Sunday, September 28, 2008

What do Chileans think of gringos?

This is in response to the group blogging that Kyle has been organizing. Go check out her blog for links to other participants' blogs.  

I've been resisting reading everyone's posts so I won't be influenced by things people have already said, but I imagine I'll repeat things here just because many of us have a lot of shared experiences. Nevertheless, here goes. 

What do Chileans think about gringos? My gut response to this question is simple: I haven't the foggiest idea. In fact, most of the time when I catch a Chilean unabashedly staring at me, I shout (internally, of course), "What in the **** are you thinking? Is there food on my face? Is my fly open? Does the capitalistic society I represent disgust you? Do you find my obvious foreignness fascinating? Are you thinking of every MTV stereotype and applying it to me?" Although to be honest, I'm usually just thinking, "Please stop undressing me with your eyes. Please. Right now. Now? How about now? No? ****it."  

But the question is not what Chileans think of me necessarily, it is what they think of gringos in general. But I have a doubt, as my students like to say. First of all, do we interpret this as gringos in the States, or expat gringos? Is there a difference? In my experience, it totally depends. For example, it seems that for some it is particularly difficult to understand why a gringo would leave the US, especially to go to Chile. A friend of a friend once asked me, "What are you doing here?" I told him I was, well, um, living here because I wanted to experience life outside the US and be in Latin America. He was dumbfounded. "But why? The US is so much better. Everything works there. Life is so much nicer and easier." This understanding contributes, I believe, to what seems to be a commonly held perception that the gringo has it made: money, cars, a house, etc. With the help of television and Hollywood, this perception is often taken to the next step: the gringo is a spoiled creature with an easy life. Living here, I have learned the influential power television has over the perceptions held by the masses. Many a time a Chilean has asked me, full of curiosity, if we really are like those teen movies they always see. Are our high schools overrun by cliques of sexy stick figures and hulking football players? I never really know how to respond except by saying, well, according to my personal reality, no, but I imagine in some places yes, although it is most likely an exaggeration of a truth. 

Speaking of truths, a student of mine (grown man, very high up in the production company he works for) often likes to tell me how gringos are. Just the other day he told me that all gringos have huge cars. I tried to tell him that yes, while many do, there are people who choose to have smaller cars, or hybrid cars, or (gasp!) no car at all. They do exist. He informed me that I was wrong; "the gringo has to have a big car, it is his way". Thus spoke Mr. PP. 

In terms of personality, however, I have heard some interesting conflicting perspectives. During a conversation where I was the only gringa, I heard of the shameful character of "the gringo" from someone who had firsthand experience with them (it seems they had all forgotten I was in the room, or that I was a gringa, because no one thought about their experiences with me...I was invisible, which is surprising because I am usually the gargantuan white elephant in the room, so to speak). In this situation, these people railed on the gringo as "cold" (probably the most common criticism), not affectionate at all and very difficult to get to know. The men are all business, the women all self-obsessed, and instead of raising their children, they spoil them. 

At the same time, however, Chileans have told me how friendly gringos are, often using the term "buena onda", they are fun to be around and know how to have a good time. For example, when D came to the States to visit me (over 2 years ago) he was pleasantly surprised by how warm and welcoming my family and friends were. It seems, similar to Chilean culture, if you have an in, you can learn a different, often more positive aspect of the culture and the people. 

It is difficult to demonstrate all the different perspectives I have come across and some days I think it's all horrible, others all superficially positive. Suffice to say, my life here has been terribly easy thanks to the fact that I am white. If I could count all the times I've tried to field questions and dispel myths about African Americans, well, I can't. And that, my friends, deserves its own post. 


Mamacita Chilena said...

Hahaha, the stop undressing me with your eyes part absolutely cracked me up!!!!

It is weird isn't it, how some Chileans are very set in what they believe about gringos, like your Mr. PP and no experience to the contrary is going to change their minds!

Gonzalo said...

Well, now i know what gringos do think about chileans...

Maeskizzle said...

I think life in the US is easier too. In basic ways, like finding a decent job. What the Chileans who ask what we are doing here perhaps don't think about is that, we, unlike them, can move back to the United States at any moment.

Emita said...

Kyle - yeah, Ive had many experiences like my Mr PP story...I'm not sure where exactly that comes from, must dedicate some time to figuring that out, perhaps.
Gonzalo - I'm confused. What exactly are you referring to? I'd like to respond, but I'm not clear on how you know what gringos think about Chileans.
Heather - Yeah, I purposely decided to not include whether I agree with these perspectives or not, my post would have been centuries long! Many of the stereotypes I've encountered are rooted in truth if not just down right true!

Shannon said...

I try to ignore the whole staring thing until the guy gets that drooly look on his face. Then I get creeped out and give him the most evil looking face I can. And of course he still chooses to stare at me so I walk to the end of the metro train so he can't see me.

Sara said...

I was asked once if I had been a cheerleader. Uhm... no. I was about as far away from that crowd as physical and humanly possible. The response: Oh, I thought all gringas wanted to be cheerleaders.

(Now, this is where I seriosuly apologize to anyone who is or was a cheerleader.)

Not any self-respecting girl wanted to be a cheerleader. I can swear that to you.

Emily said...

I also get the question about whether high school was like it is in the movies and have to say that at my super small all-girls school it definitely wasn't! UCLA seems to meet peoples' expectations better, what with red cups and kegs, although there are plenty of things I still have to explain (sorority, lacrosse) and it's hard for people to understand that I've only been surfing once and do not know any famous people, although that also happens in other parts of the US, so it's not just a Chile thing.

Maeskizzle said...

Talking about things Chileans ask us...I'm surprised no one's mentioned this one (or at least I haven't come across anyone mentioning it): Chilean women have asked me several times if gringo weddings are really like in the movies? To which I reply: And how are they in the movies? They say: You know, with those horrible matching dresses that the girls wear, that look like "repollo" (cabbage). Apparently the big puffy, A-line skirt has the round shape of cabbage.

Shannon said...

I'm pretty sure I saw you last night at the Basic Bar, I was too chicken to say hi, cuz I wasn't for sure for sure. If you were there, sorry, I'll say hi next time!!!

Sara said...

Yes... I found your blog through the group blog thingy.

It would be fun to get together sometime and swap stories. My email is

You can add me on facebook if you want.

Barbara said...

I think you move into a whole different category when you speak Spanish fluently. My Spanish was passable, but never socially fluent. I always experienced extreme friendliness from my Chilean counterparts, but I'm sure it would have been quite different if I had been fluent in their language.

They did have an exaggerated view of what life in the USA was like.

Adam said...

Interesting insights. I think a main factor in the Chilean astonishment over "why in the world would a gringo come (voluntarily) to live in Chile" comes from a lack of pride by many Chileans for their own country and culture. I've found that many locals, especially in relation to the arts, feel that foreign is good and Chilean is bad. Please understand that I am NOT saying that Chileans do not love their country or customs. I have just seen that despite their sometimes hostile nature towards the gringo/foreign culture, they still look up to it in a way.

On the other hand, I feel like this self-loathing sentiment is dying among the Chilean youth and that we are currently witnessing an exciting rebirth of the culture.

Great post.

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