First Impressions of Concepción, Chile

CoeAt the beginning of the year, I had an assessment for my international studies degree at UTS to write about my first impressions of the country.

I called my work: What makes a Chilean proud?

“¿Oy huevón, que te parece sobre el Chilenismo? ¿Bacán? ¿Cachai po?”

Speed up the pace of this sentence, mumble it a little and you’re speaking like a Chilean.

The start to most of my Chilean friendships, starts with communication… Of course. But the ice-breaker to most of my initial conversations is a discussion about the Chilean words that dominate day to day dialogue. It’s a common factor we both share. On my side of the conversation, I’m trying to grasp the meaning of each sentence, while they proudly and naturally incorporate jargonised vocabulary into our discussion.

The second step to consolidate my friendship with a Chilean local is to talk about food. Or from my point of view I might politely complain about the excess of bread in the majority of the national meals I have tried within my first month in Chile. To which they will react in a slightly confused manner but will remind me that on their day of Independence, the 18th of September, I will have the chance to try as much Chilean food as possible and to appreciate their diversity.

The third step to consolidate my friendship with a Chilean… well now it’s just a normal conversation. The one factor to keep in mind is to not offend their way of speaking, their food, or their way of living. While Chileans will regularly acknowledge their speaking is the worst of all South America, they say so with pride. In one of my classes the Professor went as far as to say, ‘if we don’t speak proper Spanish here in the classroom, where else would we?’ Similarly food and lifestyle makes them who they are and offending these quotidian aspects will not put me on the right foot. It is clear they are proud of who they are and what they have come to be and this should be respected.

***

My initial reason to study abroad in Chile, when I was preferencing my countries almost two years ago, was due to the fact that I believed Chile to be a relatively safe country, particularly in comparison to those in its vicinity in South America. There was little news in regards to drugs, crime or violence and my principle concern would be earthquakes. In fact, I didn’t hear much news about Chile at all.

Forming solid connections with my peers, my apartment owner, my teachers, boys, girls and whoever crosses my path, has opened my eyes to what makes a Chilean tick. So within this initial conclusion, after a month in the country, one of the biggest factors to acknowledge is their patriotism. Their sense of pride towards their own culture and lifestyle. Like the three steps to consolidating a Chilean friendship, the main things that link the people to a country and to a sense of community is: their language, food and geographic? space.

Initially when the word patriotic is used, my mind visualises a flag. On Australia day, the official National Day of Australia, many young Australians use this opportunity to walk around with an Australian flag temporarily tattooed to their cheek. It is one of the few days of the year where parents allow their child to place a tattoo on their face. Here in Concepcion, on a regular day I can see a flag wave in the wind out the front of a house, attached to a pole in the middle of a park, located somewhere in the plaza and attached to the sleeve of every worker in the local supermarket. Perhaps because I am living in Concepcion, which is a city relatively close to a port has increased the amount of visible flags, but it is more than I notice in Sydney. However, what is more important is what this flag represents. Literally the blue square on the left of the Chilean flag represents the sky, the white stripe represents the snow of the Andes mountains and the red symbolises the Chilean blood that was spilled fighting for the freedom of their country. However, symbolically the flag has come to represent the people, their language, their food, their battles, their land and what makes Chile -Chile.

***

Living on such a large continent is what I am used to, being from Australia, but sharing this continent with such a variety of other countries is a new experience for me. It has surprised me how different South American countries appear to be from each other, even though they are just kilometres apart. It’s also surprising, that at times the citizens of each country appear to know so little about another country just over the mountains. Yet they hold their own patriotism so strongly. I believe one reason for their national allegiance is due to the sense of accomplishment and success felt by the citizens of Chile from the hardships and wars that led to the acquisition of their land.

Chile won its independence from Spain in 1818 and continued to prosper economically through its exportation of wheat before becoming an internationally leading producer of copper. In the later 19th century it won the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia and officially claimed a significant amount of land in the north. One of the first day trips I made, while staying here in Concepcion, was to the nearest port of Talcahuano. This coastal suburb is primarily known for its conservation of the battleship, Huáscar. This ironclad turret ship, was built in the late nineteenth century by Britain for Peru. It was initially commanded by a Chilean captain on behalf of the Peruvian navy but was primarily commanded by a Peruvian naval officer, Miguel Grau Seminario. During the War of the Pacific between 1879 to 1883, the ship was renowned for its “daring” raids on Chilean ports. It wasn’t until the Battle of the Angamos in 1879, that the ship was captured by the Chileans and went on serving the Chilean Navy. Unfortunately, the day we made the trip out to Talcahuano, the ship was closed for maintenance. However, you could tell it was highly valued. The park prior to the entrance gates was well pruned, the ship appeared to be in good shape and the security gates were guarded. Today, it is clear that it is a proud reminder of Chilean success and is highly regarded by both Peru and Chile as a noble monument of their military battles.

