Are you German? Swedish? American?
The answer’s American, for the record, but it was always fun to see what the Chileans guessed. Before coming to Chile, I had never felt like I stuck out much based on my appearance. I’m slightly taller than the average American female as I stand at 5’ 8,” but for the most part my blonde hair and blue eyes don’t set me apart in the US. I’m not completely naïve; I knew that I was going to look different from the Chilean majority. I just wasn’t sure exactly what wouldhappen as a result of that.
I remember not too long after I arrived, my host father and I went to the store to buy a Chilean cell phone. Since my host father was a man in his mid-sixties who came up to my shoulder, we received some very strange looks as we walked through the store together. As one man stared at us in a particularly pointed way, I jokingly said to my host father “Not a lot of blondes here, huh?” “Not at all!” he laughed, and joked right back saying “and those that are blonde aren’t that way naturally!”
In another instance, I walked into a grocery store with a Chilean friend. A security officer noticed me when I walked in and pleasantly said hello and asked how I was doing. I didn’t think much of it until we walked out later, and my friend wondered if I had noticed anything strange about the encounter. I shook my head no, and asked what he meant. He said that I was the only one the officer greeted. I protested, saying that he was probably just being welcoming, but my friend was certain. He said Chileans tended to be nicer to people from the US, especially those who looked it.
When I got on the city bus or subway, besides noticing that I was about a head taller than most of the people around me, I could usually take inventory of one or two people who would stare at me for the entirety of the subway trip. When we walked through the area of town known for its nightlife, my Chilean friends would become rather protective of me, telling me to stay close because I stood out too much.
It was these subtle things all the time. At first, it was kind of fun to be noticed, but it soon grew rather tiring as I had to be prepared for the extra attention whenever I left my apartment. In the majority of the situations the staring was innocent, the act itself neither positive nor negative but just another facet of being in a foreign country. I do not wish to say that this behavior is representative of the Chilean culture, nor that any conclusions or generalizations about the people should be made because of it. It is a just a reality that many people face when going abroad. However, what I didn’t expect to feel as a result of it was a pride in my nationality, as well as a sort of pride in who I was as a physical being. My appearance is unique to me as an individual, but it also marks me as a member of a larger ethnic group or nationality. It was a new view of myself that I never would have noticed without this study abroad experience.
For more information on the Santiago, Chile program, visit the CGIS website.