Things I See in Chile

Santiago19ki
I'll be living in Santiago, Chile for a little while. I'm here to learn Spanish, explore a new culture and country (as a resident more than a tourist, a longtime goal), and pursue some professional projects.

Why Chile? As Spanish-speaking countries go, if you value security, political stability, and a professional/modern business culture, your options are Spain, Costa Rica, Uruguay, or Chile. I liked Chile the best. I'll explain why later.

I've been here for two weeks so far and intend to semi-regularly post observations, lessons, and stories from Chile. I hope they will help improve my (and your) understanding of what's going on in Latin America today and offer insight on the experience of living abroad. Thanks for bearing with me through the miles and months ahead.

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Six random observations / lessons so far:

1. An entrepreneurial culture? Economically speaking Chile has been a success in Latin America. At current trajectories it will be the first LatAm country to join the club of first world nations. But for the next stage it needs to rely less on natural resources and more on knowledge-based industries. The government is offering an incredible set of incentives for tech entrepreneurs to locate in Chile. Yet incentives are not enough. To spur entrepreneurship and attract knowledge workers there needs to be an entrepreneurial culture. How the heck do you develop an entrepreneurial culture?

2. The Election. The first round of presidential elections are in a couple weeks. It's striking that the issues being debated are generally high on on Maslow's Hierarchy. When people start complaining about the hours the park is open, you know a country has taken care of the basics. In other words, people are starting to debate intangible social issues since the basic functions of government work correctly. For example, the country has finally gotten around to discussing rights for homosexuals. Remarkably, it's about whether gays deserve civil union rights, not marriage. The Catholic church influences this conservative agenda, of course. (For the same reason, abortion is illegal regardless of circumstances (such as rape) and divorce only recently became legal.) The candidates are also debating how to deal with economic inequality — I will address this in a future post.

Bottom line: The Presidential election in Chile is important inasmuch as the president has a lot of power in the political system. Congress doesn't have much say on the budget, for example. However, it's not an important election in the sense that none of the candidates proposes changing the successful status quo very much.

3. No Hablan Inglés. Chileans speak little English, say both the studies and my experience to-date. Sparse is signage in English and it's basically impossible to acquire English-language print media. I almost never hear English spoken on the street. The government is apparently trying to remedy this. A population that doesn't speak English is a population disadvantaged in the global economy.

4. I'm Learning Spanish.

  • You don't go to Chile if your only goal is to learn Spanish. First, Chilean Spanish is arguably the fastest spoken on the continent. Second, Chileans use higher-than-average slang and colloquialisms. Third, they rarely pronounce the endings of their words. Some ex-pats have told me that they can barely talk with Chileans in Spanish but they have almost no problem in a place like Costa Rica or Guatemala or even Mexico.
  • Fortunately, because there's so little English spoken, I get plenty of opportunities to mess up my Spanish when speaking with locals. When I do speak English here, it is usually with other gringos learning the lingo in Santiago. I've discovered that when I talk to another American in Spanish, it's always an interesting conversation. Every sentence a challenge! To find that right word or translation! It's been funny switching to English with someone and thinking, "Gosh, this person is actually quite boring." When learning a new language, everyone speaking your target language becomes interesting.
  • I've noticed myself be more aware of my body and body language. When words are difficult to come by, body language must be used to express ideas.
  • Speaking Spanish for awhile and then switching to English feels like picking up a light bat in baseball after warming up in the on-deck circle with the heavy bat. It's so light and easy!
  • The feeling of learning a word and then later hearing it used by locals. I like this feeling.

5. We Love American Pop Culture (Even if We Don't Like America). Latin Americans harbor some of the fiercest anti-Americanism I've encountered. (I haven't noticed this one way or another in Chile; I suspect Chileans are average in this respect.) Some of it is justified: the U.S. foreign policy record in Latin America is pretty terrible, recent projects in Colombia and elsewhere notwithstanding. Yet, as ever, American pop culture continues to dominate the air waves. In the metro stations, there are always music videos from American artists singing English-language songs. Last night, Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" was playing — most of the video is her dancing provocatively in front of an American flag. The Chileans around me watched the TV in the subway station, entranced. At the restaurant I went to tonight for dinner nobody spoke a lick of English, and yet the TV was playing a "Greatest Hits from the 80s" compilation of American music videos. At the gym, American movies are always shown on the TV.

6. Chile Needs Green-Tech Entrepreneurs. Locals are obsessed with conserving energy, turning off lights, etc. I've never seen so many green-friendly lightbulbs. Apparently they've been popular in Chile for years; only recently have they infiltrated the U.S. Chile has very little natural energy itself and it hates having to import it from Argentina. If you're an energy entrepreneur, consider doing business here.

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When I arrive in Santiago, I first note the sanity of the airport. There is no illegal taxi operation to speak of. You can tell a lot about a country by the sprawl of taxi touts.

My first day I spend at Plaza de Armas. It is a grand old square with stunning architecture and offers world-class people watching opportunities. The sun gently baths my back as I people-watch. People watching is not just entertainment. I learn so much. 20 minutes of sitting and observing a pack of teenagers brings the ideas of peer pressure and groupthink to life: the teen girls are constantly mirroring each other in the way the walk, flick their hand, or get excited. They are all dressed the same, too.

I find a gym near my house. ¿Habla ingles? I ask the woman working the front-desk. A momentary lapse of self-confidence in my Spanish. No. Hablame. she replies. She knows the routine. So I ask her in Gringo Spanish about the gym and prices. It is a successful conversation, and when I walk to the next gym that I had researched online I first ask the front desk lady, ¿Hola, cóma está? and the conversation proceeds apace. Day by day, by day by day.

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I see couples making out everywhere. On the subway. In parks. On the street. Everywhere: lips touching. A culture where kids live with their parents until marriage pushes sexual activity out into the public. I see men in plazas yelling religious enunciations until their throats literally give out, as everyone sits around half-listening. I see every person who walks past me as a potential pick-pocketer even though most everyone in this country is sweet and hospitable. I do not see anyone taller than me, ever.

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