“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.