Today I went to church with my mom and some of her friends in Dallas. All Saints Lutheran, the church I grew up in, is experiencing major changes because of a vote on leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Thus I have returned to Texas without a church home and my mom has taken up “church hopping” this last month.
All I was told was that we were going for a Christmas message and that some major pastor who is on the radio a lot was preaching. Well, we pulled up in the South Oak Cliff neighborhood – not the ritziest in the Dallas area – and instantly I knew this was not going to be anything like All Saints.
First of all, the church was huge. The Bible Belt is known for its mega churches and this would probably qualify as one. The regular members have to take a shuttle because the parking lot is too small. Being visitors, we were able to get a spot nearby and as we walked in I instantly regretted not dressing up more. I also knew we were going to stand out as a minority as most everyone was black. This was going to be nothing short of a deep fried Southern Baptist experience.
Being there today reminded me a lot of how I often felt in Chile. Everyday in class, I knew that I was going to stand out. I knew that everyone around me knew each other from being in the same school of study and that though on the street I could sometimes blend in as a Chilean because of my complexion, they would be able to see straight through that in class just from my mannerisms. Not having a Spanish name or being able to fully participate in class discussions didn’t help to integrate me either.
It’s hard to be different and know that there is absolutely nothing you can do to fully fit in. I learned that in these situations, it’s best just to be friendly and not be afraid to ask for help. Most people are willing to talk with you if you don’t try to make yourself seem better than them. Even with that though, it’s hard to get over the element of foreignness. I feel there’s always this present tension of a sort of us and them. These type of situations definitely get me out of my comfort zone. The experience brings you into a whole new awareness of yourself and your identity. Sometimes it’s easier to know what you’re not versus what you are. I find that being singled out as different puts me in a sort of position with the group of being more of an observer and less of a participant. This could be good or bad, but I have learned a lot from it.
Today was a rare exception in which I felt this way in my hometown, but in Chile this feeling occurred almost daily. It was a struggle sometimes to go places that I knew not many other American students would be, but I feel that those were the experiences I gained the most insight from.
Today I was running at home and remembering my runs along the ocean side in Chile.
When I started, my host mom was very worried about where I would run and told me the place to go was the path along the beach and that it was there and only there that I could run. At first I was a bit upset. I didn’t like that I was being limited and I knew that while I may enjoy running by the beach now, after a few months of it, I would probably get bored.
Surprisingly, that didn’t happen. There’s something about the ocean, it’s always changing. It’s new and old. Though it’s always there, some days its calm, some days its a deep blue color while others it’s a brilliant turquoise, sometimes it’s angry, sometimes it’s timid. It was so refreshing to have it as my constant running partner, following alongside me wherever I went until I finally took the turn down 8 Norte and went back to my house. Being from North Texas and moving to Minnesota, having the ocean view everyday was new for me.
I’ve decided that the ocean is very important to Chileans. My host mom would always tell me how she had to live by it and when we went to Pablo Neruda’s houses, the guides always stressed how the ocean influenced much of his poems and writing. In fact, in Spanish when you are referring to the ocean in a poetic sense you change the article from el to la. La Mar.
Though the Metropolitana region which is home to Santiago is surrounded by mountains, I get the sense that the ocean still influences la vida chilena. The country is so long and has so many different climates, it can easily be segregated into various areas, each with their own unique culture. The one thing that they all have in common is the ocean. It’s like it connects them all to one another. It gives them a sense of isolation and a sense that there are bigger things out there. It’s mysterious and yet a friendly sight. Each time we would travel, we would go up or down the pan American highway, and the ocean was almost always by our side. Even in the dry Atacama desert, look out the window and there is the water. It became an unexpected source of comfort.
I am back here in the States, battling the concrete mazes of the city and suburbs. I miss my running buddy, la mar.
While in Chile I managed to find a group of runners that trained at the athletic center in Sausalito, only a 15 minute walk from my house. I only ran with them once a week, but they informed me of local races which was a great experience for me.
Over the course of my high school and college experiences running cross country, I’ve come to the conclusion that distance runners, and especially distance guys can be quite strange. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just that they definitely have their quirks and oddities that many guys who participate in other sports such as football and basketball find very strange. After spending some time with the distance runners in Chile, I realized that this is not unique to American distance runners, this must be how ALL cross country guys are, not matter what country they are in.
A major issue for distance runners is eating. While many sports want their players to bulk up, in cross country “‘fat doesn’t fly” as our coach says. Because of this, some of the guys on the team are a bit obsessive about eating. Not to the point of an eating disorder, but it’s pretty common to hear them scolding each other for eating too many cookies at Sorin or drinking too much beer.
One day at practice with the Chileans, I overheard them talking about how one of their teammates was getting too fat (fat to distance boys means more than 10% body weight). They discussed how he had been eating too many completos and going out to the discotheques too much. I was lifting weights and wanted to burst out laughing because they way they were talking sounded so much like many conversations I had overheard in high school and college from cross country boys.