Australia, in comparison has little history of territorial conflict and border disputes. The closest country, being Papua New Guinea, was ruled under Australian authorities until their independence in 1975. Australia took control of Papua in 1906 until 1975. In 1971 Papua New Guinea prepared for self-government and in 1975 Australia simply gave up its powers of defence and foreign affairs over to Papua New Guinea. Australia, fortunately, has not had the terror of an onland battle, which I believe is one of the key ingredients to the creation of patriotic sentiments. One of the few patriotic acts towards Australian warfare recognition, is on ANZAC day as the Australian soldiers are recognised for their hard work in Gallipoli. However, this occurred on foreign land for the British Commonwealth. I am not saying Australians are less patriotic towards their homeland, however Chileans can gratefully acknowledge the hardships deployed to establish their boundaries.

***

In the one sense, it is clear from the territorial disputes that Chile is very connected to its neighbouring countries, physically joined by land. However, in another sense they are quite segregated. With the Andes mountains separating Argentina and Chile and a hot desert separating Peru, Bolivia and Chile, it is still quite a journey to travel between the countries and many of the Chileans I have met, have not left their country. This separation allows for the development of cultural distinction.

Like the start to a Chilean friendship, my start to understanding the Chilean culture on a social level began with its language. The first thing I heard once arriving to Chile was the mumbled, fast, jargonised, Spanish language, Chileans like to proudly refer to as Chilean. Every Chilean I have spoken to acknowledges their need to slow down and at times provide a definition for various colloquial terms. Despite speaking difficult Spanish, everyone I have met is proud to be able to communicate with each other in this manner. One classmate has proudly asked me, what Chilean word was my favourite. To which I replied ‘al tiro’, which conveniently means ‘right now’. This jargon does so much more than provide a unique difference to the Spanish language. It connects Chileans on a social level and like the word “al tiro”, at times makes for a more fluid conversation. (As opposed to saying “inmediatamente”.)

In Australia, there is also a recognised “Aussie jargon”, however, it is recognised on a more international level as opposed to a social level. By this I mean, if I wanted to mimic an Australian there are certain words (such as ‘mate’) that can easily be placed into the conversation to make it “Australian”, however, on a social level these words are rarely, if ever used. (At least not in my social circles within Australia.) Reflecting on this national jargon increases the connection and patriotism one can feel to choose with their country. I can choose to speak like a Chilean now that I have learnt a few of their colloquialisms or I can choose otherwise. However, making the choice to include Chilenismo within my conversation increases a sense of belonging and unity with the new people I meet. It puts a smile on the face of the Chilean person I am talking to and solidifies the friendship and connection between the two of us.

Like the second step to consolidating a friendship with a Chilean, the next thing to understand in regards to understanding the Chilean pride, is their food. Food is such a big representation of any culture and represents the Chilean culture in festivals, in social contexts, in agricultural requirements and within the family. It’s what the locals live off and so they are proud from what they create. In one of my first classes in university we had a 10 minute introduction where my curious classmates would ask me any question they wanted. One of the first questions was: ‘What Chilean food do you like?’ By this stage I had been in Chile for about three weeks, which was ample time to try enough food, but my mind was blank. There’s just so many meals with bread or chips and a lack of spice. I made a comment on the fact that there was so much bread, which they were surprised to hear. This led to a response of a list of foods that I must try at some point this year.

***

Today marks the day I have officially received my Cédula de Identidad as an ‘extranjero’ residing in Chile. While this is not the same as a Chilean resident, it is a symbol of partial belonging and obligation to the country. This form of identification makes operating in Chile easier with things such as making online bookings to places within Chile, updating my mobile credit etc. While this is only a card, it is something I can feel an attachment to and a remembrance of my time commitment to Chile. It is a symbol that I can personally feel proud of acquiring as it proves my identity and my time in Chile. Despite not personally living through any Chilean wars, nor particularly enjoying all the food, I have begun to understand the language and can feel a sense of allegiance to Chile.

It is clear to note what makes Chile – Chile, in their daily conversation, their interactions, their history and their food. It’s easy to feel the pride of a Chilean in what their country has achieved and it is easy to enter into the patriotic vibes and become what I can call myself, a Chilean extranjero. The language can be adopted, the food can be enjoyed, or perhaps simply eaten, and the spacious and diverse lands can be explored. The Chilean people will gladly welcome me into their homes and their life so long as we take it with a genuine and open mind.

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