Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pernicious chivalry

I disgusted myself this morning. As is customary on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I squeezed myself onto the 107 bus, which transports me and an uncomfortably large number of others from the Metro to the office park where I teach English. About halfway through the ride, something remarkable happened: A seat freed up, and I was close enough to snag it. There was only one other passenger adequately positioned to swoop in: a middle-aged man.

Piece of cake, I thought as I began my approach. Chivalry says this seat is mine.

Not today. Before I could stake my claim, the man sat down and settled in.

I was mad. Outraged. Who did this able-bodied male think he was, usurping the precious bus seat that rightfully belonged to the obviously seat-hungry -- and heel-clad, no less -- woman next to him? The NERVE.

Wait, what? Had I, who cringes when someone uses "man" to refer to humankind and resents that movie theater seats are designed for people whose upper bodies are heavy enough to make them recline, just operated under the assumption that I was less capable of standing because I´m a woman? How could this be? What happened?

Chilean chivalry happened. You see, the unwritten code of Santiago public transportation conduct would have placed that bus seat squarely in my possession. In the absence of someone elderly, pregnant, child-toting or disabled, the seat goes to the closest female. That´s just how it works. I guess I´ve gotten used to it.

Like I´ve gotten used to men carrying things for me and giving me the right-of-way on the street. Like I´ve gotten used to having doors held open for me and being escorted home late at night. Of course, some men do these things for women in the States too, but I find this type of deference to be much more common and consistent here in Chile.

Obviously, the assumptions underlying these apparent acts of kindness are rooted in gender inequality. Like cat calls and the scantily clad models bursting out of their bikinis on the covers of Chile´s less reputable periodicals.

I know that men who give up their bus seats for women mean well. And it´s an unfortunate but true fact that women are not always safe walking alone at night; the last time a male friend didn´t offer to escort me home, a guy tried to attack me on the street. But there´s a difference between appreciating courtesy or being practical and feeling you are entitled to special treatment because of your gender. When you begin to believe that lacking a penis makes you less capable of standing on a bus for 10 minutes or carrying a 20-pound box out to the car.

The deeper question raised by all of this is whether or not chivalry is just sexism with better manners. For me, the more immediate one is the following: Has living in Chile made me sexist?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Great Soap Empire

I just came back from HiperLíder, which is like a SuperTarget with a warehouse esthetic and blue color scheme. Those of you who follow this blog or know me in real life are aware that I brag obnoxiously about my noble efforts to avoid Chilean supermarkets, which are overpriced when it comes to a number of products and don’t always have the best labor records. You are also aware that when things get urgent, I sometimes sell out.

I sold out today because I finally moved into a new place and needed to stock up on a number of basic household items. And while HiperLíder – just bought out by Wal-Mart, by the way – may not be the most socially responsible place to spend hard-earned pesos, it is one of the most convenient if you need to pick up a trash can, a towel, Scotch tape, yogurt and a salt shaker in one fell swoop.

As I zig-zagged with my cart through the cavernous store, I noticed that while HiperLíder may resemble SuperTarget in size and general merchandise offering, it’s very different when it comes to use of shelf space. Specifically, certain products that are an unassuming presence on U.S. shelves have set up miniature empires in Chilean aisles. Here are a few:

1. Matches. At my family’s house in the States, we only pull these out to light birthday candles or build a fire on Christmas. Matches, however, are everyday essentials in most Chilean homes, which have gas-fueled stoves and water heaters. Maybe that’s why there’s a whole wall of them at HiperLíder.

2. Tea. The supermarket near my old apartment devoted one entire side of an aisle to tea. And when you get down to it, the vast majority of the dozens of options are basically different varieties of black. U.S. supermarkets pack in exponentially more herbal-chai-jasmine-berry variety in a quarter of the space.

3. Soap. Green soap! Pink soap! Liquid soap! Scented soap! Foaming soap! I think I got a headache from sniffing my full aisle of options.

4. Rice. Before coming to Chile, I thought rice came in only two varieties: white and fried. Now I know differently.

I sometimes find these differences frustrating, like when I find row after row of tuna when all I really want is a can of black beans. Needless to say, though, there’s no point in living in another country if you're completely surrounded by the familiar. When people ask me why I choose to live abroad, I sometimes tell them that it’s because everything – right down to grocery shopping – is an adventure and a challenge when you’re far from home.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

You know you're all grown up when... look like someone's beaten the crap out of the backs of your legs. Luckily, this is not a rite of passage that comes with turning 25, which I grudgingly did not too long ago. Rather, the two enormous purple bruises on my thighs are something that, despite the wisdom one supposedly accumulates during a quarter century on earth, I managed to do to myself.