Wearing short shorts is also a cross cultural piece of attire unique to long distance running in men’s sports along with streaking. Additionally, not having much skill at any other sport which involves coordination seems to be a theme. I have no idea what part of a distance running guy’s mentality causes these things, but after running in Chile there is no doubt in my mind that it is true of most men’s cross country teams around the world.
Training with the runners in Sausalito was a great experience and much like here, the guys on the team became some of my best friends. Even though I was far from home, I always had a dozen people at my races cheering the gringa on and high-fiving me after a race. I hope one day to run the Valparaíso marathon and I am sure some of the guys will be there, running hard and being their crazy selves.
In light of the Thanksgiving holiday, I was reminded very much of my time in Chile. Though I was there in the Northern hemisphere spring, which would be a time of less family gatherings if I had been in the States, I went to my fair share of gatherings with mi familia chilena.
There was always at least a dozen people present and upon entering the house, I was inundated with people, some familiar, some not, but of course we did the traditional Chilean cheek kiss and my Chilean mom would introduce me as her hija americana. For the most part, I remained a wall flower at these gatherings. I discovered it’s much harder to understand Spanish when a large group of people are conversing quickly versus when it’s a one on one conversation. Despite this, I always felt welcomed and warmly received and the times when I missed family gatherings because I was traveling, my host mom would always tell me that people asked about me and how I was doing.
We always ate meals around the same table, no matter how squeezed that meant we were. We would start off with a salad, move on to the main course, than have dessert and of course there was always tea and coffee after that. Though it could make for long meals, I enjoyed the fact that there was always something to eat because then it wasn’t as awkward for me. I also liked that no one ever told me I ate too much food, rather they usually tried to make me eat more than I could.
Being at my boyfriend’s house in Austin, MN for the Thanksgiving holiday was much different. I walked in the door, was hastily greeted by just a few interested people and then was on my own to make conversation with people. Half the family was already engrossed in the football game and barely moved from the couch the entire afternoon. I managed to give my two cents on a few items of discussion, but I was generally a wallflower there as well, even though we shared a native language.
I’m not trying to single out my boyfriend’s family, I’m sure his is not the only one in America that is like this, but never before had it hit me so hard how distant we can be from our own family. In Chile the whole family knew everyone’s business (which I don’t know if I would welcome this either), but family meals were truly about the family. Everyone wanted to catch up and share and laugh. The tv was never turned on, with the one exception being when my host father made a slide show for the grandma’s birthday party. All generations were included and they truly seemed to enjoy being around each other. My host sister would often stroke her grandma’s hand after the meals and my host parents were very affectionate.
I feel that sometimes here family dinners are seen as a sort of obligation. People just go because it’s the thing to do, the begrudge going, and are happy ‘to be out of there’. I’m not saying this never happens in Chile (I often noticed my host dad’s annoyance at my host mom’s sisters’ chattiness) or that it always happens in the US, as many families are different. However, it makes a noticeable contrast. I think American families could a thing or two from watching Chilean family meals.
This morning we had a breakfast with the CIJ students (Certificate of International Journalism) and Bill Buzenberg, director of an investigative journalism group. The international students were asked to go around and share some of their impressions of the United States and two main issues were brought up: Public Transportation and Poverty. I found this intriguing as differences with both of those issues were constantly on my mind during my study abroad experience.
The German students said that prior to coming to the States, they had heard that just about everyone has a car – and found this to be true. They said that they take public transit all the time in Germany and not having it here has been debilitating to their independence and mobility around the city. It also contributes to the idea that Americans do not care about the environment and are wasteful.
Their comments on public transit here reminded me of how much I utilized the buses in Chile. While the buses drove fast, tailed the cars in front of them and had competitions with each other to get more passengers, I absolutely loved them. My hometown, Arlington, Texas is the biggest city in America without a public transportation system. Living in St. Paul, I now am able to take the bus in my own city, but I hardly use it. Though I obviously did not have access to a car in Chile, I was not hindered at all from traveling anywhere. The buses and colectivos (taxis) run 24/7 and are pretty constant, especially during the day. You do not have to walk very far to be on a bus line and the frequency is high.
I loved not having to drive all the time. Sometimes in the States I drive so much I get sick of it. Plus, I loved being able to zone out on the drive and enjoy the scenery. When leaving Chile, I really thought that in St. Paul I would walk more and utilize the bus a little bit. That has yet to happen. In fact, I am quite embarrassed to admit that at times I drive the 4 blocks from my house to Hamline. I think it’s partially the structure. The buses here are less frequent, cost more and do not always have convenient routes. However, I also think it’s partially just that here time is so much more important. The bus can make you late, and I feel like I have more control in my car. Also, the bus is not pleasant. In my car I can be isolated from the people that are on the bus. I do not have to deal with crying babies or poorly dressed men that smell of alcohol or cigarettes.
