Monday, June 28, 2010

Northern disorientation

My being back in the States means my mom and I can now sit down together to view one of our favorite types of television programming: true-crime episodes of Dateline. Last night, I felt exhaustion began to sink in as we watched a report on the murder of a former professional athlete. Just as an investigator was beginning to express doubts about police's conclusions about the culprit, I sank into a syrupy fog of semi-consciousness that didn't end until the show did and my mom wondered aloud, "What did they conclude?"

"Que no sabían nada," I murmured through the haze. After a few seconds, I sat bolt upright. "What did I just say?"

"I don't know," my mom replied.

"Was it in Spanish?"

"I just know that I didn't understand it."

It's not the first time my mom has had to put up with episodes of linguistic disorientation. After arriving home after my junior year abroad in Chile, I promptly fell asleep on the couch. My mom told me that when she tried to wake me up, I started babbling in Spanish with a terrified expression on my face. Over the next few weeks, she occasionally had to ask me to clarify what I was trying to say because I was unknowingly importing grammatical structures from Spanish.

Of all my returns from South America, the one I made after study abroad was probably the rockiest in terms of language readjustment. I had lived with Chileans all year and had had relatively limited interaction with other English speakers during my second semester. Since I had been one of the last of my exchange group to leave Chile, I had spoken hardly any English at all during my last two weeks in the country. The result was that when another passenger offered to help me with my (grossly overweight) suitcase at the baggage carousel in Minneapolis, no words came out when I opened my mouth to thank him. My brain knew that I had to speak English now but hadn’t yet unearthed the necessary vocabulary.

The language transition wasn’t too difficult when I returned after fourteen months in Quito; I’d been working as an English teacher and living with an English-speaking roommate. And aside from last night’s Dateline stumble, things haven’t been so rough this time around. I lived with Chileans in Santiago and worked a job that required me to speak Spanish about 95 percent of the time, but I hung out with English-speaking friends from time to time and had home internet access – which I hadn’t had in Quito or while studying abroad in Chile – that allowed me to consume a fair amount of English-language media. Who knows? Maybe writing this blog even helped ward off English atrophy.

I suppose the real test of the health of my English will be when I start grad school in the fall. I’m actually a bit concerned about this because nearly all of my recent academic work – both at college, where I majored in Spanish, and in the diploma program I completed last year at a Chilean university – has been in Spanish. Let’s hope I show enough dexterity in my native language to produce written work that doesn’t resemble a high school essay. And that I stop scaring my mom.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Adios, Santiago querido

I’m writing from the international terminal of the Santiago airport. I’ve been here many times, but this time is different: In two hours, I’ll be leaving Chile for good.

No, not really. I have no doubt I’ll be back. After all, I’ve lived a long and formative period of my life here. If you follow this blog all the way back to the womb, you'll see that I've called this country home since October of 2007 -- and that's not counting the year I spent studying here in college. That's a total of nearly four years, four extremely important years if you believe -- as I do -- that a person's twenties are vital when it comes to becoming who he or she is. Santiago is the city where I began to come into my own; I honestly believe that I would be a different person today if I had confronted the challenges of young adulthood somewhere else. New York City will undoubtedly play a major role in this continuing evolution, but Santiago will always have the advantage of having started the ball rolling.

I've written before about the mixed emotions I have about leaving Chile. In the interest of not breaking down and bawling here in the terminal, I'm not going to get into those emotions here. I will, however, include a sappy but very fitting quote I just happened to come across the other day. According to Lawrence Durrell, "A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants." If loving one inhabitant makes a city a world, loving many makes Santiago a universe -- one I'll definitely be back to.

And, in order to rescue this entry from complete and utter sapdom, I'll toss in my four main gripes about what otherwise is a decent airport terminal: It's hot, there's hardly anything to eat, there are no drinking fountains, and the guy sitting next to me has a scary-sounding phlegm cough that he's not covering up. Is it time to board yet?

