Wednesday, April 30, 2008

P.S.

Just a quick addendum to my last entry, which dealt, in part, with prejudiced attitudes toward Peruvians in Chile.

I was watching TV the other week when a commercial for a brand of pasta called Chef came on. The ad featured a Peruvian woman in a maid's uniform who said something along the lines of, "In Peru, we eat fish at least three times a week, so I'm an expert at making ceviche. But here (in Chile), they ask me for a lot of pasta." She went on to lament how difficult cooking pasta was for her before the "señora" started buying Chef, whose noodles never stick together in the pot.

I'm still not advanced enough when it comes to blogging to know how to put the video clip itself here, but you can watch the commercial here.

I don't think I was the only one appalled by this ad, because I never saw it on the air again. Despite the fact that many immigrant women in Chile do work as domestic help, what the commercial implied was downright reprehensible: Who better to trust about food than a Peruvian woman, who probably works in your kitchen anyway? I can only imagine what the response would have been if a similar ad had aired in the United States. Not that the media isn't full of prejudice and stereotypes there, too.

I'm completely in favor of immigrants becoming more visible in the Chilean media. I find it impossible to consider this commercial a step forward, though. I wonder what Peruvians living in Chile think.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Chilean salad bowl

If there's one place in my neighborhood I try to avoid whenever possible, it's the Santa Isabel grocery store. Aside from being crowded, overpriced and poorly organized, it never seems to have fresh hallullas (a particularly delicious species of Chilean bread) when I need them. Of course, there are times--like when I need to pick up Frosted Flakes, pens and socks in one trip--when the convenience of the supermarket forces me to cave.

It was on one such occasion when I resignedly locked my bike up outside the Santa Isabel and went inside. On my way out, I noticed a baby sitting alone in her carriage next to the bike rack. I scanned the sidewalk for potential parents, but there were no adults in sight. Concerned, I went back inside and pointed the child out to two pharmacists. They were trying to decide what to make of the situation when a man--whose skin and hair were noticeably darker than those of most Chileans--walked out of the supermarket and reclaimed his abandoned daughter.

"Ah, he's Peruvian," one of the pharmacists, a young woman, muttered. Although she didn't say it, her expression implied, I should have known. "Peruvians are stupid," she said.

The other pharmacist seemed to agree.

"I don't think it's that," I countered. Sure, this possibly Peruvian individual had done something moronic, but the woman certainly hadn't been justified in applying her judgment to an entire nationality.

"Would you leave your baby out on the street like that?" she asked.

"No, but I don't think all Peruvians would, either," I replied.

My comment prompted two awkward smiles and my hasty departure.

On my way out, I found the father in question sitting on a bench examining the lottery ticket he'd just purchased inside. "Someone's going to kidnap your baby if you leave her alone," I said. He smiled, which was weird, and I biked on.

It wasn't the first time I'd come across prejudice against Peruvians in Santiago. When I was searching for an apartment back in October, I checked out a room in an apartment rented by a young writer. Everything about the place and the guy screamed "progressive," which was why it came as such a shock when he responded to my question about neighborhood safety by responding, "It's fine if you keep to safe streets. I usually avoid Loreto. There are a lot of Peruvians."

As soon as he'd said it, he began stammering through damage control. "I mean, I'm not racist. In fact, I have Peruvian friends." Classic.

Guidebooks are fond of calling Chile "ethnically homogenous." This is supposedly a country in which the vast majority of people share similar ancestry. After having spent three years living in Washington, DC--where it wasn't uncommon for me to overhear a half-dozen languages during the course of a Metro ride or a run to the pharmacy--I feel I can confidently say that Chile is certainly not the most diverse place in the world. While living in Quito, in fact, I was struck by how much more visibly ethnically diverse it seemed than Santiago.

The homogeneity hypothesis certainly offers a quick and easy explanation for the prejudice some Chileans show toward Peruvians. When one looks below the surface, however, Chileans come from a wide variety of backgrounds. In addition to being home to numerous indigenous cultures, this country has received sizable Arab, German and Balkan immigrant populations. The Chilean Palestinian community is one of the world's largest and, as it happens, has gotten bigger over the past few weeks. More recently, Korean and Chinese immigrants have arrived; every once in awhile, I see students of Asian decent walking around in their school uniforms, just as Chilean as their classmates.

A perfect testament to the diversity that can be found in Santiago is the district where I work, Recoleta. The streets are lined with Peruvian, Arab and Korean restaurants, and many of the stores have Arab, Korean or Chinese names. There's even an Arab Orthodox church where I took an Arabic class a few years ago. When Yasser Arafat died, people placed portraits of him in their windows and hung strings of Palestinian flags over the streets.

