The sidewalks in La Serena, Chile are very narrow. This was one of my first observations on arriving in March. They are so narrow that if I cross paths with another pedestrian, one of us must step off the curb and into the street to avoid crashing into the other person. I walk a lot in La Serena, and soon realized that I seemed to be the person who stepped off of the curb every time I crossed paths with another person. I started to get frustrated and plus, it was dangerous to step into traffic where every taxi driver seems like a NASCAR driver. Why should it always be me? Wasn’t it the other person’s turn? So, in the name of science I conducted an experiment: How many people would give way to my path? If I just kept walking would they get out of my way, just like I had been doing for them? I was sure of it. After crashing into teens, little kids, and old ladies on their way to the market, it became clear that my hypothesis was incorrect. It pissed me off. I watched other people cross paths and it surprised me that neither party got out of the way. They just squeezed by each other, almost face to face, with their bodies pressed together for a few brief seconds. Then they went on their way.
The year is the second of two foreign student exchanges I have done in South America (the first was in Argentina during high school). By now, it would be nice to think of myself as a cultural chameleon – that with every new environment, I can assimilate without shock. As nice as that would be, I confess that I never really let go of my own culture. You can better tolerate and understand people if you spend time in their countries, but there will always be “your way” at the back of your brain. Why did I feel the need to move around these people rather than just squeeze by like locals did? The answer: As an American, I need a much bigger realm of physical and intangible space than Chileans do. I got off sidewalks because I felt like my invisible bubble was being invaded.
Just think about it. In the United States, we do not physically touch strangers or acquaintances if we can avoid it. Many times, we do not even touch our loved ones with regularity. Hugs and kisses are for lovers, birthdays, graduation, funerals or when we’re drunk. Usually a mile marker in life allows cultural pretenses to be set aside. In general, someone’s idea of what personal space is should be a huge component of what makes up each culture, and people from the States are some of the most needy with respect to the size of their bubbles.
We love to drive solo in huge cars; we don’t like public transportation; we have cubicles; we like big malls, supermarkets and movie theaters; we highly prize individual seats at a ball game, like lots of personal clothing and accessories; we don’t like to hear somebody else’s music; and we don’t like to see couples making out, mothers breast-feeding or to hear a loud phone conversation. It is one of the reasons we are called “frios” or “cold” by many Latin cultures. This lack of understanding is one of the elements that can cause culture shock and tension.
I still don’t really enjoy cramming my body onto a bus at 7 a.m. or kissing strangers on the cheek, but I am starting to understand it. When someone touches your shoulder during an entire conversation, it helps to take a deep breath and repeat: “this is their culture, this is their culture.” I also have to keep remembering that my reaction to any other culture is only a reflection of my own, and the ideas of what is socially acceptable to me. Therefore, my actions – like propping my legs up on a vacant desk in class, or sunning myself on part of the plaza lawn – could be considered rude and an invasion of a Chilean’s space.
Every person has a different set of norms that they mistake for the world’s norms. The people that adapt in new places well are the ones who realize that egocentrism is overrated. Chileans are some of the kindest and friendliest people I have known, and I hope I can take a page from their book of life with my time here. Instead of plugging in an iPod or reading a book while waiting in line, they talk to each other. It is not rude to asked about a boyfriend, birthplace or even the warts you had removed. Starting a conversation to pass the time is a skill I lack and envy. I came back to South America to better my Spanish, but I also wanted to challenge myself to see if I could learn to adjust my bubble.
Soquel Schafer is a social science sophomore currently studying at Universidad de La Serena in Chile and is a guest columnist for the Mustang Daily.