By the way, I stole the title of this post from this famous Chilean cueca. Of the landmarks mentioned in the song, Quinta Normal and San Pablo con Matucana have special places in my heart.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What winning looks like

Wednesday was a big day for Chilean soccer. The national team's 1-0 victory over Honduras was the first World Cup win the country has been able to celebrate in almost 50 years. And celebrate Chileans did.

I just happened to be snapping a photo of this street corner in western Santiago's Yungay neighborhood when this car zoomed by. I've always wondered how many traffic accidents Chilean fans' love of mobile flag flying causes each year.

This seems like a safer place to wave the red, white and blue.

The salesperson at this hat kiosk outside Estacion Central was hesitant to let me take a photo of her heads until I told her I had a blog about Chile.

As you can see from the banner flying on the balcony, not even an 8.8 earthquake can stop diehard fans.

And, alas, more soccer-spawned sexism. These posters are advertising a mystery Father's Day promotion (I visited the website and still have no idea what it is) that promises soccer to men and "relaxation" to women. The man's poster is the same color as the national team's jersey and is headed by the phrase: "World Cup + Father's Day: Welcome to Paradise." The woman, on the other hand, stands awash in the sky blue of saintly motherhood below the phrase: "World Cup + Father's Day: You Deserve Heaven." In other words, "You're a Saint." Which you obviously are for putting up with your man's obvious love of soccer, which you obviously don't share, all while slaving over that enormous Father's Day luncheon.

Chile didn't pull out its best game on Wednesday, in my opinion. Let's just hope they were saving it for upcoming rivals Switzerland and Spain!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Of soccer and sexism

Chile has come down with a serious case of World Cup fever. It's been several years since the national team has qualified to participate, so everybody is anxious to see how "La Roja," revitalized by the leadership of coach Marcelo Bielsa, will fare. Red jerseys are flying off the racks, players' faces are being plastered on everything from Coke bottles to supermarket displays of men's razors, and everyone is discussing the best way to stay awake all night in preparation for the early-morning game broadcasts. It's an electric atmosphere that I'm excited to be a part of.

There's one thing I'm not thrilled about, however: the fact that the World Cup craze, in addition to fueling enthusiasm for soccer, has also intensified the Chilean media's already pervasive objectification of women. Television channel Canal 13 -- owned by Chile's Catholic University -- provided ample evidence of this the other day. Around lunchtime, Canal 13 camera crews set up and broadcast impromptu pep rallies in the Plaza de Armas, downtown Santiago's central square, and the La Vega food market. The group that gathered in the Plaza de Armas was almost exclusively male -- except, that is, for the women who paraded through the crowd in tight, tiny outfits based on the national flags of World Cup teams. Within seconds, the men in the crowd had transitioned from jumping and cheering for the Chilean team to leering and whistling at the group of women. I remember watching one woman -- probably freezing in the winter cold in her crop top and short skirt -- maintaining her smile as one of the men repeatedly tried to grab and kiss her. No one tried to stop him.

When the show cut to the rally outside La Vega, I was pleased to see that the women present -- who appeared to be market workers -- were participating as fans and not as eye candy. Oh, how wrong I was. Before long, these women too were urged to parade in front of their male counterparts to garner applause.

I couldn't watch anymore. I didn't need to. The message was clear: The only place for women at a sports-related event is as entertainment for men. We're obviously not there to support our team; we're there to be oggled. Not only that: Treating women as sex objects, segments like this imply, is a natural and even necessary part of being a sports fan.

But Canal 13 didn't stop there. Later that night, the talk show Tonka Tanka -- presided over by the generally well-respected and well-liked female host Tonka Tomicic -- featured a group of women in loin cloths performing a dance to the official song of this year's World Cup, Shakira's "Waka Waka." Obviously, sexism was only one of the objectionable elements involved here.

And it's not just TV. As one might expect, the mannequins in department store display windows here are decked out to support La Roja. While both male and female mannequins sport the national team's jersey, the way in which they wear it is frequently very different. The plastic men wear it the way the players do; comfortably loose. The plastic women, on the other hand, wear it hiked up to reveal their stomachs, pulled tight across their chests and knotted in back. And, of course, the ensemble wouldn't be complete without a pair of jeans unzipped to reveal -- that's right -- La Roja underwear.

