I have been studying in Chile for almost three months now and within that time, I have experienced so much in this country on the edge of the world. I have spoken Chilean slang, eaten delicious empanadas and learned what it means to be an American. To begin with, at the start of my trip would often times introduce myself as an American, which I quickly discovered was frowned upon. The irony here is that this identification is reproached not because Chileans do not like Americans, but rather they believe they are also Americans. Chilean schools, and from what I understand Latin American schools in general, teach six continents: Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, Antarctica and America. This idea challenged my worldview because I had always believed that such facts were objective, but this is a clear example of how people from different places and cultures sometimes think differently. According to that perspective, North and South America are considered to be one continent, making all South Americans, “Americans”. As such, people from the United States are expected to refer to themselves as “los estadosunidenses”, which if there was an English equivalent would be “United Statisian.” The issue here is that is not such a word in English, so what should Americans from the United States call themselves? While identity should be come within, it also needs to take into consideration identity of others. Here arises a conflict of cultural identification: Who is American and who is not? Or who gets to decide who is American and who is not?
Within the last few months, I have had class canceled twice because of nationwide student demonstrations concerning the rights of bus drivers and high tuition. As an American university student, I find this surprising, because such a thing rarely occurs in United States. But as an American citizen who has been involved in multiple campaigns and political organizations, I realize this should not be surprising. I am from the United States of America, the country that is practically synonymous with democracy. These political manifestations are democracy at its core; yet, how often do they happen in the U.S., or how often are American students the instigators of these events? An American friend of mine here made a comment on this issue, “American students wouldn't know what to do with a democratic society if it poked us in the eye.” Unfortunately, this is all too true. While watching a news report covering these demonstrations, I heard a young Chilean man talk about his responsibility to his country and people to protest, and to take advantage of democracy and to make Chile a better country. Democracy was not realized in Chile until 1990 after the Pinochet dictatorship which means this young man was born before there was a democratic government in Chile, and yet realizes the opportunity he is given to create change. Both of these experiences have challenged my perspective of what it means to be an American in both a literal and symbolic sense.
Its a bit cheesy, but sincere. While writing this piece I thought about something else: What do Chileans think of Americans? I have found the answer to be mostly positive (they seem to love Obama), but as many of the other foreign exchange students have realized (both in Chile and other nations) is that Chileans, especially the Chilean youth, form their impressions of Americans the popular culture we export (worst nightmare come true?). When talking to various young people (which makes me sound old, which I feel!), they all ask me about:
I swear that almost every Chilean person my age has asked me about solo cups as they have seen them in all the popular American films about college life and so associate American with drinking (beer specifically, Why do American drink so much beer? they always ask).
Anyhoo, food for thought,