Lewis & Clark students share their experiences on campus and abroad
30 May 2015
I’m going to be home in less than two months. I’ll see my dad and sister in a little less than a month and a half. I’m excited to be home- there are so people I want to see, so many food cravings I’ve been having that just can’t be fulfilled here (case in point: I went to a Chinese buffet. It was really, really bad food and also served pizza/french fries), so many English words I want to use…
But I’m also sad. I’ve been here for three and a half months, and all of the cultural differences that were really difficult to face when I first came now feel like second nature. Because let’s be real, culture shock is hard. Like, really hard. Like, we had meetings before we left where former participants told us “listen up guys, culture shock is real, and hard to get through, but you need to work through it.” Naive, five-months younger me thought, “hey, it can’t be that hard, after all, how different can things really be in Chile?”
Let me count the ways:
1) When you get on a bus (micro) here, you tell the driver where you’re going, since you’re charged different amounts depending on how far you’re traveling. As a side note, this is intimidating to do when you’re not entirely comfortable with the language (aka me, when I first got here)
2) Relatedly, people often get on the micros to sell you things. It’s common for them to get on, force a pen or bandaids or a candy bar or whatever they’re selling into your hands, give their spiel, then come back around to collect what they handed out.
3) If you aren’t taking a micro, you’re likely taking a colectivo, which is like a combination taxi/bus. They look like taxis but only go on specific routes, and you share them with as many other people as will fit. I’ve only taken one once (with my host mom) because they kind of intimidate (or at least, confuse) me.
4) And if you aren’t taking a micro or a colectivo, then you’re taking the metro. Which also charges you different amounts based on how far you go (this is unique to Valparaíso, the metro in Santiago has a set fare). The metro is seemingly the only “public” transit (I say “public” because the micros and I’m pretty sure the colectivos are privately owned) that has a set schedule- everything else shows up when it shows up.
5) The grocery store is a whole ‘nother ballgame. The milk comes in boxes and is unrefrigerated, the yogurt comes in bags, the eggs sit unrefrigerated stacked one on top of another, the ketchup and mayonnaise also come in bags, what they call mustard is not like any mustard I’ve tasted before- it’s very sweet- and on top of all of this, the only brand name I recognize is Nestlé, which iseverywhere. Probably 50% of the products in the store are Nestlé. All of the things that would be General Mills or Kelloggs in the States are Nestlé.
6) Then sometimes you go to the grocery store and there are people modeling with the food. Modeling with the food! Women wearing aprons holding bread like infants in their arms next to the bread aisle and smiling at you. Other women holding mayonnaise. I’m not making this up.
7) Plus, it’s a little disorienting to go to the “foreign food” section and see some North American classics, like Milano cookies.
8) You tip the bag boys. Not because it’s the nice thing to do, but because it’s literally their only form of payment. There’s usually a group of 5 or 6 of them standing at the ends of the checkout aisles, and they switch out who goes up to bag, so that they all get at least some money.
9) Dealing with money is a little thing that’s been stressing me out for the past few months. First, I have to find the ATMs that don’t charge service fees for international cards (often the fees are as high as like $8). There’s one bank, Banco Estado, that I know of that doesn’t charge this fee.
10) Then I have to try to break the bills that the ATMs give me, since most just give 20,000 peso bills, which is about $33. At home, the biggest most people use is $20 bills, which almost anywhere will break, no problem. Not the case here. The only place that will consistently break my big bills is the supermarket, where I end up buying junk I don’t need just so I can have smaller bills that I can use elsewhere. Some ATMs give 10,000 peso bills, but a lot of places won’t even break those.
11) Speaking of money, it was hard to adjust to the conversion rate. Right now it’s at about 618 pesos to the dollar. Which is not easy math to do! I’ve gotten pretty good at doing it on a gut feeling, so that a price in the thousands of pesos doesn’t seem that expensive.
12) Some things are way more expensive that they would be at home. Chocolate, coffee, and a box of pencils are just a few things I’ve noticed.
13) But other things are way cheaper. A lot of clothing here goes for waycheaper than it would be at home. And that’s not all. I went to a store the other day that sells things like ceramic mugs, and they were selling them for about $3- and they were good quality!
14) How people view time/planning ahead here is very different. For example, at home, if I were traveling somewhere, I would by whatever bus tickets I needed a couple of weeks in advance. Not the case here. You often buy them the day you’re going somewhere. Same with tours. When I was in San Pedro we did an astronomy tour that we booked less than two hours before it left- for 15 people.
15) I hate being late- absolutely hate it. But it’s normal to be 15-45 minutes late to things here, including professors to class. Which usually means class ends up going that long after when it should have ended. The first month I was here, my host family planned a day trip and told me we would leave at nine the next morning. The next morning they made fun of me because I was ready to go right at nine. We left at ten.
16) Traveling as a whole is much more relaxed. Airports are not stressful. Security is set up diferently. Airlines give you meals, even on short flights.
17) Related to school, it’s very different. Most of my classes (except my class through the international student section of the school) only meet once a week, and rarely do we have homework. I heard somewhere that the difference between schools here and in the US is that US schools are very work intensive- you take a few classes and go very in-depth in them. Here, people take around 9 classes that each only meet once a week.
18) Students also just don’t go to class. There is a chunk of about 10 students in my camping class that didn’t come for the first two months.
19) There are also a lot of protests right now about the education system here (students want free and better quality secondary and higher education), which more than once has resulted to classes being cancelled. Which is a big deal, when the class only meets once a week.