See, ladies? You can be soccer fans, too! Just make sure you're sexy ones.

In no way do I believe that the female body is something to be ashamed of and covered up. What I do have a problem with is the objectification of women's bodies for mass consumption. And that is exactly what the World Cup media blitz is doing in Chile. Aside from the fact that sex indeed sells, this can be explained -- I believe -- by the male-dominated culture surrounding soccer here. The next time you walk past a pickup game or kids' soccer clinic at a Chilean park, check out the gender of the participants. If I had 100 pesos for every woman (myself excluded) I've seen taking part . . . I'd be poor. Men here are expected to be into soccer; although there are female fans and players (the latter of whom receive a miniscule amount of media attention in comparison to their male counterparts), the same expectation does not apply to women. Case in point: When my (male Chilean) roommate and I sat down to have a drink with our three new (male Chilean) roommates, one of the latter asked him if he liked soccer but didn't address the same question to me. A Chilean TV commercial I recently saw reinforces this stereotype: A woman gets increasingly frustrated while struggling to understand soccer before finally deciding she doesn't care. Lucky for her and women everywhere, this channel didn't get the rights to broadcast World Cup games and will be showing programs that won't make our pretty little heads explode.

It's far from shocking that the male-dominated -- and heteronormative -- universe of Chilean soccer fandom would incorporate women on its own terms: as objects of the male gaze. Which, in the end, is what soccer itself is perceived to be.

Sorry, Canal 13. I, for one, will be watching Chile's games in a red T-shirt. And I'm not going to knot it above my belly button.

I'm well aware that sports-related sexism is not limited to Chile. This ad proves as much. Therefore, I'd be interested to hear what people living both here and in other countries have to say on this topic. Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

So I guess this is real after all

As most of you know, I'm leaving Chile in a few weeks. Come to think of it, though, I wouldn't be surprised if many of you didn't know, because I don't talk or write about it much. That's because I'm in denial.

When people ask me what I've been up to since I quit my job, I generally respond that I've been preparing for the big move. The truth of this statement depends on your perspective. If you consider taking meandering bike rides through the city and staring wistfully at the Andes preparation, then yes, I've been preparing. However, if your idea of preparation includes sorting through and packing the physical evidence of the past three years of my life, then I have not been preparing at all.

This afternoon, a friend stopped by my house and took away some of my stuff. His haul included a giant paper mache lamp, magenta curtains and some Saint Patrick's Day costume glasses. Although I'd been emotionally preparing myself for the inevitable for quite some time, his visit was my first move toward initiating the physical process of leaving.

I think I know why I've been putting it off. Ever since I was little, I've been extremely sensitive to the sentimental value of objects. I'm not a big shopper and would not consider myself materialistic; however, when an object represents an important moment or period in my life, I find it incredibly difficult to let go. For example, I've held onto dingy shoes because they've tread foreign soil and notebooks from high school because they're a testament to who I was at that point in my life. When I see hoarders interviewed on TV, I frequently understand exactly what they're talking about when they explain their reasons for refusing to throw out items everyone else finds useless.

Don't worry: My house isn't packed with empty soup cans and floor-to-ceiling stacks of old newspapers. I've been so mobile over the past few years that I've had to learn to look past my emotional attachment to things when the time comes to move out. This doesn't mean it's easy. Although I consider my tendency to find magic in places and everyday objects a gift when it comes to creative activities like writing and photography, it can be a curse when it comes to moving forward.

I think I was so afraid to begin sorting because I felt that doing so would be like watching a slow parade of significant moments in the Chilean life I'm leaving behind. As the process continues, I know that practically every item I unearth will embody a memory that I'll be afraid will vanish forever if I don't hang onto the object itself.

I've had to try to make myself comfortable with the idea of forgetting. After all, if I refuse to let some things escape my brain, there won't be as much room to remember the most important aspect of my life in Chile: the people who have made it what it is. I like to think that every time those people draw their magenta curtains or put on their sparky green sunglasses, they'll remember me, too.