No, not on purpose, sicko. My discolored legs are the unfortunate result of my letting my inner child get the better of me.

Last weekend, I was strolling through Parque O'Higgins when I stumbled upon the Playground that Time Forgot. With its delapidated, corroded equipment and enormous fuel tank, the deserted place was either tetanus or a gas explosion -- whichever comes first -- waiting to happen.

My recent cringe-inducing birthday may be to blame for the fact that this did not deter me. I was still young, damn it, and I was going to go down that rusty-ass slide.

As I scaled the rungs, I began to worry that I might not even fit; playground equipment generally isn't built with adult female hips in mind. This made it even more gratifying when I was able to wedge myself in and set off on my way down.

My expectations weren't high. I had expected to skid along like a sunblock-smeared toddler in shorts, but gravity had other plans. I sailed. I whooshed. I was schooling this slide just as well as any four-year old could.

My glory was short lived. Barely two seconds elapsed before exhilaration became befuddling, throbbing pain. It took me a few moments to realize what had happened: The metal sides of the slide, which had funneled me comfortably downward at the beginning, turned in slightly at the bottom, and I had landed on top of them at full speed.

"I'm going to get huge bruises there," I muttered as I limped away.

Indeed. Just two hours later, twin blotches the size of small fists had taken up residence on the backs of my legs. They had settled in even more two days later, when I didn't even bother to bring my swimsuit to a pool party because I wasn't in the mood to get taken aside and discreetly asked if I was safe at home.

Today, my loyal purple friends are going stronger than ever before. And I can't help but wonder if that ramshackle slide in Parque O'Higgins was trying to tell me something. Something along the lines of, "Get the hell OFF. You're not four years old. Deal." Maybe it was not-so-subtly reminding me that I am, in fact, an adult.

For many people, adulthood doesn't mean moving to South America to "see how things go." Or renting cheap rooms in other people's apartments or daydreaming about what far-off city to put next on their list. For these people, adulthood is a desk job, a stable address and a long-term savings plan.

These are not necessarily bad things. In fact, there are times when I feel like there's nothing I want more. It usually doesn't take me that long to recant, though. I still feel more or less the same way I did when I went to information sessions at my college's career center senior year: I wanted something different.

Does that make me immature? Is post-collegiate globetrotting simply a way to avoid adult responsibilities while enjoying exotic scenery? Or, on the other hand, does it imply even more responsibility, maturity and independence than living a more settled life in one's home country would? Can we even make a fair comparison at all?

I'm not trying to criticize or belittle anyone's choices. I'm legitimately interested in what people have to say about this. So please let my bruises and me know what you think!

Monday, January 12, 2009

My gangster days

When my sister and I were home in Minnesota over the holidays, my mom rented a car from a borderline sketchy agency that rents on the cheap to drivers younger than the typical minimum rental age. After we returned the car together last week, she reminded me of this comforting anecdote:

The summer before I went to Chile as an exchange student, my mom made a similar rental from the same agency so that I could drive to work at a local garden store. For two months, I trolled the streets of Minneapolis in a Mitsubishi sedan tricked out with a laughably unnecessary spoiler.

Little did I know what we would eventually find. The day we were to return the car, my mom and I checked it thoroughly to make sure I hadn't left anything under the seats or tucked away in the glove compartment.

We were surprised to find a large plastic case sitting in the trunk, which I apparently hadn't opened all summer. Wanting to make sure the mysterious object wasn't some forgotten possession of mine, my mom opened it and, naturally, found A GIANT RIFLE.

Needless to say, the gun wasn't mine, and -- also needless to say -- we were more than shocked. I'd been driving around all summer with a deadly weapon in my trunk. Good thing I hadn't been pulled over.

We were never clear on the full story, but apparently one of the guys who worked at the agency had left his gun in the trunk of one of his company's cars. I have no idea why it would occur to him to stash his heat in a vehicle soon to be in the hands of an anonymous college student, and I also find it hard to fathom why my mom stuck with the agency this time around.

I guess this just goes to show that weird things can happen at home, too.