You know you’re not a native speaker when…Santiago, Spring 2009

At the gym:

You walk into the locker room and the cleaning lady whispers to you, “Hay un varón” (There is a man). At which point, your first thought is, “Shoot, how did I end up in the men’s locker room by mistake?,” your second thought is, “Wait, did I mistranslate that?”, and it’s a good 5 seconds later that you realize that there’s a man fixing the shower door and that the woman was simply worried that you would somehow embarrass yourself by failing to notice.

Other opportunities to be reminded of your outsider status at the gym:

  • There are 8 men and 2 other women in the weight room. A full half of the men insist on giving you advice about how you could be getting more out of your workout by actually using the weight equipment properly. You want to tell them that you are simply following the instructions on the machine, which are in English for goodness sake, but that would probably just result in a more detailed analysis of your poor technique.
  • Two treadmills down from you, a man is listening to his MP3 player and singing 80s Madonna songs. Loudly. With a strong accent. No one except you seems to find this unusual.

Around town:

You go to La Chascona, one of the former houses of Chilean Noble Prize Winner Pablo Neruda (the house is now a museum and Neruda is now basically a national hero). However, who do you encounter on this tour? Native Chileans proud of their literary great? Well, yes, one. But also employees from the US Outward Bound program, who, after finding out that you are, indeed, NOT the tour guide, recognize you as a fellow North American and proceed to share anecdotes about your home state.

Other clues

  • You wander around artisan fairs and, when talking with one of the craftsmen, get through three questions before he recognizes that you are not, in fact, Chilean. He recognizes this, not by your accent, clothes, hair color, etc., but by the fact that you use the word “usualmente.” He informs you that only English-speakers use that word (due to its obvious similarity with “usually”). If you were Chilean, you would have known to say “generalmente” instead. After explaining other linguistic curiosities, he then launches into a discussion of the origin and current connotation of the word “Gringo.” Despite the fascinating conversation, you do not buy one of the belts he is selling.
  • Also, you wander into museums and galleries simply because they’re, well, open. Prime examples of this include museums commemorating the lives of past political figures (I would be rather surprised if my Chilean peers for instance could name the Santiago mayor who founded the first Animal Protection Society; thanks to the low admissions price, namely 50 cents, to his former home, I now have the pleasure of that particular fact) as well as small art galleries inside corporate headquarters (the telephone company Telefonica has a particularly interesting display, in case anyone is visiting). When you first enter these buildings, the security guards stop you, not because you aren’t allowed to enter, but simply because they seem surprised that anyone is actually visiting. Probably when you tell them in Spanish that you are just looking, they immediately realize that you are not a native and, hence, their befuddlement over what you are doing there disappears.

In fact, there are many other opportunities to be reminded of your outsider status and the surprising thing is probably not that they occur everywhere you go but, rather, that once in a blissful while, you actually “pass” as a “native”. And that, friends and family, is a great moment.

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1 Comment

  1. Good stories Hannah. I liked you post about the mine as well. The best I can do is the following. You know you’re not in Eagleville anymore when your chatting with someone in your neighborhood and she says “I was a wheatless vegan at the time.” I nearly asked (in what would have been a mocking fashion) what a wheatless vegan could eat but caught myself. One of those situations where it is just better to nod.

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