23 March 2011

Adrift in the Sea of Contradictions

Getting settled in a new home always brings a little bit of friction between one's customs and those of the new place. I love Puerto Natales and Chile in general, but certain things seem slightly strange to me. Almost contradictory, at least from my point of view and my cultural background.

Economic, social, cultural, and behavioral contradictions appear to abound in the small amount of Chilean culture I have experienced so far. They even work their way into construction projects (I magine the conversation among the guys building my bathroom went something like this...we put the light on without painting the ceiling...hmm...well, let's not take the light off and instead just paint around it so there is a circle of ot painted plywood...perfecto!) and the ways that teachers and students interact. 

I find that here in Natales the contradictions run a little deeper, probably because of the transient style of tourism that the town usually attracts and how small of a town it is. Part of the town is very clean, very moodern, and has a ton of coffee shops, outfitters, and restaurants. Once you walk past our house, the town begins to dissolve into fewer paved streets, fewer stores, and much more raw Chilean-isms. Time is flexible, hours at school are too...as are many things about how one interacts with others and how one is expected to behave. And then suddenly a rigid social rule rears its head, and the hapless Gringa has no idea she is in the wrong until she asks. 

Like my clothes. My host mom had said that I should bring my clothes downstairs when I needed to wash them. They were put out on the line, and they hung there for days. I figured that I just didn't know how laundry is supposed to work here and left them out there. They got soaked about five times in wind and rain. Still I waited. I noticed that Nelson (one of the men who lives here) had picked up his clothes, pressed and folded, from the kitchen. Maybe someone will get them and press them for me?

Two days later, my clothes had disappeared from the line but were nowhere to be found. Great, I thought.Someone decided to steal my only work pants. I asked my host mom about it, and her response was along the lines of, "Well, you have to get them of course. And iron. We don't have the time to do it." And then back to chopping carrots in silence.

It is fine that I have to do my own laundry (in fact I really prefer it) but a heads up would have been nice. And the fact that Nelson doesn't do his threw me off completely, since it didn't register that they do his for him because he is a man. As I am a woman, I am expected to already know how to do laundry perfectly and to expect that I will have to do it all without being told. How could a woman have been raised without that expectation?

People expect that everyone has the same background they do here, and they judge those who come from other backgrounds as ill-educated or slow or rude sometimes. Obviously I am not trying to be in any way (in fact I feel like I am doing everything in my power not to step on anyone's toes and to observe and adjust my behavior immediately) but some unspoken rules are impossible for me to know. And there are a ton of them. 

For example, I don't know the rules of the school. I also don't know the bell schedule. No one has told me either of these critical pieces of information, and the administrators and other teachers look at me like I am stupid when I ask them. Solution? Made my own rules. Probably there is some overlap, but still. When I asked for a written copy of the rules of the school, the administrator interrupted my halting Spanish and said, "The students know them, the students know them." And then back to her computer in silence. 

Bell schedule will just take another week to learn, and I am fixing it by setting an alarm on my ipod to ring when classes need to change (sonce the bells are manually controlled and not very reliable anyway). How could I have been raised without knowing all the school rules and schedule by heart?

My students also seem to think I must just be slow. They don't seem to understand that we are in English class and that we need to complete the activities in English, so they just complete the activities in Spanish and ask each other why I am so dumb that I don't speak Spanish. How could anyone have been raised without speaking Spanish? 

It is really hard to feel like an outsider who no one wants to help or educate about customs. Honestly though, this is probably nothing compared to how hard it is for people who try to move to the US from abroad. I feel as though we volunteers are paying for the massive karma debt that my own culture has put out into the world by experiencing it the other way around. 

And maybe all the things that seem to be contradictions are simply juxtapositions that I am not used to. Maybe my definition of contradiction needs to evolve. And maybe i'm over-reacting because this is actual culture shock instead of the "I'm at home!" feeling Italy immediately gave me. 

Funnily, the judgments people make about Gringos are starting to rub off on me. In Natales it is always possible to escape to a Gringo reality for a moment in one of the many coffee shops, but yesterday when I went to El Living (which was amazing, by the way! Real, actual coffee? I haven't had you for a month!) I was slightly annoyed by a group of Gringos who walked in and made a ton of noise and were talking loudly about how great of surfers they were. I was sitting here thinking, "Stupid Gringos..." 

So I am guilty of it, too.

I am certain it is a combination of these and other, hidden factors. And I am still certain that I am meant to be here. Just going to take an adjustment. Or five.

1 comment:

  1. Sweet Coleen, we are with you. God is with you. Be brave. Love, Nana