Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gringo pesa'o

Many gringa bloggers have observed that santiaguinos can, at times, seem cold, brusque, or borderline surly. While I certainly don't see Santiago as a six-million-contender cage fight, I sometimes feel here like I did when I was living in a major city on the East Coast of the United States: Things move faster and people are more stressed out than I'm used to.

Because of this, I was a bit nervous when I started at my current job, which involves a lot of face-to-face interaction with the company's clients. I was worried that Santiago's stressed out, overworked and overcaffeinated would consider me the perfect dumpster for their accumulated tension. As it turns out, I've been pleasantly surprised by my clients, the vast majority of whom are patient, friendly and understanding.

Of course, there are exceptions. Like the delightful man who treated me to ten minutes of condescension and riddled me with orders like "move over." My boss later told me the charmer had been a member of Pinochet's cabinet.

The fact that people like him stand out in my memory goes to show that they are uncommon. Like I said before, most of the clients I deal with treat me with respect. Today, however, I found myself dealing with another exception to the norm.

When I saw him approaching, I immediately began to ponder, "Is he or isn't he?" -- gringo, that is. He was relatively tall, relatively blonde, and relatively light skinned -- but then again, so are a lot of Chileans.

I smiled and greeted him in Spanish. He did not greet me back, instead emphatically stating a single word: "English." Not "do you speak English?". Not "(Sorry,) I don't speak Spanish." Just "English."

Aside from resolving my uncertainty about his nationality, he'd started me wondering if I just might have another ass on my hands. I find it incredibly presumptuous when gringo travelers expect people in their host countries to understand English. Of course, I did understand the guy, but the point is that he had no reason to suspect I was a native English speaker. While I'm neither tall nor blonde, I would place my look solidly in the "is she or isn't she?" category, so I would have understood his assumption had we been in a hostel or a gringo bar. But we were in the Chilean work environment that I share with an exclusively Chilean team of coworkers. I wasn't wearing a "Kiss me, I'm bilingual!" pin or anything like that. In fact, most of the foreign clients I deal with don't even catch on that I'm not Chilean unless I tell them -- although they do ask me where I learned my wonderful English.

Still, I wasn't ready to peg Mr. English as a presumptuous prick just yet. If he thought I didn't speak English, I reasoned, he may be trying to simplify things for me by saying as few words as possible. So I pulled out my "Wow, where did you learn?" English and asked him what I could help him with.

He formulated a two- to three-word request, and I listed possible solutions -- none of which met his needs, apparently, which is fine. However, what I do not find fine is muttering "OK" and walking out of the room without bothering to thank the person who tried to help you.

My lips actually began forming the word as I watched him leave: "pesa'o." Literally: heavy. Figuratively: mean. That gringo had been mean to me.

I suppose coming across a rude gringo shouldn't have shocked me that much. After all, we foreigners are just as capable of being pesa'o as santiaguinos. I just hadn't come across a mean gringo at work yet. It may all boil down to simple mathematics: Since our Chilean clients vastly outnumber our foreign ones, it's much more probable that I'll encounter a Chilean meanie than a gringo one. Also, the gringo clients tend to be on vacation or business trips, so chances are that they're not as stressed out as their santiaguino counterparts. I'm not going to venture to say that people from the States generally act more respectfully than Chileans toward the people who provide them with customer service, because I simply haven't found that to be the case.

Maybe I was just expecting a little gringo solidarity, that superficial but real connection that tends to form between two people who find themselves together in a strange land. Of course, it would have been unfair of me to expect this from Mr. English, who had no way of knowing I was foreign, too -- at least before I switched to English. In any case, he was mean, and he caught me off guard.

Shortly after my run-in with Mr. English, I got on the Metro and headed home for the day. The universe was on my side, because I got a coveted seat. When the train arrived at my stop, I stood up and realized there was a pregnant woman standing standing beside me. I'd been so absorbed in my trashy magazine that I hadn't noticed her standing there, probably waiting for me to offer her my seat. As I exited onto the platform, I imagined my fellow passengers thinking to themselves, "Qué pesá."

I guess not everyone who comes across as mean intends to be. Maybe I should cut Mr. English some slack.


Eileen said...

I have actually told people, sorry about the fact that I seem pesá, it's just that I'm... pesá.

The line in the sand about nice and offensive is not the same here as it is in other places, and 95% of the time I can play, but the other 5% of the time? fuggedaboutit.

But that gringo was out of line rude. And I'm sure you're not.

(and my captcha was undiess. Is that because I wrote about urine in my last blog entry?)

Sara said...

He definitely did seem rude. My attitude when I meet other gringos in the street is usually to avoid them. I have tried to go out of my way before to help people out only to be shouted at like an idiot who doesn't understand English, glared at like they thought I would rob them, and told brusquely "We have a map. Thank you!" Now, I just sort of find it amusing when these things happen. Usually, the gringos peg me as Chilean and try their Spanish on me.

Margaret said...

Just goes to show there are jerks everywhere!