Its Christmas time here, but it’s a little difficult for me to get into the spirit especially after walking down to the center of the city today and seeing Santa and his Elves sweltering in the heat. I’m happy though. I made it through the commitment I originally had proposed to myself…that I was going to stay here and teach until the end of December. Next week I will be headed to Buenos Aires, Argentina and then to Uruguay, and Iguazu Falls and then up to Sao Paolo, Brazil…that is on a very small budget which involves taking a lot of very long bus rides. The summer months here are extremely slow as far as work and my friend invited me to stay with her and work in Brazil for a while. I plan to return to Chile…most likely sometime in February. During the winter months I was counting down the days to leave this place, because I missed my life in California, but now I feel so much more adjusted to life here.
Since I’ve been here, the Chileans have always asked me, “Why Chile?”, and I usually give them answers like being attracted to the mountains or the beach (which is actually where I spend the least amount of time). I also tell people that it was because I wanted to learn Spanish and people laugh knowing this is the hardest place to learn. And my other excuse is because of the Chilean economy, even though, as an English teacher I don’t make much money at all to compete with the high cost of living here. But aside from all of this, maybe this place attracted me or vice versa because I really think it was just the right place to mirror back to me, “me,” in so many ways that I would never have considered.
So many of my students speak of Santiago in a negative way. They speak of people that are unhappy with their jobs, people that are stressed, people that have a lot of fear…fear of knowing people outside their comfort zones and a fear of trusting each other. This is so interesting to me because Santiago is supposed to be the “ideal” because of its financial prosperity and its reputation for being for the most part “safe” and “secure” unlike other areas of South America where you have to worry about kidnapping and corrupt police. Parts of the city resemble the United States with huge shopping malls and Starbucks and wealthy people living in the hills. But, I sometimes wonder if all of this push for materialism is the reason for my students’ thoughts on the unhappiness of the people here. It makes me think of my experience living in South Orange County, California where people live in separation, no one knowing their neighbors and how rare it is to actually see someone outside other than their gardeners. Parts of Santiago, particularly in Las Condes and Vitacura have that same secluded vibe. My students also often speak of how this place lost a lot of its creative expression during the dictatorship and is still struggling to retrieve it in the midst of becoming a very materialist nation. In fact, the dictatorship helped boost this materialism. Maybe this is more true in Santiago alone, but it seems like a country that is trying to make sense of itself and its identity. They say that out of all of the Latin American countries, and perhaps also because of its geography being that it is so isolated by the Andes Mountains, Chile sets itself apart as the most introverted. Maybe this was the perfect place for me to learn about myself because that similar feeling of confusion, fear of money and success, and struggle to regain creative expression is exactly what I brought with me to Chile. And this is actually changing now, but I really discovered how I had been living internally in the time I have spent here. I felt this the many days I spent alone, most of the time sick, in my apartment during the cold winter months here. Particularly in August. That was the worst.
But, its summer now and I feel like I have woken up a little.
And I feel great.
Despite the distance I feel from the people as a whole, the people I have met individually are incredible. I think recently the thing I’ve been thinking about most is how great solidarity is. I feel this so much more in Latin culture than in the United States. I actually feel like people care and want to take care of each other. No matter how close I am to people here, I am always invited for lunch or dinner to someone’s house or taken care of when I’m sick. I think I’ve actually finally realized what it is to feel true compassion. I felt overwhelmed with this feeling for the first time the other night walking home from my friend’s apartment while I thought of my friendships here and how people have helped me and how people say I have helped them. My friend here actually helped me believe it. He actually made me feel real compassion for myself. Maybe I was never opened to that kind of feeling before. Maybe I never trusted it because in the US often we don’t believe in people in this way, we want to find the flaws in people, waiting for them to screw up, or we want to protect ourselves from something that could be false. For the most part, my friends here are very expressive with their feelings and show their affection physically and verbally without all the sarcasm that we have in the US. In fact, most of my students don’t even understand that word.
There are those small things here that I like that make me feel respected. Of course kissing is the main greeting and expected when meeting someone for the first time or seeing friends or friends of friends. I am always amazed when I come to someone’s house and even the little kids stop everything to come greet me and they do the same when I leave. It’s expected of everyone no matter what the age. In the US, often times the people closest to you won’t even get up from the sofa to answer the door for you, let alone have their kids acknowledge you. And I grew up this way, being allowed to dismiss my own company. This only ever trained me to assume that people are not important.
And, maybe this is why I want to stay a little longer here, because my thinking is changing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what is going on in the States with the Occupy protests and how maybe many of us are waiting and hoping to return to that same lifestyle we have always lived in the States with job security and the availability of mostly whatever we want. I think we have to accept the reality that nothing is certain and that striving for constant stability in life is sort of futile. What we need to do in the US is start focusing on helping each other and to stop living so solitary like we have in the past. So many of us (including myself) would never do anything for anyone if we did not feel that we were getting our fair share. This is something I see that no longer works in my life.
The common criticism I hear of the protests is that “there are no handouts in life.” I get that. But what about compassion and kindness? Do those things have to be earned? Perhaps we could stop criticizing the protesters and instead do and say things to help empower them. Obviously, they are people who have suffered. Does it matter how or why or who is to blame? It would be a bit more productive to give up this constant criticism of right and wrong and do something more real and affective for the good of our nation. How great it would be to actually help people see that they don’t have to live like victims and can change and build their own lives without the limitations of fear. I swear, the greatest thing we can do as a country is to be of real service to others no matter if we are being paid to do it or not. It’s kind of a responsibility we have as human beings for the good of humanity. We can only really do this through showing compassion and empathy, and through little things like actually listening to one another, and not through the joy of hearing ourselves tell each other what we are doing wrong. I have learned this through the relationships in my life and I can see where I have constantly treated myself the same way. It hasn’t benefited me at all to remain in this state of being.
I can honestly say that the greatest thing in my life is my friendship with others in the United States and here in South America. I think of this often and I am so grateful. I couldn’t survive being alone. We create each other and so I think we should honor each other often. I believe in this.