Sunday, November 19, 2006

Are you Brazilian?

“Could I ask you a question... Are you Brazilian?” asks the lady working behind the counter at my neighborhood coffee shop. Someone asking me where I’m from is perfectly reasonable as my accent gives me away as a foreigner here in Chile. Nonetheless a Brazilian accent in Spanish is very distinct- like an Italian accent in English- and my Spanish does not sound Brazilian by any means.

“No, why? Do I sound Brazilian?” I inquire, playing along.

“Not really, you just have very special eyes. I’ve only seen eyes like yours a long time ago on a trip to Rio.” I was flattered, too bad the woman looked to be in her 50’s. But I couldn’t help but think, “what do eyes, even a pair as beautifully jaw dropping as mine, have to do with being from Brazil?”

Apparently reading my thoughts, she replied, “You just have that look to you.”

It doesn’t hurt one’s self-esteem to be taken for Brazilian, but the preceding incident is hardly the first time I’ve been asked something of the sort. I just have that “look” of ethnic ambiguity. I’m 5’7’’ with black hair, light brown eyes, and olive skin. I could plausibly be from a host of different places, and I get mistaken all the time for anything and everything across the olive-complexioned spectrum. Brazilian... Italian... Lebanese... the list goes on. But the situation gets messier once I reveal my true identity. “Soy de Estados Unidos,” I’m a gringo.

“¡No puede ser!” It can’t be! People respond in bewilderment, almost challenging what I've just told them.

Most people I have met here in Chile have a pre-conceived notion of what an American is supposed to look like, and I certainly don’t fit that bill. “I thought all Americans were tall and had blond hair and blue eyes!” they say, half to me, half to themselves.

“Well, George Bush doesn’t have blond hair or blue eyes...” I retort.

“Yeah but it’s not the same. He still looks American.” Not wishing to argue the point as to what an American is supposed to look like, I drop the subject and move on. But slightly different variations of the same conversation happen so often it begs me to ask myself, why do people here believe Americans are all lily white skinned blondes? After all, it's the United States of America, not Northern Europe.

Chileans come into contact with very few Americans. As I have written in previous posts, Chile is surrounded by natural barriers, the Andes to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the West. Moreover, it's far from the United States, very far. Because of the infrequent contact, they obtain most of their information about the U.S. and its citizens from exported American pop culture, namely movies and TV shows.

If you're in the US right now then turn on the TV and take notice. If the show you've just tuned into isn't marketed towards a minority group then the characters- while not necessarily blonde and blue eyed- have a vaguely waspish look. This is especially true of the American shows broadcast in Chile, Orange County being a prime example. On the big screen non-wasp looking actors are few and far between unless the movie is about drug dealing or the mafia.

After people here arrive to the acceptance stage of my being American the conversation moves on to this. "So, tell me, what do people in the U.S. think of Chile?" Basically all Chileans ask me this question. Okay, perhaps that's an exaggeration; let's say 99 percent of them. I should add that this represents a massive cultural difference. Would we, as Americans, ever ask a foreigner that question? No, probably not. It would be a very loaded question for an American to ask a foreigner, but it's more than that. We, to put it plainly, don't really give a shit. There are positives and negatives to that attitude, but it's true nonetheless.

But what do we Americans think of Chile? Take a few seconds to think... That's right. Nothing. Maybe we confuse it with Mexico or the Dominican Republic, but that's about it.

I've been in Chile for about nine months now, which really is not that much time. But what do I think of Chile? That's for my next post.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Update: La Pensión

About a month ago I moved from the Chilean household where I had been living to a pensión. The pensión, a cross between a boarding house and a hostal, has been great so far. It’s located in Barrio Brasil, a neighborhood in downtown Santiago that, while historically poor, is rapidly gentrifying. Santiago is basically an ugly city and there are not many memorable places, but Barrio Brasil is one of the few exceptions. It is one of the few neighborhoods with character, there are a lot of old buildings, hole-in-the-wall bars and cheap restaurants. There’s also a plaza with street musicians, a fairly size-able Peruvian population, two subway lines and a plethora of bus lines run five minutes from my new place.

Why did I move out of my old place? It just wasn’t working out. Officially I had been living with a “Chilean family.” Nevertheless, that is deceptive phrase. Often times, in an effort to genuinely emerse themselves, travelers choose to live with a host country family. In theory the idea sounds great, but it’s very hard to get a “family.” Many times the host family doesn’t take you in seeking a true cultural exchange, they’re just trying to find some extra cash. Other times it's just a person with a spare room rather than a family.

My situation fell into both aforementioned categories. I lived in Providencia, an upper-middle class Santiago neighborhood, with Chely- an old, grumpy, aristocratic Chilean woman- and her dog Wilburt (I swear to God that was the dog’s name). Willburt, a black lab so big he could’ve taken down a lion, was a great dog. Chely on the other hand was aloof and uninterested in most of life. She rarely left the house and was so fond of Augusto Pinochet (Chilean Dictator from 1973 to 1988) that she had framed pictures of him in almost every room of her home (a few were even signed). We hardly ever spoke for more than two or three minutes at a time and I can count on one hand the times we ate a meal together. Granted, Chilean mores are very different from American ones, but a picture paints a thousand words:

Chely employed a housekeeper, Rosita. There were miniature bells placed throughout the house and, instead of calling Rosita over to help with something, she would just ring the nearest bell. Imagine Rosita’s daily humiliation having to respond all day to a bell... Needless to say, Rosita didn’t stick around too long.

The only benefit to Chely’s place was that it was extremely cheap. But I finally found a different place with a comparable rent, so I peaced the hell out, nah mean?

Compared to Chely’s the pensión is astounding. I now have daily human contact at home. Most of the people there are Chileans from outside Santiago who have come to the capital looking for work. Almost all of them are super cool and everyone has a story to tell. A random gringo tourist or two is usually thrown into the mélange, and I’ve become the unofficial pensión translator (I’ve drastically improved since Legal Aid). To be sure, the pensión’s Crown Jewel, is the family that both administrates and lives there. There’s a mom and pop with their four daughters- ages two, six, eight, and ten- an aunt, and “la uelita,” the grandmotherly matriarchal figure who’s the true mover and shaker of the pensión. So ironically even though I ditched my Chilean “family,” I’m actually living with a real one now.

As food is not included in the rent, I’m also cooking on my own - it couldn’t have come sooner either, Chely’s food tasted like rain soaked five year old cardboard. I never really learned how to cook, so now I’m learning on the fly. It hasn’t been easy, a few weeks ago I messed up rice- don’t ask. But now, after some trial and error, I’m proud to say I’ve mastered pasta. I make my own meat sauce too, take that Emeril!

The only gripe I have is that I’ve been dubbed Martín. My first day there “la uelita” mistakenly referred to me as Martín. “Ummm, it’s actually Benjamín,” I politely told her. “Oh right, sorry,” she said. But she never could get it and kept calling me Martín.

After the umpteenth time correcting her she finally informed me, “look, I’m not young anymore, there’s a lot of stuff I can’t remember, your name being one of them. You look like a Martín, so that’s what I’m going to call you.”

I don’t know what the expression on my face conveyed, but- basically telling me to get over it- she then added, “but don’t worry, I like the name Martín a lot. It sounds really nice.” What could I do? So now I’m stuck for a while with this lifeless, colorless name. ¡Puta la hueá!