Another example is the neighborhood I live in, which is home to a significant number of Peruvians, Colombians and Ecuadorians. Seeing indigenous Ecuadorian women walking in their traditional clothing makes me feel at home here because it reminds me of my time in Quito.

Of course, the fact that immigrant enclaves exist in Santiago does not make Chile an Eden of diversity. I don't have Chilean ancestry statistics, and my experience is pretty much limited to the capital. I also couldn't tell you to what degree immigrant groups in Chile stick to themselves, as the ingredients of Chilean salad are prone to doing. Here, "ensalada de tomate" is frequently just that: tomatoes and nothing else.

However, I find that when I ask my Chilean friends about their ancestry, hardly any two family stories are the same. One of my friends has a Bolivian father, while another recently learned he has Irish ancestors. It would appear that Chileans--at least the ones I know--are not as homogenous as travel writers like to think.

A few hours after my run-in with racism at the Santa Isabel pharmacy, I went to hang out with a friend who lives in my neighborhood. He was born in Bulgaria, but he moved to Chile as a child and--aside from a predilection for pasta cooked with sugar--is almost as Chilean as if he'd been born here. Also invited to the get-together were a Chilean-born guy with Chinese parents and Chileans from different regions of the country.

The interesting thing is that these aren't people I met through the expat or exchange student circuits. It could be that my Bulgarian friend, given his own experiences, is inclined to seek multicultural company. That said, I consider his party proof that you can't believe everything you read in guidebooks. And that people like the prejudiced pharmacists had better start updating their ideas fast.

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.


Monday, April 14, 2008

A how-to guide for the morning commuter

Twice a week, I teach an English class at a strange and somewhat disturbing Santiago office park called Ciudad Empresarial. The name means Business City, but the place is less of a city than it is a hodgepodge of mismatched office buildings--some of which, to their credit, are architecturally fascinating--interspersed between empty plots of land. Ironically, this supposed bastion of economic progress hasn't managed to fill itself up.

But back to my class. The problem: It starts at 8 A.M. The bigger problem: Depending on what side of the bed the metro and city buses wake up on, I live between 45 minutes and over an hour away. When you consider the fact that it takes me about an hour to get up, eat breakfast, shower and get dressed, you have an alarm that rings long before the sun is even thinking about coming up.

Although it may seem hard to believe, getting up before dawn is not the most harrowing part of the experience. The commute from my apartment in southwestern Santiago Centro to Ciudad Empresarial, located in the distant northern suburb of Huechuraba, is consistently more successful when it comes to fraying my nerves.

Thus, in order to do what I can to preserve the sanity of those who may have to make the same commute someday, I've created this guide:

HOW TO GET FROM SANTIAGO CENTRO TO CIUDAD EMPRESARIAL BEFORE 8 A.M.

1. The night before class, set your cell phone alarm for 5:45 A.M. As this may not go off, set your clock radio alarm for 5:46.

2. When/If your cell phone alarm goes off at 5:45 the following morning, hit the snooze. When your clock radio alarm goes off at 5:46, repeat.

3. Manage to melt out of bed before 6:00. Armor yourself with slippers and a sweatshirt before venturing outside the warmth that has accumulated in your bedroom overnight.

4. Head to the kitchen and prepare a breakfast hearty enough to allow you to put off the inevitable struggle with the temperamental gas water heater.

5. Struggle with the temperamental gas water heater. As you fight to turn it on, curse quietly enough to not wake your roommates but loudly enough to feel satisfied.

6. Once in the bathroom, divest your body of slippers, sweatshirt and pajamas. Shiver. Shower.

7. Once cleansed, stand dripping in front of your closet while scanning for something presentable enough to meet the English institute's dress code.

8. Before leaving your apartment, turn the temperamental gas water heater off to prevent it from malfunctioning (as it is wont to do) and asphyxiating your sleeping roommates.

9. Begin the 10-minute walk to Metro Toesca. Enjoy this: It's one of the few stretches of tranquility you'll have all morning. The streets are quiet, and the air is purer than it will be for the rest of the day. Make the experience more enjoyable still by setting your iPod to peppy tunes you're embarrassed to admit you listen to.

10. Descend with trepidation into the depths of Metro Toesca. Wait for up to four packed trains to pass before you manage to squeeze on.

