I was just on vacation in the US for about a month, and am now back in La Serena quarantining, so I’ve been thinking a bit about this weird double-life I live, half in the US and half in Chile.
I am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to live and work in Chile. I have always wanted to live abroad, not necessarily forever but at least long enough to feel like a local. It was (and still is) important to me to leave the United States bubble, to step out of my comfort zone and really immerse myself in another culture.
Since my father’s side of the family is French and most of his cousins live in France, I always assumed I’d go over there for a bit sometime after college and teach English or something. I didn’t grow up speaking French but I learned it pretty well throughout high school and college, and I was exposed to the culture from a young age. Living there would definitely be an adjustment but not insurmountable.
Chile represented (and still represents) a more unique challenge for me: a language I didn’t know, a continent I’d never visited, a geography I was not familiar with, a country whose food I’d never eaten at a restaurant, a culture I didn’t know anything about except for the existence of condors and dark skies for telescopes.
It’s been both fun and exhausting to learn through trial and (an incredible amount of) error how to exist in this new, foreign space. Through 2019 and 2020 I was living in Chile for long stretches, but never more than three or four months at a time without a trip home to the US. It was never part of the plan to just disappear to foreign country — I was expecting frequent travel home for myself as well as visits from friends and family and most importantly, my partner. The pandemic threw an ugly wrench in all of that and from January of this year I ended up staying in Chile for a little over seven months straight, a personal record. Not one I’m proud of, though.
I like to think that I’m a strong, independent, capable person. Maybe in the US that’s true. Not so much in Chile. It’s hard to feel like myself here when I struggle to communicate fluently. My Spanish is good, even great, but that doesn’t help with the cultural references to Chilean TV shows that were popular a decade ago or Spanish quotes from a viral youtube video or slang terms whose meanings I can only guess at. Of course, I can ask about all the things I don’t quite understand, but it ruins the flow of the conversation, and explaining jokes is always kinda weird and makes them less funny. These things come only with time, excruciatingly slowly.
I often joke with my US friends that when living in Chile, the thing I miss most is being funny. Sure, my jokes are mostly terrible, as anyone reading this blog can appreciate, but I like to think that’s part of the charm. Plus I’m too lazy to think of better ones.
It’s a work in progress but I can appreciate that things are improving. I also have a lot more respect and patience for foreigners trying to communicate in English, whether they’re trying to practice rudimentary greetings or just completely missing my brilliant English puns. I suppose I can even say that I’ve reached my goal — I’m definitely out of my comfort zone, and am finally enough of a local to know where to buy the best avocados, and which streets to avoid on Saturday mornings because of the farmer’s market, and just how late it’s appropriate to show up to various types of gatherings.
That last one depends a lot on context, but it turns out that never too late is a valid answer, which is deeply confusing and upsetting to my gringo watch. Mostly, it reminds me that I can immerse myself in a culture and still never understand some of the nuances. I’d exchange my gringo watch for a Chilean one but I don’t think those exist.