‘Patrick, you are scheduled to work in the kitchen.’ It was 8 am. I was getting ready to work my 8:30 shift in Recepcion. It’s a pretty casual shift – support the front desk, who are bilingual, and often trilingual. Delma, one of the front desk people, was leaning through the doorway.
‘No, I’m not. I’m scheduled to work Reception,’ I said.
‘Romiro says you are scheduled to work the kitchen. Can you work the kitchen?’ Romiro was the head of the voluntarios, setting their schedules, and does some of their training. I knew I wasn’t scheduled for the kitchen, but said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’
Kitchen duty is the hardest job at the hostal, mostly because it is fast paced, everything needs to be set quickly, and cooked and cleaned quickly. And once breakfast (Desayuna) is complete, you get setup for Almuerzo (Lunch).
At La Casa Roja, there were 3 main cooks, all women, none of whom spoke a lick of English. And none of them suffered fools gladly. As an American thrust into a new culture with only very basic Spanish skills I knew it was going to be a test.
I found out that one of the new volunteers failed to arrive, and that I would
be sacrificed have to do my best.
Paoula, a short stout Chilean showed me very quickly where to get things, and where to put things through her words (which I barely understood), but mainly in actions and pantomime, which were easier for me to get. But it was all a blur, figuring out where to get more coffee, screwing up my Spanish, ‘Tienes cereal?’ I asked: ‘Do you have cereal?’ They would look at me incredulously. ‘Si?’
Eventually, I figured it out, changing it to ‘Quieres cereal?’ Do you want cereal?
And then the breakfast rush was over. After putting things away, I stood watching Paoula, waiting for instructions. She looked at me as if I had 2 heads. ‘Necesitas limpio!’ You need to clean! Making rapid motions of scrubbing, sweeping…and on it went.
And in this rapid fire environment I found that I had to listen very closely to what was being said, in order to pull the words I knew from the words I didn’t know. To figure out the meaning of what they tried to convey to me. And, as hard as it was for me, I knew my inability to communicate made it very hard for them. What must it be like to have to deal with volunteers who couldn’t speak Spanish very well? Every week, new volunteers with various levels of Spanish, all saying, ‘Como?’ or ‘What?’
I’m finding the culture of Chile to be very warm, formed from bonds strengthened by daily greetings, and the “beso” or kiss on the cheek (between men and women), or the handshake and eye contact and a smile between men. I do not fully participate, because I don’t really know what is, and isn’t acceptable. So, I observe, and then try when appropriate to follow the etiquette.
But, not participating can be seen as rude.
Like this morning, I went to get my voluntarios breakfast allotment of 2 eggs (huevos) and a piece of bread (pan). I gave my breakfast ticket to Joseline, the voluntario working the shift. As she got my food, I waited watching Maria, this shifts head cook, busily preparing the special breakfasts for the private rooms. She looked up at me and said, exaggerating the words, ‘Bueenoos diiaas!’ sounding each vowel while glaring at me. I responded, ‘Buenos dias.’ I looked at her and Joseline as she spoke some rapid fire Spanish. All I caught was “…conosces…” He knows…
I looked at Joseline, who said, ‘You must say hello.’ Hmm, in the US if someone was busy you learned not to bother them, but here it was a must to say ‘hello’ to everyone. My first reaction was, man she was rude! But then it occurred to me that I was in fact the person who was considered rude, just standing in front of her without greeting her.
I figured I was confronting ‘enculturation,’ or “…the process of teaching an individual the norms and values of a culture through unconscious repetition. The totality of actions within a culture establishes a context that sets the conditions for what is possible within the society,” (source: enculturation.net).
But, to what degree must I participate in their culture, I ask myself? Can’t I just approach folks from my background rather than theirs? But becoming enculturated has its benefits, mainly to smooth over interactions.
I think it’s probably best to figure out what is incorrect first before diving in, though. For example, when I was in Buenos Aires I tried to do the ‘beso’ (kiss on cheek) with a man who was to be our tour guide through the poor section of BA. He paused as I neared his cheek, then kind of lightly smacked the side of my face with his. I learned it wasn’t as accepted between men, especially if they didn’t quite know each other well.
But, my tutor explained the beso to me saying, ‘Do not deprive me of my beso!’
I have to talk myself off the ledge, saying ‘It’s only your 3rd week in, give yourself a break.’ Enculturation takes time. I just simply say, ‘Buenos dias,’ only responding with the beso if they do it first. I figure I can use my ‘I’m a Gringo’ excuse a little longer as I learn to navigate the intricacies of Chilean (South American?) etiquette and culture.