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.