My original plan was to write a new blog post every week during my trip to Chile, but every time I sit down to write, I can’t find a way to describe what I’m feeling, so after several incoherent paragraphs, I close my laptop and decide to try again in another week. I want to write, though. I want to record my experience while it’s inside of me because I know it will go away after I leave, so I’m determined to finish this post today.
To start, let’s go to the beginning: I’m an English teacher employed as a volunteer through a publicly funded program in Chile called the English Opens Doors Program. I’m living in a small pueblo in the Región de Aruacanía of Chile, located in the south of the country. I like living here because my town is small (pop. 2,000) and also Italian(-ish), by which I mean it’s a peaceful and strange place to live. I feel like a celebrity almost all the time (except when I’m walking alone in the countryside or locked in my room writing a blog post). I don’t really have an internet connection, except for a spotty connection on my phone that actually goes away when the sun sets (I have no idea why). I like to complain to my friends and family back home that it’s tragic living without internet, but I secretly kind of like it because I feel more immersed in my immediate surroundings. Although, not always. I’m still able to load tweets and mindlessly scroll through twitter (even if I can’t load the photos/videos). As I mentioned, my town is officially “Italian,” but there are more Chileans and indigenous people known as the Mapuche than there are Italians. Despite this, every Monday morning the students in my school sing the Italian national anthem, they’re required to learn Italian in school, all the restaurants are Italian, and my host mom makes the most delicious Italian pasta I’ve ever had. The Italian-ness of my town coupled with the thriving Mapuche community and the fact that we’re actually in Chile makes it feel like a cultural vortex that you’d probably be more likely to find in the U.S. than the countryside of Chile, but alas, here I am.
The town, Capitán Pastene, is the most generic, clichéd small town I’ve ever been to—and I’m from New England, a place riddled with the remains of small town dreamers. But here, sometimes it feels like time doesn’t exist, or that we’re simply caught in time, existing both within a romanticized past and an idealized future. Sometimes, everyday feels like the same day, and I worry I’m not actually alive, but living through a dream, and I’ll either be trapped here forever or I’ll wake up one day and everything I’ve learned will be irrelevant or immediately forgotten. I laugh to myself sometimes, thinking about how the MAGA supporters are the people who don’t want immigrants from Central and South America to come to the United States, when my life in Capitán Pastene is more like a slice from the 1950s (my host mom bakes bread every morning, my dad sits in front of the TV, kids play in the streets) than anything I’ve ever experienced in the United States. Sometimes, it genuinely feels like I’ll bump into a TV screen if I take the wrong step, confirming my suspicion that it’s all just a latinized version of I Love Lucy being played on a loop.
Aside from the cultural adjustment, I’m also learning how to be a teacher for the first time. I’m here to teach English to fifth through eighth graders in the local primary school. The Chilean public school system is notably different from the public school system in the U.S. and it’s been challenging to navigate. Originally, my plan was to have an ongoing conversation with the students about the benefits and drawbacks of learning English, but in the two months that I’ve been here, I haven’t had a single week without disruptions to my classes (either the students are pulled out for other activities or the classes are cancelled altogether). Due to these scheduling challenges, I can hardly develop a normal lesson plan for my regular content, let alone anything deeper. If the students aren’t actually learning anything, it makes it awkward to have conversations about why we’re learning. I wish there was more structure to my classes, but the difference between my expectations and my reality is just an example of how teachers need to be adaptive, flexible people who create and think as they work. Sometimes there’s a difference between theory and praxis. This is such an example.
