The option of going on student exchange was my ‘get out of heartbreak free’ card when I found myself needing a hiatus from my life. What better way to jumpstart your heart than to throw yourself into the deep end and remember how to swim again? Armed with the conversational breadth of a 3-year-old, I packed two 23kg (about 50lbs in Americanese) suitcases to the brim with Chinese condiments and practically my entire wardrobe (BAD decision on hindsight), and embarked on the longest journey of my life from Singapore to Santiago de Chile.
Things I Wish Somebody Had Told Me
1. If you’re going to be living in South America for 5 months, it’s best you speak more than a little Spanish, especially if you don’t like being a hassle to others and like to do things on your own, just like me. A year of weekly classes was scarcely enough to tide me through the airport customs when I arrived and I nearly failed to surrender the barbecued pork I had brought along with me, which would have earned a hefty fine. I was also close to being deported a month after I arrived, not having registered with the visa office to obtain my foreign identity card.
It was a harrowing process that started out with a conversation that took place at the visa office:
Visa Lady (in Spanish): Have you paid the fee?
Me (happy to use one of my Spanish phrases): I am an exchange student from Singapore!
Visa Lady told her nearby colleague and both laughed pityingly at me, then directed me to yet another visa office because this office was too far along the series of steps I had to take. I found myself at the next office in tears because I had no idea why I was there, nor how to ask for what I needed. ‘Twas a dark and unaccomplished day, and I rewarded myself with a McDonald’s 6-piece McNugget Meal and a mid-day nap for my efforts. The next time around, I got my friend Karen to accompany me. Lesson learned!
There’s always the easy alternative of hanging out with fellow English-speakers or (overly) friendly locals on the exchange student committee, which I’d opted for in the beginning to wean myself off of the culture shock. Also, I stayed with my Chilean brother-in-law’s family when I first arrived and was getting too comfortable basking in Tía’s care and delicious home-cooked meals. However, I’d envisioned myself jabbering away with locals in fluent Spanish by the end of my stay, and needed to take drastic action pronto if I wanted to be an honorary Chilena before I left. Also, I vowed that one day I would return and blow Visa Lady’s mind by being more proficient than she was in her mother tongue. Ha!
In a nutshell: If you want an authentic experience, do yourself a favour and learn the language before coming here, or be prepared for a hard time and a steep learning curve. Either way, it will pay off. Even the staff at the university exchange student office spoke no English!
2. If you’ve been learning Spain Spanish and find yourself in South America – Congratulations! You get to start from scratch again. If Columbians and Peruvians speak the Spanish equivalent of Queen’s English and Spaniards are lisping Londoners, then Chileans sound like the Scottish or Irish. A non-speaker would probably take some time to discern that they are the same language, as did I before I realized that Chileans shorten most words. ¿Cómo estás? becomes ¿Cómo tay?, and nobody uses ¡Adiós! here; a simple ¡Chau! and you’re good to go.
South Americans in general use a very different vocabulary from the Spaniards (‘peach’ is melocotón in Spain, but durazno in Chile), but this is probably not more inconvenient than adapting to British English from American English (trunk vs. boot, pants vs. trousers etc.), so don’t worry if you’ve been learning Spain Spanish. However, when talking to anyone under 30, you’d probably struggle to identify the content of their speech within the slew of expressions and swearwords that punctuate their sentences. As a proficient speaker of Singlish, a Singaporean attempt at English that foreigners often mistake for Mandarin, I quickly caught on. I now bid goodbye to every Chilean with a hearty “¡Chau po!”, and find that I cannot shake off ‘po’ from the end of my sentences.
You also can’t help but have their national expression ‘weón’ grow on you. To put it simply, the word originates from huevos (eggs), and you can use it to refer to anybody and nobody, and seemingly anywhere in a sentence. Chileans themselves use the word about 10 times a minute. My personal favourite expression is “Puta el weón weón, weón!”, a grammatically correct phrase where each weón means ‘guy, ‘stupid’, and ‘buddy’ respectively, and also pronounced at a different tone and pace. It essentially translates to: “That guy is very stupid, buddy.” I could not have put it more beautifully if I tried.
In a nutshell: The Chileans and Spaniards have no problem understanding one another, so don’t despair if you have been learning Spain Spanish. It just takes a little getting used to. Once you pick up Chilenismos, have fun using them! Go nuts po!
Because time favours no one, after finally overcoming the language barrier and beginning to settle in, I had to leave. It was a very fruitful experience as my 5-month stay in a private student dormitory that housed mostly Chilean students was an endless test of my listening and speech capabilities, and just what I needed to pass the threshold and start being able to converse and read in Spanish. In those 5 months I also rode a horse for the first time in my life, went sandboarding in the Atacama Desert, took belly dance lessons in school, touched snow for the first time (I live on the Equator!), and made some friends I want to keep for the rest of my life. It was just what I needed to breathe some life into my life again.