11. When you finally do find a space to jostle yourself into, hold your breath so that there will be enough room for the metro car's doors to shut behind you. Once the doors have closed, participate in the collective exhalation that will take place throughout the car. As you roll out of the station with your body pressed against the doors, remind yourself that you asked for it by choosing to live one stop away from downtown on a metro line that passes through densely-populated residential areas before it reaches you.

12. When the metro cruises into the next stop, vacate the car as quickly as possible in order to avoid being stampeded by the mass of exiting commuters. Then, get back on the train as quickly as possible in order to avoid being stampeded by the mass of entering commuters. You still have a long way to go.

13. Settle in for the long haul. Distract yourself by reading or finding cute babies to look at.

14. Integrate yourself into the flood of humanity that exits the train at Metro Dorsal, two stops short of where Santiago's metro meets its northern demise. After completing your ascent toward the nascent daylight, cross the street to the bus stop. Spontaneous car-dodging may be required.

15. Wait for a period ranging from 0 to 10 minutes. Remember that, in the grand scheme of Transantiago, this is nothing and you are damn lucky. When the 107 arrives, board.

16. Look pensively out the window as the bus crosses the highway that separates Far Out from Way Far Out. As the bus turns into Ciudad Empresarial and the office blocks begin to file past outside, feel a none-too-slight pang of guilt while wondering whether your English-teaching services are helping big corporations conquer the world.

17. Get off the bus outside your student's office building. To your dismay, realize that you've arrived early and the door is locked. Shiver.

18. Be grateful that you love this city and traveling in it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Losing my religion...and my hearing

"At least you can sleep on the bus." That's what Ana, the obliging Chilean woman I stayed with during my recent research trip to Valparaíso, said when I arrived at her house exhausted after a marathon day of events and press conferences. I nodded gratefully, repressing the suspicion that things would not be that simple.

They weren't. This became evident as the bus pulled out of the station to begin its two-hour voyage to Santiago. That was when the attendant popped in a DVD of Air Supply's greatest hits and I abandoned all hope of a nap.

Frustrating as this was, it came as no surprise. I have long since resigned myself to the fact that most long-distance trips in Chile will involve, at some point or another:

a) bad '80s music that everyone else seems to like
b) someone blasting reggaeton from his/her cell phone
c) graphically violent movies at full volume
d) all of the above

My two hours with Air Supply made me recall a conversation I had with Monica, my coworker's gringa roommate, during my recent trip to Mendoza, Argentina. As we rode back from an afternoon of whitewater rafting listening to funk hits of years gone by pulse from the radio, Monica observed that transportation in Chile (and, in this case, Argentina) frequently seems to involve music that's just, well, out of place.

"Out of place" is a euphemism. The soundtrack to my life in South America is riddled with audio that ranges from being inappropriate for the circumstances to downright scarring. What follows are a few choice examples:

Santiago, 2004: Running behind for an English class, I hailed a cab. As I sat in the backseat wringing my hands and compulsively checking my watch, the driver pumped up the volume of a heavy rock radio station. The singer was graphically describing (in English) the violent sex acts he had performed on children, old men and goats. I was traumatized. The driver, on the other hand, bobbed his head to the beat and began singing along. I assume (hope to God) he didn't understand English. I don't think the radio station's personnel did, either.


San Pedro de Atacama, 2004: A group of friends and I traveled to northern Chile, home to the driest desert in the world. After settling in at our hostel, we enthusiastically booked a trip to a geyser field. The one downside of the geyser tour is that it starts at 3 A.M.; the air is coolest in the morning, contrasting sharply with the hot geysers and making the steam particularly spectacular. No problem, we thought. We can sleep in the van.

Wrong. We can listen to Michael Jackson's greatest hits for an hour and a half. Because there's no better time or place for that than at three in the morning in the middle of the desert.

Chile-Argentina border, 2005: May 21 is a national holiday in Chile, so a few friends and I took advantage of it in the same way a horde of santiaguinos did: We went to Mendoza. After a spectacular trans-Andean bus ride and a weekend full of steak and cheap shopping, we learned there had been a snowstorm in the Andes and the road back to Chile had been closed. Tough luck: We were forced to spend an extra day on vacation.

The problem occurred when the road was reopened and it was finally time to cross the mountains back into the real world. The snowstorm had left a multitude of Chilean tourists stranded in Mendoza, and everyone headed back at the same time. The result was a goliath traffic jam that stretched back several hours from the border checkpoint.

