Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Collectivists (on all things baby)

Even after six years in Chile, I'm subject to the same “meeting a new Chilean” questions. Most of the askers, never having been expats, don't realize how tedious it can be start nearly all conversations with a new Chilean in the same way:

¿Cuanto tiempo en Chile? (How long have you been in Chile?)

This one is harmless, but I wince with anticipation of the tiresome interview to follow.

¿Que tal el castellano? (How's your Spanish?)

I have to resist the urge to point out that as the native Spanish speaker; the asker is clearly in a better position to judge this. So, I reply with something humble and let them draw their own conclusion.

¿Te acostumbraste? (Are you comfortable here?/ Are you used to things here?)

This one gets me. I've provided my best translation here, but I'm never exactly sure what they’re getting at. I don’t know if they want me to tell them that I am, indeed, happy here or if they want me to comment on the things that still seem foreign to me.

I usually point out that Chile is my adopted country. If I weren't happy here/comfortable/used to it, I would have gone home long ago. This usually leads to a conversation about why I like Chile, which I don't mind at all.

¿No hechas de menos a tu familia? (Don't you miss your family?)

This one’s the kicker. I mean, is the sky blue? I miss my friends and family dearly. Everyone is usually relieved to hear that I’m not a family-hating sociopath, my parents are planning to retire here (part-time) and Elisa and I Skype with them almost daily.

In a nut shell, that is the “meeting a new Chilean” conversation. The questions are predictable and mind-numbing, but I go with the flow because no matter how mundane the conversation is to me, it’s new for the person on the other end. They’re showing a genuine interest in me and I appreciate that.

Every once in a while, though, I get someone who wants to talk cultural differences. It’s invariably someone whose knowledge of the US is limited to a distant cousins' two week trip or a TV program. So, the questions, rather statements that I'm expected to agree with, go something like:

People in the US eat junk food all the time.
Families are closer here in Chile.
Americans push their kids out of the house at 16.
Chileans speak Spanish poorly.
Chileans are not to be trusted.
Chileans are collectivists.

I object to all of the above. Sometimes, I attempt to demonstrate the inaccuracy of such statements. Sometimes, I nod, smile and resist the urge to roll my eyes. I have to admit, though, when it comes to babies, the last statement is pretty accurate.

I started noticing the differences when I was pregnant. I was astounded by variety of people who felt entitled to touch my belly: male co-workers, people on the subway, a restaurant security guard, an elderly woman at a health clinic! Everywhere I went, someone went for the belly. I was always taken aback and developed some strategies to defend myself and my belly, but that is another post.

Once Ely was out of my belly, I expected the touching to subside. It did not. She is regularly caressed by retail workers, fellow shoppers, parking attendants, you name it. As a brand new mom, with a brand new baby in the middle of flu season, this was somewhat irksome. (Although I’ve since grown used to it and silently thank them for building up her immune system with every cuddle.)

So many people taking, what I saw as unjustified, liberties with the bump and the baby made me uncomfortable, even angry. It wasn't until I took Ely to the US that I realized that in Chile, people also took responsibility for my well-being (while with bump) and the baby's.

In the US with a four month old, I felt invisible. Few looked. No one touched. Few held doors. Many cut me off. The airport was an exercise in balance and strength as I struggled to collapse the stroller while holding an infant as TSA watched.

While I was pregnant in Chile, I enjoyed special parking, was always offered a seat in waiting rooms and got line-jumping privileges at supermarkets and other insufferable places.

Even now with a nine month old, someone always offers to help me navigate steps with the stroller. At restaurants, waiters look for the warmest, coziest spot for our little munchkin. Parking attendants offer to help me get the baby in the car and fold up the stroller. A restaurant owner recently offered to take Ely into another room so R and I could enjoy our meal (we declined)... and I still get to jump lines at insufferable places on a regular basis.

Since the day she was born, I’ve been told regularly that Ely is desabrigada (not dressed warmly enough). I used to take offense but, I've come to realize that voicing concern that a baby may be cold is a way of showing affection. Now, when my mother-in-law or any random lady tells me that Ely's desabrigada, I produce another item of clothing and bundle her a little bit more, thereby acknowledging the other person's love and concern for my daughter.

I’ve come to realize that babies are community property here from the time they’re in the womb. People show concern for their well-being by helping make moms more comfortable and offering advice. Friends and acquaintances swarm hospital rooms when new babies arrive. The government, and thereby the people, pay for a total of 18 weeks of maternity leave. Men and women alike coo at and take interest in babies.

So, while the desabrigada comment and its cousin "Why didn't you pierce your daughter's ears?" are as played-out as the "meeting a new Chilean" conversation, I smile and remind myself that people are just showing an interest in my daughter. When it comes to babies, Chileans ARE collectivists, and for that I am grateful. It takes a village...

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