For the past four months, I’ve been studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. As my final exams approach, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what I’ve learned here and what I will take away from this experience. Some of the cultural differences are huge; I’m living with a host family and direct enrolled in a university here, meaning that all my interactions at school and at home are in Spanish. There are other major distinctions, like the fact that Chile was under a military dictatorship less than 30 years ago and that machismo is very much alive and well in many daily interactions.
But while the large-scale differences have undoubtedly impacted my experience, the longer I’ve been here the more I’ve realized that it’s often the small, seemingly unimportant changes from home that shape my day-to-day life living in another country. Some of the ones that have most impacted me are as follows.
At first, it was definitely weird for me to transition from living in a dorm at Oberlin to living in a family environment again. I miss the independence of being on my own, and I love living with friends at Oberlin, but I wouldn’t trade the experience of living with my host family for anything. It has been one of the highlights of my time here—I was literally deposited on their doorstep directly from the airport my first day in Santiago, a total stranger, and now four months later I genuinely feel like part of the family. But even in comparison with living with my family in the United States, living with a Chilean family has been a very different experience.
I was told before I went to South America that they eat dinner a lot later here than in the United States. I always brushed this off, not seeing why it would be a problem until I got here and found my stomach grumbling as I looked at the clock pass 9, 9:30, and sometimes 10:00 before my host parents even mention eating. In Chile, it’s actually common not to have dinner at all. Instead, people will have “once,” a small snack-ike tea with bread or a sandwich at night and a late lunch serves as the main meal of the day.
Another huge difference to me is that the TV is always on during meals. In my house, we watch the news but some of my friends’ host families have a favorite telenovela or reality show that they watch every night together. The most entertaining one I’ve seen is called “caso cerrado,” a Spanish-language version of Judge Judy.
Often for my family, the TV is just background noise. We talk about our days or have normal dinner conversation with it still on even if no one is watching. At first, it was really hard for me to concentrate on holding one conversation while listening to another one on TV, both in Spanish. Yet now I enjoy watching the news with my host family because it gives me lots of chances to ask them questions about current events in Chile and their opinions.
Food safety standards in Chile are … different. This aspect of life here took some serious getting used to for me as someone who is a stickler about expiration dates and making sure nothing in the fridge goes bad. But here, my host mom keeps cooked meat in our cutlery cabinet for a day or two and serves it for multiple meals.
The first time she opened the cabinet where we keep our plates and pulled out a chicken drumstick, I was shocked and a little hesitant, but by now I’ve mostly gotten used to the unrefrigerated meat. Chilean cooking uses a lot of salt which helps preserve it (or at least that’s what I tell myself). My family also keeps eggs, cooked rice, and juice outside of the fridge, unlike my family in the United States.
I go to Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (La Católica or UC for short). My school here has 30,000 students—10 times the size of Oberlin—and three campuses spread across the city. Getting used to the size was an adjustment. I’m glad I get to experience going to a large, urban university just to see what it’s like in comparison to Oberlin.
The other part about La Católica that’s polar opposite from Oberlin is that it’s affiliated with the Catholic church. I’ve never attended a religious school before and was nervous about how much theology would seep into the classroom. However, I’ve found that while Catholicism is a strong presence in campus events and life, it’s always optional and doesn’t influence classes.
For the most part, the school is much more progressive than I imagined. There’s a huge #MeToo campus campaign right now urging bystander intervention. I see lots of students with green scarves tied on their backpacks, which signifies support of legal abortion. That being said, there are still lots of conservative influences and viewpoints on campus.
I’ve been surprised by some of the class discussions and materials from my history and poetry classes because of how little they include perspectives of marginalized people and women. While this is often frustrating, it makes me grateful that my Oberlin classes usually do very consciously include these opinions in class material and reinforces my view of how important it is to do so.
Chile is a very centralized country, with its government, economy, and history strongly concentrated in Santiago. Because of that, in my history class, we often learn about events that occurred in places I’m very familiar with, or even that happened at La Católica.
In my poetry class, many of the Chilean poets we studied are tied in some way to the university. And in my government class, almost every week we have guests from the federal government come to our class to give lectures or lead discussions. Living in a country that’s so centralized has impacted my classes more than I anticipated, because it’s not something I really thought about before coming.However, I really enjoy that everything I learn here ties back to Santiago in some way.
The Mayo Obsession
I can’t write a blog about Chile without mentioning the mayonnaise situation, because it's one of the things I never could have predicted would be part of my abroad experience.
Chileans loooooove their mayo. It's is a staple in basically any meal you can think of—even meals that it maybe shouldn’t be a part of, in my opinion. Got an artichoke? Dip it in mayo. Plain rice? Mix it with some mayo. Steak? Smother it in garlic mayo.
One of the classic fast foods here is a completo, a hot dog smothered in avocado, tomatoes, and of course mayonnaise. Originally, I was not a fan of the excess of mayo and still haven't gotten used to it, but that said I have come to love it as a Chilean quirk.
Empanadas—savory pastries usually filled with meat or cheese. These are the best, cheap, on-the-go snack and I’ve eaten more than I can count during my time in Santiago. My favorite kind is pino, which has a filling of beef, onion, olive, and a hardboiled egg mixed together.
Sopaipillas—fried dough made from flour, water, and zapailla, a Chilean squash similar to pumpkin. There’s a stand right outside my campus that sells sopaipillas for 200 pesos (about 30 cents) each and one of the best parts of my day is eating a fresh sopaipilla on my walk to the metro station after a long day of classes. My host family has also made them on several occasions and they are always amazing. I didn’t know it was possible for a food to make me as happy as sopaipillas do. They are in all honesty one of the things I will miss most when I return to the United States.
Pebre—a sauce made from tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and other spices. It’s usually served at restaurants with bread, but adds flavor to any dish. Definitely one of my favorites!
Chorrillana—French fries topped with beef, onions, and a fried or scrambled egg. Not for the faint of heart!
Pastel de Choclo—a casserole made with beef and corn. My host mom made it for my mom when she visited me and it reminded us a lot of shepherd’s pie. One of the best foods to eat during winter.
More Than the Sum of Their Parts
As I’m down to my last few weeks in South America, I realize more and more how much these small cultural differences have influenced my experience. They turn every day into a challenge. For example, who would have guessed you have to go to the pharmacy to buy a phone plan or that printing on campus is a multi-step, complex process?
But at the same time, every new adjustment has felt like a tiny victory when I finally understood how to complete a task that once seemed impossible and shrouded in mystery. While each cultural change is itself small, together the combination of new ways of doing things in pretty much every aspect of my life has taught me to be so much more independent and to not be afraid to look dumb or make mistakes.
As someone who used to be very shy around people I didn’t know, the thought of asking for directions or admitting I didn’t know how to do something used to terrify me. But now, I think about going back to the United States and how easy those things will be for me in English after 5 months of having to do them almost daily in Spanish. This, I think, is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from living in a different culture.
I now know how to hold my head up, confidently admit that I am wrong, and get the help necessary to fix a situation.
I just wish that along with this new skill, I could bring a lifetime supply of sopaipillas back with me.