Although I regretted not bringing snacks along, I figured the wait would give me a much-needed opportunity to catch up on some homework. And it would have, had the bus attendant not decided to entertain his passengers with a movie about massacres in African villages. We--as captive as any audience ever was--spent the next two hours steeped in the images and sounds of ruthless slaughter.

Of course, one could roll his or her eyes and mutter, "Poor girl. The horrors of war in Africa distracted her from her homework." Valid. However, I'm sure that close to 95 percent of the world's non-pornographic films would have been more appropriate for a long-distance bus with no headphones and various kids aboard.

Quito, 2006: A group of job-hunting gringos and I piled into a cab. We soon learned that those chanting monks that used to sell CDs on TV had crossed over into the rock scene: Wafting from the speakers was a Gregorian chant version of REM's "Losing My Religion." I spent the entire ride with my lips curled inward, struggling not to burst out in hysterical laughter.

Of course, I'm well aware that out-of-place audio is a worldwide phenomenon. After all, one of my childhood school bus drivers used to blast techno music whenever we got on a highway.

Friday, April 4, 2008

My sweet luck

By the way, this is where I go on business:


If it can really be called business. This weekend, I'm going to beautiful Valparaíso to research two articles. Life is tough, huh?

Southern Ballin'


On Monday and Friday mornings, I get up before dawn to shower, get dressed and make the more than hour-long trek to an 8 A.M. English class. It's not as bad as it seems. I actually love being out on Santiago's nearly empty streets while the air is still crisp and the daylight is dim.

This morning, however, a faulty alarm prevented me from taking my early-morning stroll. Almost mercifully, my cell phone disobeyed previous orders and didn't blare "Reveille" at 5:15. By the time I woke up naturally, all hopes of arriving to class on time were long gone. After 15 minutes of panic, I learned my student was actually happy to have the day off. Even better, the unexpected cancellation meant I could fry some eggs, pop in Office Space and, of course, update my blog.

On those mornings when I actually leave home on time to make it to class, the few bleary-eyed people I share the sidewalks with include uniform-clad children on their way to school. My urban wanderings have revealed that when these kids aren't in class, some of them are resourcefully converting the streets into soccer fields, tennis courts and other types of athletic facilities. Given that neighborhood sports were a huge part of my childhood, I get nostalgic watching these kids run amok on the asphalt.

Did I say kids? I meant boys. Because the children I've seen launching soccer balls into makeshift goals have been overwhelmingly male. If Santiago's girls are playing pickup games, they're doing it somewhere I can't see them.

Maybe this is why many of my fellow volunteers in Canela were shocked when I charged out onto the field (actually, into the municipal gym) when news of a scrimmage got around. They seemed even more surprised when I actually ran after the ball and kicked it. When I did a header, a collective gasp issued from the stands. I may as well have cleated someone in the face.

To clarify: I am not good at soccer. I have a nasty scar on my left ankle--a souvenir from two surgeries to correct a middle school soccer injury--that implies athletic prowess far surpassing my mediocre skills. Still, based on the glowing praise I received after each Canela scrimmage, you would have thought I was Maradona.

Fully aware that I was still bad at soccer but unable to convince my friends of this fact, I was left wondering where all the adulation had come from. The absence of girls from neighborhood pichangas (pickup soccer games) almost immediately came to mind. Could it be everyone was so shocked to see a girl on the field that they mistook gumption for actual skills?

I was not the only woman to play soccer in Canela and certainly not the only female to play sports in Chile. One of the other female volunteers who regularly joined in the scrimmages was in Canela running a soccer camp for kids. She also plays intramural basketball. When I took a judo class at the University of Chile a few years ago, two other female students participated; at an engineering campus renowned for its skewed male-to-female ratio, that's not all bad. However, the fact that all three of us got 7s (the Chilean equivalent of an A) after spending a semester getting our asses kicked implied the professor thought of us in much the same way as my fellow Canela volunteers would later think of me: The simple fact that we were female and there was enough to make us good.

Hey, I figure if I have to endure suggestive whistles every time I leave my house, I have the right to benefit from machismo every once in awhile.

So, it seems that sporty women--although they exist--are not the norm here in Chile. As someone who grew up believing it was strange for a girl not to play sports, I find it discouraging that Chilean girls aren't hitting the field in hordes. As trite as it sounds, I don't think I would be nearly as confident or sociable today if it hadn't been for the years I spent as a Lynnhurst Park Pink Sleeveless Magic Thunderweasel (we couldn't agree on a team name, so we combined them all). It's enough to make me want to organize an all-girl pichanga. Anyone down?