Sunday, April 20, 2008

Um, I'm over here

Remember when you were little and no one realized how important you were? Like when you and your imaginary friend made up the funniest play ever but your mom made you wait until she got off the phone to perform it? Or like when your parents' dinner party guests seemed much more interested in each other than you even though you knew way more state capitals than they did? Or like when adults talked about you in the third person when you were right there in the room?

Good thing grown-ups started acknowledging your existence when you became a real person in high school. Too bad you'd grown quite fond of that by the time you moved to Chile and realized that, in the eyes of some, you were still five years old.

Yes, after ten years of being looked in the face and spoken to directly, I was more than a bit irked when a visitor to our Santiago apartment introduced himself, then turned to my roommate Rodrigo and started asking him about me. Not things involving Rodrigo's opinion of me or things related to our daily interaction as roommates ("So, how long does this one leave her dirty dishes in the sink before she washes them?"). More like general information about my personal background. In other words, things he should have been asking me.

My ardent efforts to demonstrate that I was, in fact, capable of speaking for myself apparently made very little impact on this particular visitor. By the time he packed up and left the apartment at the end of the weekend, I had resigned myself to being talked about as though it were time for my N-A-P.

Don't get me wrong. Most of the Chileans I've met are much more considerate than this guy. What's more, they seem genuinely eager to engage in conversation with foreigners. Unfortunately, there are others who appear to operate under the assumption that if it's blue-eyed and burns easily, it's incapable of verbal communication.

Take a guy I met this weekend. A number of friends from the office and I had gone to see our coworker DJ. As charming as the venue--a restored old house--was, it lacked a ventilation system powerful enough to prevent the blanket of cigarette smoke hanging over the dance floor from becoming asphyxiating. Consequently, I had to step outside every so often to get some fresh air.

On one such oxygen run, I came across a Chilean acquaintance talking with another guy on the sidewalk. After introducing himself, the other guy turned to my acquaintance and--you guessed it--asked him where I lived.

He hadn't asked me, but I told him. He reacted by telling my acquaintance how dangerous he thought my neighborhood was. But don't worry, he eventually addressed me directly--by glancing my way and saying the word "dangerous" in English.

Incensed by this insult to both my pride and my neighborhood, I explained--in the most verbose Spanish I could muster--that it actually wasn't that bad if you knew where to walk. The guy raised his eyebrows in surprise. She lives in Chile and speaks Spanish...How could this be?!

I'm tempted to catalog the people who have subjected me to the five-year-old treatment as jerks, but I doubt they acted with malicious intentions. Perhaps a more appropriate label would be "stubbornly impolite." Why stubborn? Because demonstrating your Spanish competency doesn't necessarily convince them that you are worthy of being addressed as an adult. You are foreign and therefore disqualified as an equal participant in group conversation. It doesn't matter, though. Shouldn't you be out taking pictures of Pablo Neruda's house anyway?

I've decided that the time has come to respond to insult with--well, not injury. More like passive aggression. One of the approaches I've considered is to embrace the royal identity these individuals seem to be bestowing upon me and begin referring to myself in the third person. I've also thought about playing along with their assumptions and silently pretending not to understand anything until the conversation drifts to the perfect place--say, contemporary Chilean politics--to drop the Spanish bomb.

Or maybe someone's just getting a little cranky.


noel said...

Could you please tell Leigh that I would love to read this, but she'll just have to wait until I am off the phone?!!

Anonymous said...

Cute Noel! I always asked if anyone was on fire or bleeding before I told you to wait until I was off the phone.

Tamsin said...

Just found your blog via Mamacita Chilenita - good stuff, a very enjoyable read! :)

I´ve given up on expecting Chileans to treat me the way normal people do.

They´re a whole different species.