had been set up for the occasion. The sound system had been put together in a large room that must have been a reception hall or ballroom in bygone decades, and a handful of people sat listening in somber and respectful silence.

After entering and listening for a few minutes, I remembered that I had to make a phone call. Figuring that doing so in the middle of the Cantata wouldn't be appropriate, I stood up and headed for a neighboring room.

As one might guess, not all the electrical outlets in the okupa are in working order. This meant that the sound equipment was being powered by an extension cord that snaked across the floor and into the next room before slipping out a window and climbing like a vine up to an outlet somewhere on the second floor. I'm guessing that they make extension cords orange so that clumsy people will see them before it's too late. Unfortunately, their foresight wasn't enough this time. Just as the general who commanded the troops responsible for the massacre was launching into a tirade about how the workers should shut up and content themselves with their lot--a particularly dramatic moment in the Cantata that leads into an account of the massacre itself--my toe hooked under the orange cord. The general fell silent, and heads turned.

I sputtered an apology and made a desperate effort to look like I knew how to fix the problem. But the damage had already been done. I, the camera-toting, sunburned daughter of the Empire, had ruined the Cantata Santa María.

No one seemed mad. Once the electricity was flowing again, the DJ spent ten minutes dutifully skipping through the Cantata--which was apparently stored as a single audio track--to pick up where I had cut everybody off. I even got a consoling pat on the head. However, my mortification at having marred the poignant commemoration of a national tragedy still hasn't dissipated.

The funny thing about this little debacle is that it had absolutely nothing to do with being foreign. Chileans are just as capable as being hopelessly clumsy as those of us who hail from other, wider countries. Regardless, I feel like my status as an out-of-place Other is never more glaring than when I've just called attention to myself by doing something stupid. Chalk it up to gringo paranoia, a condition that is still awaiting recognition by the American Psychiatric Association. Gringo paranoia, in unscientific terms, is the belief that everyone knows you're foreign and resents you for it. Although I'm well aware that this (at least the second part) is rarely the case, it can be a hard feeling to shake when you're clumsy and thousands of miles from home.

So, until I become brazen enough to follow Emily's advice, I'm working on treading more lightly.


Mamacita Chilena said...

Hey, at least you got a funny story out of it!

I take the opposite approach. I know that even if I don't do anything particularly stupid, the Chileans are still going to think I'm a stupid gringa anyways. So it just doesn't matter what I do. Therefore I take license to say/do things I wouldn't in the U.S. I know if I ask a ridiculous question and it turns out being doesn't matter...because the Chilean I'm talking probably already thought I was stupid before the conversation even began.

Leigh said...

that's a liberating philosophy! i've found the language barrier can also work to my advantage sometimes. if i say something that comes out horribly wrong, i can always say, "wait, is that what that means in spanish?"

Juan K Peña said...

Brilliant! I loved it.
Sorry for the bad moment, but it is ok. Don't worry too much about it. Have you noticed that probably no one will remember that moment but you?

Maeskizzle said...

hahaha. That's hilarious. I imagine the crowd kind of enjoyed the incident, unless you were with a bunch of hardcore activists.

nataliemma said...

"I, the camera-toting, sunburned daughter of the Empire, had ruined the Cantata Santa María."

You are such a great writer. This made me laugh. And that you got a pat on the head.