>For my contribution to the group blogging this week, I want to focus on one specific group of gringos that infiltrate Santiago and other major Chilean cities: exchange students.
I was an exchange student in Santiago for 7 months in 2007. Quickly upon arrival I realized that I did not want to be associated with the typical stereotype of Gringo Exchange Students that travel around in throngs, yelling English on the metro and basically wearing a sign saying “I’m an easy target! Steal my iPod, take my wallet, I don’t care!” So I tried to change my look. I started wearing darker colored clothes, scarves, Converse and tights under everything. (Needless to say, my fashion went from bad to worse!). I also tried not to hang around large groups of gringos, and stuck to my three closest friends in my program. My proudest moment was while shopping in Patronato with J., (who is blonde) the shopkeeper asked if I was Chilean! That was of course before he heard me speak.
But I digress.
At the Chilean Universities that I attended (PUC and UChile) the professors and students both had clear biases when it came to gringo exchange students, and I hate to say this, for good reason. Many professors accepted that gringo students would come to slack off and travel, and didn’t expect them to do well in the class, or let them get away with murder, so to speak. Some classes even had separate grading guidelines for gringos and chileans. Most of the professors (especially at UChile) didn’t even want to put up with exchange students and didn’t allow them in their classes. I would say that the majority of gringos in my classes lived up to this chilean sterotype, and I find that really sad. It’s really hard to fight against a sterotype when there are thousands of people out there propogating it. I remember in my photography class at UChile four gringas showed up to class the day a huge project was due with nothing. The professor, obviously livid, asked them where it was. They told him they wouldn’t be able to finish it until the end of the week because they had been in Chiloe over the weekend. Obviously in the US this kind of excuse wouldn’t fly. Why did these exchange students think it would in Chile?
The same goes for fellow classmates. They were hesitant to do group projects with exchange students because they were afraid that they wouldn’t pull their weight. The only exception I experienced was a chilena who wanted to practice her English. Again, I’m not blaming Chilean students for thinking this way…most gringos are like this. They come to Chile to take a break from the normal grind of College life in the US. And maybe I shouldn’t judge them just because I came to Chile with a different goal in mind: to truly learn the culture and study (hence: study abroad).
Outside of the university setting, Chileans generally assume that gringos don’t speak Spanish (or if they do speak it, they do so poorly). I can’t count the number of times that people have started asking F. questions about me when I’m standing right next to him. “De dónde es ella? Es gringa?” “Sí, soy gringa y hablo castellano. Tampoco soy sorda, por si aca.” Also, if the Chilean speaks any measure of English they will inevitably switch over. Umm…hello? Did you not just hear that I speak Spanish? Trust me, things will be easier for both of us if we stick to Spanish. Plus, as an exchange student, that’s what I’m here for. To improve my Spanish. So háblame! (Now when I go back I will be less annoyed at the English attempts, considering I’ll be an English teacher! But back then it was different.)
I have to say, that all things aside, the best Chilean friends that I made were ones that were truly interested in me as a person instead of my status as a gringa. I’m not sure why that is so hard for some chileans to do, or maybe it’s a universal thing…maybe any foreigner experiences this to some extent, no matter what country they are from. My host mom, for example, has now hosted 14 gringo exchange students plus numerous foreigners from all over the world that have rented the apartment attached to her house. Although I imagine that she is full of generalizations and perceptions about gringos, I never heard her voice them. She only talked about how unique each student was that stayed with her. She knew that not all gringos were rich, because she hosted a student that couldn’t afford to buy clothes for the Chilean winter. She knew that not all gringos voted for Bush because she talked to her students about our political leanings. And she certainly knew that not all gringos were fat slobs, because most of us had trouble finishing the huge delicious meals she prepared, and insisted on walking to the metro stop 10 blocks away instead of her driving us every morning.
I can’t wait to read what others post about. I also hope I haven’t offended anybody either. I love Chile and like I said, the majority of Chileans that I have formed lasting relationships with know me as a person, and it just makes life more interesting that I happen to be a gringa too. 🙂