There’s something that is quite evident between Chileans who live outside of Chile, something that I too used to share with enthusiastic vigor. There is a tendency to idealize this country and recall with a deep sense of nostalgia all the memories ever created during the time spent in this narrow land. It wouldn’t be fair to begin this blog immediately removing myself from this since in reality I spent the majority of my life in the exact same state of mind as those I now observe as quite nostalgic.
Growing up as “foreigners” wasn’t an easy feat in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially during the early 80s when being Latin wasn’t necessarily celebrated. Sure, it could have been worse (we could have been living in the middle of Kansas or Minnesota) but it took a bit before being Latin was actually celebrated. Even as I recall high school and certain “movements” by the Latino groups, this was mainly centered around Mexican-Americans, who, let’s face it, far outnumbered the Chileans. As such was the case, the small close-knit group of Chileans who lived in the Bay Area had a reduced network of neighbors and peers who “got” what it meant to be Chilean and who understood firsthand all the idiosyncrasies involved with being Chilean. My thought is that the likelihood of building and sustaining nostalgia bubbles involving all things Chilean was much, much greater because the real thing was much, much farther (it’s not like we could walk down the street and hit up a Chilean restaurant just like that.) Everyone who surrounded you felt the same distance, the same void, the same yearning to be closer, the same awe, the same patriotism and much, much more. The result was always the same when groups of Chileans got together: it was as if celebrating the 18th of September each and every time. Cuecas (Chile’s national dance), wine, “ensalada a la chilena,” a good asado produced our own little Chile no matter the occasion. – birthdays, anniversaries, marriages and even 4th of July resulted in the creation of a little Chile.
The fact that we were greatly outnumbered by Mexicans and Central Americans only perpetuated the nostalgia bubble. It was as if being the cheese that stands alone meant that it was our duty, our calling, our right, to show the world “We’re Chilean, dammit! Not Mexican! We don’t eat burritos!” (Actually, neither do Mexicans.) And in feeling this national pride, we tended to migrate towards others who shared like sentiments and who would join us in talking about how great Chile was or who would take the time to comment with us on the breathtaking, majestic beauty of the Andes Mountains. If we came across Chilean tourists it was if we’d been reunited with a long-lost sibling and we bombarded them with questions about “la patria” – now I realize that in acting this way, I’m sure that the visiting Chileans pretty much surrendered to the fact that Chileans who lived abroad were weirdos. We stopped at nothing, even inviting them to our homes for an “asado” because LORD KNOWS they must miss it, right? I mean, we did!
The distance between San Francisco and Santiago meant that when you took time off to vacation in Chile, you went for at least two weeks. Some people, like my mom, rarely went for less than one month. ONE MONTH of vacation, can you imagine? But people did this and no one thought anything of it. During that time, you jam packed your days traveling from north to south, to the coast and back again and made sure to visit each and every family member and friend who ever meant anything to you, even if that meant having back-to-back asados. It was great to visit, especially during summer in Chile, because the family would usually try to coordinate their vacations with yours. You can imagine the nonstop fun that resulted with a handful of people on vacation, ready to let loose, go to the beach and have themselves a whole heap of fun. You’d spend Christmas and New Year surrounded by family, enjoying the hot weather, eating, drinking, dancing and being merry. All of this was quickly compared to the cold, gray, desolate life you returned to when you went back home to the San Francisco Bay Area and of course, you quickly saw Chile as the only place in the world where you could possibly be happy.
Immediately returning from sunny, warm, family-oriented vacations, it was easy to recall the memories of a short time ago, when you were setting the table for “once” (tea time), going to the grocery store to pick out the meat for the asado in the evening, opening a bottle of red wine so that it could breathe or sitting down with a “pucho” (slang term for cigarette and no, I don’t smoke) ready to discuss the latest happenings with friends or friends of friends.
I was part of all this, an active part of all this. Nothing was better than Chile. Chilean wine was better, Chilean seafood was better, the Chilean way of life, the fact that people knew how to balance work and life, the proximity you had to others, the way people knew their neighbors … I would be in awe just standing in line at the supermarket, listening to the Chilean accents all around me. Each and every single vacation abroad was to Chile and when I returned, I’d immediately calculate when I could return again. Back home, I had an entire wall in my apartment dedicated to Chilean artisan crafts. I had a sticker on the back window of my Jetta with the Chilean flag on it. I had a notebook that I carried with me to all meetings, in SF or elsewhere, with a panoramic view of Santiago. In short, I was obsessed with my “patria” and made sure to say it loud, say it proud, every chance I had – “I’m Chilean!!!!!”
Then, I moved to Chile and began building my life here.
There are so many great things about this country, it would be unfair to say that I was completely wrong to idealize it when I lived back home. But it would also be unfair to not acknowledge that living here is considerably different than visiting. One of the first things I realized is that there really isn’t a work/life balance. People work a lot and they work constantly. Vacations are usually reserved for 1-2 weeks in February and a week in August – that’s it. It just so happened that when I would visit in December/January, family members would coordinate their vacations with mine. The food is good, but honestly, there is much more variety and richer tastes elsewhere – notably for me, in the U.S. Wine is amazing but then again, I miss not having the option of a California wine, New Zealand wine or Australian wine. It’s just Chilean, all.the.time. Also summer here is suffocatingly hot and most of the time, you have to endure it in Santiago because an escape to the beach is 1) expensive and 2) requires reservations far in advance during the peak summer months. Also, I don’t really see any difference in the way people live their lives here in that, most of the time, people go on their merry way, following the routine of their lives and rarely weaving in and out of other people’s lives. In short, it’s not all that neighborly as I once thought it to be. One more thing: we don’t do “once.” In fact, I don’t even LIKE “once.” There was once a time when I truly longed for it. Now I just find it utterly mundane to repeat breakfast a second time around. Finally, unfortunately enough, I take for granted the fact that my entire family is here and that, as such, I could pretty much see them more often than I ever could. If not more often, at least, much more easily than before. I’m as much of an “ingrata” (ungrateful or, in this case, absent) as everyone else in my family and because of this, we never see each other! And it’s a damn shame.
When it comes to Chile and the nostalgia it promotes in Chileans who live abroad, I’m on the other side of the looking glass now. I see them and I hear them talk about Chile with a sense of longing and a sense of pride that I no longer share. I see their pictures of the September 18th celebrations that were held back home, and they enjoy it with 100% more patriotism and passion than I’ve seen in the two dieciochos I’ve spent living here. Their Chi-chi-chi, le-le-le’s are louder and more heartfelt, especially compared to mine, which haven’t been uttered in well over a year. When I see these people on Facebook or in person, hear them over the line or in front of me, I no longer recognize those sentiments – ones that used to define me as a person! It’s like I’m looking at a picture of a great-great-great grandmother and trying desperately to find a nose-hair of resemblance.
I don’t recognize myself in them, or in their sentiments anymore, and I can no longer relate.