20) As everyone knows, I live with a very sweet, loving host family. I care about them a lot. But having to speak another language all the time really gets tiring. More than once I’ve been half asleep and responded to a question in English. I remember earlier this semester my host sister asked me how to spell my last name and I automatically did it quickly in English. She looked like a deer in headlights. English words also find a way to mix in with the Spanish I’m speaking- just last week I told my other host sister “vamos a quedarnos en Ollantaytambo- se llama Ollantaytambo, right?” when I was talking to her about my family’s upcoming trip to Peru.
21) Plus there are a lot of differences about family life/how houses function that’s different here. We usually eat a big lunch around two in the afternoon, that I end up planning my day around.
22) Then we have once (usually bread/cheese/avocado/butter, sometimes sushi or pizza or completos– a hotdog with tomato/avocado/mayonnaise) anywhere between 7:30 and 9.
23) Also, living with a host mom, my food and eating is much more regulated than I’m accustomed to, since I usually live on my own or with a family that recognizes that I’m 21 and can make sure I’m fed on my own. Every day my host mom asks if I ate breakfast, and when I say I have, she replies “you’re sure?”. If I’m not home for lunch, my host mom packs me one. On the rare occasions that she forgot to make one, she insists that she gives me money to buy myself lunch. Likewise, when I get home late and miss once, she asks if I ate, and again acts skeptical when I say I have. I’m always being prodded to have more food. I really appreciate it, but I am looking forward to being able to feed myself a bit. Sometimes I don’t want to eat breakfast! It’s okay!
24) People don’t really drink water here. Whenever I choose water over tea/juice/any other drink here, everyone asks me why. Because of this, there are no drinking fountains anywhere.
25) You have to pay for water in restaurants, and specify with or without gas.
26) Likewise, people don’t really drink coffee. Instant is the go-to. This past weekend I went to a cafe that advertised they had coffee, and when I ordered it they brought me a jar of instant to scoop myself.
27) The houses here are not centrally heated, which I’m starting to notice since it’s late fall in the southern hemisphere and about 45 degrees at night. I usually sleep in a jacket and sweatpants and socks to keep warm.
28) Relatedly, my classrooms at school are freezing. I’ve started bringing gloves to wear during class.
29) Also relatedly, having to constantly convert between Celsius and Fahrenheit (as well as the metric system to the english system) is something that I didn’t really anticipate, even though I should have.
30) Back to housing, you have to light a water heater (called a calefont) in order to have hot water to shower.
31) Also, most houses have gates in front of them that you have to unlock in order to get to the door.
32) And few houses have doorknobs that turn- usually you put in the key and turn it while pushing on the door at the same time.
33) When greeting each other, women always do a cheek kiss, regardless of who they’re greeting. Men only cheek kiss women; otherwise they shake hands. And I mean everyone does this, regardless of if you’re meeting this person for the first time. The other day my friend and I were walking and this guy who owned a store we walked past came out and started talking to us. He talked for a good ten minutes about his life and his kids and living in Venezuela and the US, and he asked my friend and me about what we studied, then we had a conversation about the US is screwing the world over in terms of its carbon emissions, and also how all the copper in northern Chile is being mined by foreign companies. When we left ten minutes later, we all cheek kissed goodbye.
34) When you go to a restaurant, the tip is usually included in your bill.
35) Which you have to ask for, because they won’t bring you the bill until you do so.
36) Sometimes musicians will come play at restaurants (or on public transit), and then will go around and ask for tips.
37) Then there are the language differences. Chilean Spanish is practically its own dialect. The accents are really hard to understand- d’s disappear and s’s are dropped pretty consistently. They also speak really quickly.
38) Plus there are all of the “Chileanisms” that exist. Cachai– “You get it?” is often added after someone says a statement that could be taken as vague, at all- “So then we went to the store, cachai?”. -Po is added to the end of most sentences, just as a kind of filler- “ya po” is a common response to hear- “yeah!”. Guagua– baby. Fome– boring. Curado(pronounced “cura’o”)- drunk. Pololo/pololear– boyfriend/to date. Choclo– corn.Palta– avocado. The list goes on and on and on and I’m still learning a lot of new words. A lot of these have worked their way into my vocabulary.
39) Related to “cachai“, people often change the ending of the tú form of verbs. Usually it’s -as or -es depending on the verb, but here it’s often -ai, sometimes -ís. ¿Cómo estás? becomes ¿Cómo estai?. ¿Cómo te llamas? becomes ¿Cómo te llamai?. ¿Sabes? becomes ¿Sabís?.
40) There are a lot of automatic responses that I had to change when I came here. Permiso instead of “excuse me,” gracias instead of “thank you” (often dropping the -s from the word), chao instead of “bye.” These all come very easily now.
There are so many other things, but this gives you a somewhat comprehensive list of just some of the differences I’ve noticed. Again, by sharing these differences I’m not meaning to imply that one culture is better or worse than any other. It’s just different ways of doing things! They all get you to the same place in the end.
I’m already anticipating pretty intense reverse-culture shock coming back. One of my friends was back home for a couple of days and said it was really disorienting, especially the fact that she was no longer constantly surrounded by Spanish. She understood everything everyone around her was saying, and everyone understood her without her having to try to be understood. When I think about what I need to do at home, I plan what I have to say to set it up in Spanish (Oh, I’ll need to go to the dentist- I should ask them about this gap in my teeth- “hay un espacio que está formando entre los dientes que tengo en el frente de la boca“), and then I realize that I don’t need to be doing that. I’ve been constantly planning ahead and thinking about how to communicate here, which is something I take for granted at home. If this trip has given me one thing, it’s a lot more respect for people who speak English as a second language. It’s so hard.
I hope that I continue to grow throughout these remaining 42 days of my program as much as I have in the first three and a half months. That’s what I’m here for!
Email me if you have any questions! firstname.lastname@example.org.