Every week I spend in Chile offers me something new. I can barely get through a day without having a shift in my perspective/experience. What I mean by this is that I’m living in a state of perpetual confusion with information unfolding like a blanket: hidden from view until it’s directly in front of me. Although living like this is uncomfortable and I’d prefer not to feel confused all the time, it’s not unbearable. As time moves forward and my time in Chile grows longer, I’ve been growing more and more aware of my own culture and it’s arbitrary existence. Here, my culture exists inside of me, but that’s it. There’s no one in my immediate community to validate my experience or to confirm my behavior in the ways that I would normally expect people to validate me. Instead, my behavior is being judged from the perspective of the Chilean culture, and it’s awkward and uncomfortable for me because it’s not my culture. I do things wrong all the time (like sitting in my room for hours writing instead of hanging out in the living room with my host family), but my “incorrect” behavior is only theoretically incorrect because Chilean culture is not my culture.
Let me unpack this.
My identity comes from a small town in rural New England, and although the behavior I learned from growing up in New Hampshire is completely arbitrary, the culture of Capitán Pastene is also arbitrary. For this reason, neither culture cultivates behavior that is more or less correct—they’re both meaningless. When my host family expects me to eat bread at every meal, but I don’t do that, I’m able to theoretically understand that my behavior is “incorrect,” but there’s nothing about my behavior that’s inherently “incorrect” to me. On the other hand, when my host family watches me eat lunch without bread, they perceive this behavior as inherently incorrect because their culture has been constructed around the idea that eating bread during a meal is expected.
The strange part about all of this is that I feel entitled to my behavior because I know that somewhere in the world it’s accepted and even expected. It’s difficult for me to relinquish my culture. And when I do relinquish my behavior—like when I go downstairs to watch T.V. with my host family instead of writing in my room—I feel uncomfortable, like I missed an opportunity to be productive. As someone who might be reading this blog post from the comfort of her or his own culture, it might seem like an easy and obvious solution to simply put one’s culture aside for awhile to participate in the immediately available culture, but it turns out this is not as easy as it might seem. The problem, of course, is that culture is entrenched in our identities. I think a huge part of me doesn’t want to relinquish my behavior because this actually feels like I’m relinquishing my identity. And if I decide to behave more like a Chilean, it’s like I’m inadvertently admitting that my culture is wrong, which is like saying my identity is wrong. Which is basically just an existential crisis in the making. And yeah, if you’ve made it this far in my blog post, I’m questioning my identity.
My immediate reaction to cultural differences is to clench my mental muscles and resist the changes, but I’m human, and therefore capable of making deliberate decisions to relax my mind and participate in the activities that don’t feel natural to me (even if this means my identity will be threatened). The hard part is that I need to let go of my old culture to fully embrace the new culture. I can’t eat bread and not eat bread at the same time. I can’t sit in the living room watching T.V. and sit in my room writing a blog post at the same time. I need to make a choice. I need to actively release my old behavior and embrace the new set of expectations surrounding me as if they’re correct despite the fact that everything about them feels wrong. As difficult as it is, I need to practice admitting my way is the wrong way within this cultural context. It’s not easy for me to do this, but I’d like to practice being Chilean, so I’m going to try.
One of my dearest friends wrote me a letter recently, and he described culture like a mirror. He wrote that culture is like a bunch of mirrors facing each other, with each one of us represented by a single mirror, and when we meet other people from the same culture, our mirrors are parallel to each other, reflecting our own culture back to us. The more similar the cultures, the more parallel the mirrors, and the deeper the illusion of depth. He concludes by saying how this demonstrates that the understanding we have of ourselves is simply just a reflection of those around us. Remove the culture, and we can’t see ourselves anymore: we no longer know who we are. Our understanding of ourselves “has something to do with how much of ourselves we’re able to see reflected back in one another in different circumstances, and what we’re left with when your self isn’t recognizing itself” anymore. I think we’re constantly searching for people in the world who we can relate to in a “meaningful” way—those people who “get” us—but what we’re really looking for is ourselves. We just want to be recognized. We just want to see our reflection.
I’m certainly not finding my reflection in Chile, but as difficult as this may be, I consider it to be a really good thing. I relish in the discomfort. I haven’t figured out why yet, but I think it’s important to remove the mirrors surrounding us. Hasta la proxima vez. Ciao.