Proper to our rustic, pioneering origins, we US citizens pride ourselves on our good ole’ individualism, our ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps unaided and a series of other mustachioed, cowboy hat-wearing expressions. This “I shot that buffalo, I deserve to eat it all by myself” attitude resonates profoundly within our society. In college, I earned my roommate’s eternal scorn after I helped myself to her Goldfish one night without asking permission. (To be fair, it happened to be a barrel the size of an adult panda, and I finished the box).
The Chileans I’ve know, by contrast, are significantly more communitarian. Any time any of my roommates cook, they’re sure to make enough for a regiment, and all food items in the house are up for grabs — cooked as well as uncooked. Open a fridge in most shared apartments or houses in the US and you’ll almost always find multiple milk cartons, sticks of butter, etc. While this could certainly be because all of that home’s residents are body builders in training, it’s more likely because that’s simply the way we view our food: precious goods bought with our own hard-earned cash to be consumed by the buyer and the buyer alone. Having adopted a more Chilean mindset, I no longer buy fruits or vegetables exclusively for myself. I do, however, have to check myself and not take total advantage of my roommates’ superior cooking skills, and remind myself that being able to make decent guacamole hardly brings anything to the table.
The difficulty with this one is that we — people from the United States of America — have no proper adjective to refer to ourselves. Our historically preferred term, American, is offensive to our neighbors to the South (so far I haven’t heard a Canadian complaint, but I’m willing to bet there’s a Facebook group out there staffed by angry beaver cap-wearing Northerners), for sound reasons. While its ethnocentric and jingoistic connotations are certainly not on most of our minds, they’re nevertheless present due to our nation’s history of paternalistic and invasive foreign policy. The US’s less-than-underhanded participation in Pinochet’s installment should be enough to check any Gringo from ignoring this fact in Chile.
So it’s a pain in the ass to have to engage in verbal acrobatics and say “I’m from the US” (since “I am US” is caveman-like and incorrect), but ultimately, it’s proof of some degree of cultural sensibility (even if “US” is as imperfect a description as “American”). Plus, even though it’s a mouthful, there is a term in Spanish — estadounidense — to get you out of that sticky situation. However, since we don’t have an English equivalent — and Unitedstatesian sounds like an invading alien force — I’ll use the term “American” throughout this article for simplicity’s sake.
Here’s a typical tale of Gringo woe: out and about with a group of acquaintances, one will propose you all go camping the following weekend. You, happy little foreigner, will spend the following week declining all other weekend invitations, joyfully boasting about your upcoming trip / the fact that you have friends. And then at the appointed hour, backpack at the ready, you’ll call up your friends to meet up, only to be met by utter confusion. “Camping trip? Oh yeah… we did talk about that… but no weon, can’t make it.” And there you are, alone and friendless in Santiago.
Eventually, you’ll learn not to put too much stock in theoretical plans. While we Americans are very likely to plan parties and organize weekend getaways weeks in advance, most Chileans are of the let’s-wing-it school. In my experience, it hasn’t been rare to be having a few beers with friends and then and there, decide to go camping the following day (meaning in a few hours). Luckily, the mountains are never far away.
So you’re left with two options: either bind your Chilean friends to fineable contracts, or resign yourself to the unpredictable.
While Chileans are far from the worst when it comes to punctuality (I’m looking at you, Argentineans), their notion of time is still light years removed from Americans’. A common saying in the US — “If you’re on time, you’re already late” — is downright preposterous in Chile. In fact, if told a party begins at 10, it’s a matter of politeness to arrive at least an hour late since your hosts wouldn’t dream of anyone arriving “on time” and would undoubtedly still be getting ready themselves.
Besides a few lone, disoriented Deadheads, no one’s hitched in the US since caftans were considered appropriate formal dress. Standing on the side of a major highway with your thumb out would probably result in a few bewildered stares and only draw sinister trucks with machetes stashed in the back. A staple of Chilean travel culture, however, hitchhiking here is quite normal and encouraged. Buses are expensive and unless you’re part of the country’s elite, planes are out of the question. Naturally, precaution ought to be exercised, especially as a woman. But the overwhelming majority of my experiences have been lovely and allowed me get a better glimpse of the country’s local cultures (not to mention put my understanding of Chilean Spanish to the test).