This brings me to the second issue many of the exchange students have pointed out, poverty. Interestingly enough, the two issues fit together as most of them say the time the income gap has been most obvious is when they are on the bus. In Chile, everyone takes the bus. Even the upper middle class will walk and/or take the bus to places. Thus, the buses are a mix of all sorts of people. Beggars will often come on the bus asking for money or selling small trinkets. To go anywhere, even in upscale, touristy Viña del Mar, is to be confronted with poverty.
It’s so easy for Americans to ignore the poor. If you drive from your suburban home to work and back you can go most days without ever seeing a poor person, with the exception of the occasional highway homeless. Otherwise, it’s generally out of sight out of mind for many. I think the visibility of the lower classes makes a big difference in the way a society thinks about the importance of social change and priority of government.
Yesterday Caitlin and I went with some of our Spanish class to see Mixed Blood Theater’s production of La Casa de los Espiritus by Isabel Allende. Though our professor insisted that the play was pertinent to all Latin American countries because it does not specify a location in the novel, I knew that there was too much of Chile in the play for it to take place anywhere else.
Isabel Allende is one of the best known latina authors, but I feel that I hear more about her in the United States than I did during my time in Chile. Perhaps that is only because of the people I was surrounded by or my lack of understanding. Or maybe it is because her being the niece of Salvador Allende, their president who was killed in the military coup’s bombing of La Moneda, just discussing her novels is too controversial to be brought up in casual conversation.
It is understandable why, though I have not read the book, themes that were present in the play included rape, violence, torture, infidelity, poverty, abandonment, betrayal, politics, mysticism, feminism and sexual orientation. Allende certainly does not hold back in her writings. And she shouldn’t. The book was published in 1982, but many of the issues persist in Chile. Fortunately, they are no longer under a military dictatorship, but the political atmosphere remains charged with its legacy.
During my time in Chile, at times it seemed easy to ignore their past. The flourishing market and young generation that never experienced the dictatorial rule falsely cover the country’s wounds. It is rare for those who are older to be open about their experience. My host mom referred to it a few times, but it was always quieted, never a detailed description of what things were like.
While there, the country underwent the cambio del mando, or induction of the new president, Sebastian Piñera. He is the first conservative president to be elected since Pinochet and upset the 20 year legacy of the Concertación, a coalition of parties designed to form a bloque against Pinochet’s far right UDI (Independent Democratic Union). This seemed to point to a recovery from their past, which could be both good and bad.
Many students I talked to still widely revere liberal Chilean thinkers such as Pablo Neruda, Violeta Parra, Victor Jara and of course Salvador Allende. In a multitude of conversations in casual settings, Chilean college students would quickly turn the discussion into a political debate and many expressed their fascination with communism to me.
It was a very different experience for me to be in a situation where the majority of students were so willing to talk about political issues openly and so passionate about what the country should do. I think living in the United States where we have never been under a dictatorship like Chile, it is all to easy to take elections for granted. Even if we loathe the candidate that we did not vote for, there is a general sense that we will still be ok. But in Chile, the effects are hard to ignore. The gap between the rich and poor that was exacerbated during Pinochet’s reign exists and cannot be hidden when walking the streets of Valpo. This was perhaps one of several things that struck me powerfully during my time there.
It was like waking up from a dream. A very long, generally pleasant dream.
The plane landed in the at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The flight attendant instructed us to exit the plane in her North Texas drawl. I breezed through customs and stepped outside into a humid morning air. My mom and brother pulled up in front of the terminal in her white Volkswagen Golf, still missing two hubcaps. I placed my suitcases in the truck and backseat, the contents of which had been the only things I had ownership of in Chile. We drove home, I relocated my suitcases to my childhood room and sat down at the kitchen table to eat a bowl of Cheerios.
It seemed as though someone had accidentally recorded over a small piece of video of my life, but the original feature had returned to the screen. After spending nearly 5 months in a completely different hemisphere, I felt completely normal and at home.
The feeling was quite a contrast to my arrival in Chile. Having never been out of the country before, going through customs in Santiago’s airport and not being able to understand all of the instructions given to me was overwhelming. As I walked out of the customs tent and searched for my ride, I could not figure out where to go. Shyly, I asked an airport officer where the chauffeurs would be waiting. I headed meekly toward the direction he pointed. As I walked, crowds of taxi drivers shouted at me asking if I needed a ride, but I kept going, not having the slightest idea how I would find the driver the school had sent for me. I finally saw my name on a small poster and found that my driver only spoke Spanish. The hour and a half drive from Santiago to Viña del Mar passed awkwardly as I struggled to understand the descriptions he was giving me of things we drove by. I arrived at the apartment where I would be staying for the duration of my semester, incredibly nervous to meet my host family. She came and greeted me and showed me to my room and began rattling off directions and information about the daily workings of the house. I understood maybe a third of what she said. I quickly realized conversation was not going to be easy. I was exhausted from the plane ride, all I wanted to do was sleep, but I knew when I got up I would be starting yet another day of stress and feeling debilitated to communicate.
And thus began my ‘dream’….