Well, I have completed my first midterm week in Chile, and yes, it is almost May. Due to the season inverse, the fall (which is our spring) semester did not start until early March. The past few days of intense studying have me reflecting on some of the distinctions between being a university student in Chile and the USA. For starters, the fotocopiadora (photocopier) is a Chilean student’s best friend; books are incredibly expensive here (thanks, neoliberalism!), and so I have made many trips from the library to the copy center with a bundle of libros (books). Chileans are notoriously unpunctual--a characteristic embraced by its students. There are some folks who consistently show up to class in excess of 20 minutes past its starting time. Most of the professors don’t bat an eye at the tardy students, however I have one professor who locks the classroom door at the start of class.
The cueca and the rodeo, especially in combination, are about as Chilean as apple pie and milk are American. I learned that this Sunday in a small mountain town tucked away in the Andes, where I adventured with my study abroad program for one of the final legs of an awesome weekend-long adventure throughout the “fifth” region of Chile (there are 15 in total). The cueca is the national dance of Chile of a beautiful folk variety. Its implementation varies from region to region; in the Andes, the steps reflect the pride of the hauso, the skilled Chilean horsemen, and also are infused with a bit of Mapuche (native Chileans) flavor. Both dancers (male and female) wave a white handkerchief while they dance in a circular motion, periodically coming in towards one another, the man waving the handkerchief at the feet of the lady, fiercely tapping his boots equipped with stirrups against the dusty earth. The vibe of the dance is very festive, with the audience clapping along, as well as hooting and hollering. We witnessed two very young Chileans (I mean probably each with only 5 years of life experience) perform the cueca, with an incredible amount of poise, grace and execution. From my understanding, in this line of Chilean folk tradition, the cueca would be danced after the rodeo, which is much less charming. Here are the components of a Chilean rodeo: a stone circle (with gates), two horses mounted by two hausos, and a cow. After a presentation of the hausos, the cow is released into the circle, and is promptly herded by the hausos and horses. One horse is adjacent to the cow, forcing it against the stone wall, and the other horse is behind the cow. The hausos pursue the cow around the circle in this formation, receiving points from the rodeo judge for keeping the cow moving and occasionally reversing direction. The cow is having no fun, as is evident by its numerous attempts to scale the 10 foot high walks. Then, after the cow has been run in a circle several times, the hausos focus on the fundamental goal of the rodeo; knocking the cow into the wall. Literally, this is the most critical part of the event, in terms of points for the hausos and “entertainment” for the spectators. At a certain spot in the wall (at this particular rodeo there was at least some straw padding there), the hauso adjacent to the cow attempts to turn his mighty horse into the cow at the right moment so that the cow is lifted off its feet and thrown into the wall. This is done at least two times--more if the cow is particularly stubborn. Each pair of hausos has two opportunities to complete this sequence, seeking to maximize their points. While I appreciated the cultural significance of the rodeo, I will not be looking to build a stone circle in my back yard anytime soon. I imagine the line of thought of the inventor of this sport to have been: I’m bored. Well, I’ve got some stones, two horses, and a cow. Let’s ram that darn cow into the wall!
“Why are Americans so afraid of strangers?” This was the question posed to me last night in Parque Montegrande (a public park in the neighborhood of Los Condes) by Eduardo SN (abbreviated last name for privacy), a fifty year old professor of the Spanish language who hails from a sleepy town in the Los Lagos (Lakes) Region of southern Chile. I had come to Montegrande in order to rehearse an academic presentation for the following day, and also to enjoy the cool breezes and tranquility that characterize the park at night. Eduardo (who was visiting relatives in Santiago during his summer vacation) had come to Montegrande in order to walk his cousins’ dog, who had drifted in my direction while I sat on a park bench reciting my academic spiel. After exchanging pleasantries, Eduardo took an interest in my presentation on Chilean artist Roberto Matta, and given his profession (as well as the fact that he taught at a university in Alabama for five years), he was able to help me improve my grammar and pronunciation. The topics of our conversation ranged from the intricacies of the Chilean accent/chilenismos (phrases and words that are distinct to this country) to the mentalities that allow us to enjoy our lives in a joyous and positive manner. When it was time for us to head on our respective ways, Eduardo suggested that we exchange email addresses and cell phone numbers. I hesitated for a second, mostly because I still can’t remember the number for my Chilean movil (cell phones are only assigned 8 digits while land lines receive 10), but also as a result of that warning which was ingrained into our consciousnesses as young Americans: "Never talk to strangers!” As though he was reading my mind, Eduardo joked, “I know how you Americans are, always afraid to trust somebody new!” This was just one of the differences that he noted between Americans and Chileans. Another being that we "northern hemispherer" don’t understand how to properly enjoy a glass of pisco (a Chilean liquor distilled from grapes) or vino, as we are typically concerned with the inebriating effects of the drink, and thus ignore the potentials that a spirit has to solidify a friendship or connote an important situation. He further explicated that Americans act rather cold when exchanging salutations and goodbyes, limiting ourselves to handshakes given from an arm’s length apart. In Chile, women are greeted (by both sexes) with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, no matter how well you know the person. Men exchange brazos (hugs), and the male generation of Chileans that are my age also frequently give a quick peck on the cheek as well. This is not to say that there aren’t aspects of American custom that Eduardo doesn’t admire. If someone offers you a stiff drink in the states and you reply "no," you are not usually pestered any further, whereas in Chile a "no" connotes a challenge for the host to change your mind. I think that I surprised Eduardo a bit when I played along with the joke of Americans’ fear of strangers, and gave him my email address, phone number and hug (no cheek-kiss, as he made sure that I understood that his generation does not engage in this practice). And why wouldn’t I? Here was a respectable and wise professor who spoke very good English and crisp Spanish (he was able to refrain from the machine-gun rhythm of Chilean speech), had helped me advance my Spanish grammar/pronunciations/vocabulary and gave me some very valuable life lessons (we should imagine ourselves as bees, moving from flower to flower, only extracting that which is entirely wholesome). I have spent a good bit of time in American public parks during the night, and never came close to receiving the enlightenment that I gained in Parque Montegrande. I suppose we Americans live with much unnecessary paranoia and preoccupation that prevents us from interacting with those who we do not know. Perhaps we are so caught up in the day-to-day cycle of our lives, so consumed by material possessions, that we miss those wonderful opportunities to broaden our perspectives that come free from a friendly new face. If you are devoting your attention to someone with something meaningful to say, you are never wasting time; you are learning and maturing. But hey, in the words of Eduardo, “At least you Americans aren’t as cold and paranoid as the British.”
When conversing with each other for the first time, many American college students ask "Did you attend private or public school?" It is an inquiry as customary as “where are you living on campus?” Thus, many students respond with just a few words, and their conversations proceed to different subjects. But if you ask a Chilean university student about the administration of their primary and secondary education, the response will not be brief, and you might even find yourself listening to a manifesto. The reason for this complication is that “all the primary and high schools in Chile are private,” said Chilean native, Francisco. That is not to say there are no public schools. Public schools exist in name, but a Chilean public school does not receive funding through citizens’ taxes and receives very little in the form of federal funds. Therefore, students from kindergarten to 12th grade must pay tuition every year in order to attend school, no matter what school they attend. The only types of governmental assistance offered to the guardians of students are subsidies that do little to lower the cost of primary and secondary education significantly. “The basic cost of a Chilean (primary and secondary) education is 1.8 million pesos (approximately $3,715 USD) per year.