Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I insult you because I love you

I have a big zit right now. Actually, I have two; I'm just that lucky. Big deal, right? I can just dab on concealer and go about my life. Well, not in Chile, I can't.

In the U.S., we tend to confront both temporary and permanent physical defects with cautious silence. From an extremely young age, we are taught not to stare, not to point, not to laugh at deformities or irregularities or excess pounds. The same goes when the problems in question are our own; we are assured that if we ignore our imperfections, everyone else will, too.

I've come to suspect that our Chilean counterparts are not told the same thing. My first clue came three years ago, while a new Chilean friend and I were shoveling down desert in a Santiago café. After half an hour of chatting, my friend looked at me and informed me, "You have a big nose. And big cheeks." He proceeded to puff out his cheeks like a chipmunk bob his head mockingly from side to side.

I was shocked, then hurt, then furious. I'm pretty sure my jaw dropped, cartoon style, stretching out my oversize cheeks. How dare he say that to me? How dare he notice?

As it happens, I do have a pretty big nose. I don't have delicate, defined cheekbones, either. In my mind, however, I was the only one who had the right to acknowledge it.

Apparently, this sentiment is not shared by Chileans. In a land of nicknames like "Gorda" and "Guatón," a person's physical peculiarities are public property. Foreigners are not spared this vocal scrutiny: A few weeks after pointing out the rarities of my face, my friend marveled at a pimple on my forehead. Another told me I looked anorexic. On a separate occasion, a friend contemplating a photo of me announced I looked much better in person. Another Chilean once shared with me this thoughtful insight: "I bet you'd be dumber if you were prettier."

At first, my response to this unwanted honesty was to take deep, personal offense. These people were obviously out to hurt my feelings, and they were succeeding. I was so upset by these comments that I finally asked a Chilean friend why on earth he and his compatriots were so intent on bludgeoning my self-confidence. He seemed surprised by my reaction and told me their intentions couldn't be more opposite: By making seemingly disparaging comments about my appearance, they were in fact showing me we were friends.

"Think about it," he said. "If someone you're close to has a really big nose, it would almost be an insult not to bring it up. You would be implying there was no trust between you."

So, there you have it: In Chile, they insult you because they love you.

At first, nothing seemed more absurd to me. As I mulled over what my friend had said, however, it occurred to me that something about his logic rang very true. If our friends supposedly know us through and through, it's ridiculous to pretend they haven't noticed we have freakish toes or protruding ears. If they haven't, maybe they haven't really been paying attention at all.

Last night, I realized my internalization of this philosophy was not as complete as I had once thought. When I arrived at the okupa to clean my English classroom, one of my students--a house regular--pointed to the bigger of my two zits and started laughing. He then illuminated the pimple with a cell phone screen and motioned for a five-year-old girl to check it out.

Needless to say, it was difficult for me to interpret this as an expression of friendship. As the hours passed and the zit jokes multiplied, though, I found I was actually able to laugh about my little pink misfortune. After walking me home, my student told me, "I like your zit because it makes you seem more natural."

For some reason, I know he was being honest. I also know that the next time he gets an unsightly blemish, I will not let him hear the end of it.


Mamacita Chilena said...

Ahhh, yes, my husband has good friends respectively nicknamed, Monkey, Buttface, The Ugly, and the Fatty.

My mother in law, without fail comments on my weight every time I see her. My father in law will tell my I look sickly and pale and weak if I'm not wearing makeup.

gotta love these crazy, honest Chileans :)

victoria.magyar said...

Maybe always bringing up your physical flaws helps you to be more ok with them--after all, we are sensitive because we know it's true. I'm suspicious when someone comments on my height, even though I am tall. "So, you think I'm a giant? I'm a giant, is that it? Why don't you just call me Amazon Woman?"

Anyway. The US is good. Strange. Jerry and I are couch-surfing in Orlando, Florida's small town with big-city pretensions. It's been fun, if awkward. One host's cat peed on my suitcase. I miss Santiago, and the office. Mostly office-dwellers. And the carretes. But life is exciting in a way I haven't experienced in a while, and I thank you all for that.

Claire said...

nice :) Leigh, I need to tune into your blog more're the best.

Maeskizzle said...

I think that Chileans are more in-tune to each other in some ways than gringos are. The good side is I feel more taken-in-account here in Chile, like there's a certain "cariño" in the fact that people notice you. But on the other side I think it's harder to be different because I feel some Chileans have less tolerance for differences, for example, homosexuality, vegetarianism...I was really taken aback by the intolerance I´ve come across here for homosexuals - especially gay men. Maybe it's the same in the states but not spoken about. It's like they take you in account but sometimes the teasing seems like an intent for homogenity.

Leigh said...

I agree with you that in general, homophobia is incredibly pronounced here. Some Chileans I know don't understand why I take such offense to homophobic jokes; they claim there's no problem if they're just kidding. On the other hand, there are others who seem very open-minded and progressive when it comes to issues related to sexual orientation.

And yes, it strikes me that being a vegetarian in the land of choripan would be extremely difficult!

Juan K Peña said...

Andres Calamaro's best cd is called 'HONESTIDAD BRUTAL'. That's what I think. In order to say something like that you need to be half 'honesto' and half 'bruto'.

I hope not all Chileans are like that.

I must admit that I'm pretty good giving nicknames to everyone. But one thing is denting one's confidence and the other is being honest.

Imagine this:
A father says to his little five year old daughter:
Hi, ugly!

What? She is ugly... He is being honest and he is honest because he loves her.

I think one thing is to tease someone about something. But, kind of fun-tease, you know, and another thing is to dent someone's confidence. What is the point of mentioning things that you are already conscious about?

The important thing is that you have in mind that we are not just the zit that they see, or the big cheekbones they point out... Please, go to to mirror, hug yourself, hug your inner-child and repeat 'I'm cute'.

You need to learn some good lines from me to use them with your Chilean brutally honest friends. ;)

Take care.