Am I a cultured person: Living in Chile part 1

Moving to another country isn’t just about learning the language and how the taxation system works. You actually have to learn social interactions all over again. I feel like I’m in kindy and the teacher is telling me how to play nice with other kids. Except there is no teacher and I’m working it out on my own. Pretty much every day I learn something new through trial and error. But mostly error. Here are a couple of things I learnt about Chilean culture this month:

  1. Everything in Chile is small

Or so I thought. Chileans add the diminutive “-ito” to the end of pretty much every noun. The first time we went to markets to buy fruit and veg, José asked for a “kilito” of cherries. My inner nerd freaked out. How can you have a little kilo of something? It’s a standard measure of weight! And I really want a whole kilo of those cherries, they are so cheap and delicious….

José had to explain to me that, in Chile, everything is small.

For example instead of saying “jugo” (juice), a Chilean would say “jugito”. At first I was bewildered that everyone was offering me small-sized portions. Do they think I’m fat? I know I’m taller than most women here, but geez, gimme a regular-sized juice, please!

I still haven’t quite caught on.

  1. The equivalent of a handshake in Chile is a kissawkward-kiss-little-girl

I am not a shy person. I like to meet new people. I usually have something to say when I’m at a party and enjoy making friends. But since moving to Chile, there’s nothing I can think of that’s more intimidating. Whenever we go to a party I spend about a minute psyching myself up just to say hello.

Let me explain this transformation.

When saying hello to anyone it is customary, especially as a woman, to kiss them on the cheek. Not that this was big news to me, since it’s a pretty common cultural act around the world. However, I grew up in a country where people shake hands a metre apart. So no matter how aware I was of “the kiss” I still cannot get used to going to a party and KISSING EVERYONE. And not just at parties. Once we went to José’s mum’s office and I had to kiss every people in her department.

You may think I’m overreacting, but there is some serious skill involved here, one that I haven’t had the time to hone like everyone else in this country. Here are some ways a simple kiss on the cheek can go horribly wrong:

  • Both participants go in for “the kiss” the same way and you end up doing a Bollywood dance with your head in an effort not to kiss on the lips accidently
  • You go in too hard and end up jabbing them in the face with your nose. Not a good way of making friends, trust me
  • The first time I experienced “the kiss” I mistook it for a hug and the other person kissed me in the ear
  • Hand placement is important, people. A lot of hand-eye coordination is involved with this aspect of “the kiss”. Usually I go for the opposite shoulder to the cheek I’m aiming to kiss and, in my experience, they go for the waist. But I’ve had a few awkward hand-placement malfunctions when the other person went for the shoulder too and we ended up jabbing each other’s hands with our fingers.
  1. Complementing people’s jewellery, clothes etc. is not a good way of making small talk

Chilean mums keep giving me things. So far I have accumulated in gifts: 2 pairs of earrings; a t-shirt; a dress; and a jumper (almost). I’ve been here 3 weeks.

How? By complementing their stuff. Trying to make small talk with people you don’t know is a challenge for most people, let alone if you don’t speak the same language. My go-to polite conversation with new people in Australia has always been “Oh, those earrings are lovely!” followed by some chit chat on where they are from, made-of, signify, etc.

In Chile this tactic failed me. One of the first conversations I had with José’s mum was about how I thought her amber earrings were pretty. That was just about the limit of my Spanish at the time and I wanted to use it.

She gave them to me. Not the outcome I was expecting and a little embarrassing considering I’d just met her. I tried to refuse them but she wasn’t having any of that. Reluctantly I accepted them, thanked her profusely and made a point of wearing them out to dinner.

Maybe I’m one of those people that just never learns. A couple of weeks later we went to José’s mate’s birthday party. All his family was there. Once again, I tried my “fool proof” small talk tactic on his mum. Literally the first thing I said to her after “hola” and “nice to meet you” was “lovely earrings”. It was met with “here have them, I’ve got lots”. I now have a beautiful set of evil eye earrings.

Am I a horrible person? Am I exploiting the people of the developing world, like so many whiteys before me? To be fair, it probably wasn’t very hard for the Spaniards to conquer that part of the world. I’m guessing it went something like this:

Spaniard: I like your gold, it’s really pretty.

El dorado-ian: Seriously? You’re so sweet. Here, have it. I’ve got plenty.

Spaniard: Oh well in that case, I love your land. It’s so lush and abundant.

El dorado-ian: Ah well, um, here, take it.

Spaniard: Don’t mind if I do. Here, have some small pox. Token of my gratitude.

I think I’ll just stick with the weather from now on.