Chileans give warm welcome

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Editor's note: Justin Cox is spending several months teaching English in Chile, and writing about his experiences.

By Justin Cox

The reception that we 15 volunteer English teachers have received in Chile has been nothing short of remarkable. Not just as individuals, but also for what we represent as a group. To many, the English language that we are here to teach represents both the best hope for Chile's continued economic development and a calculated political risk. The Chilean government recently began an ambitious and highly publicized educational initiative with the aim of making the country bilingual by 2010. Though the majority of Chileans responded enthusiastically, the Chilean Ministry of Education recognized quickly that they simply do not have a sufficient number of quality English teachers to make this a reality. The pilot program through which I am working is one attempt at remedying this shortage.

Because we represent both hope and a highly publicized national program, we have been given plenty of attention by the press here. In the week since we arrived, we have been on the local news and in newspapers in both Santiago and Antofagasta. Additionally, we were given a private tour of La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, and had an opportunity to meet with the Chilean minister of education (equivalent to the U.S. secretary of education). The attention we have received in Antofagasta, a city of 300,000 residents, has even been enough for some of us to be recognized on the street (which is no surprise, given how few gringos there are here).

The official welcome we have received, though, has been nothing compared to how inviting the families that we are living with have been. My new Chilean family of four -- Alfonso and his wife, Maritza, and their two boys, Eduardo, 11, and Cristian, 7 -- is one of the warmest I have ever met. Though they have little in terms of material resources, they are eager to share what they do have with me for the six months that I will be here.

I am currently sharing a room in their tiny but neat apartment with the two boys, who have spent most of their time since I arrived following me around wearing the St. Louis Cardinals baseball hats that I gave them.

Everything I brought and have done thus far is something of a novelty, and we have made a game out of the question, "what is this like in the states?" They are eager to know if their clothes are the same, their food, their appliances, clothes, furniture, etc.

The family, like nearly all Chileans I have met here, doesn't speak a word of English. However, one of the first things I realized is that they don't really speak Spanish either. Yes, technically Spanish is the country's official language, but the brand of Spanish that is spoken in Chile is nothing at all like the Spanish that I learned in college, spoke with Mexican immigrants in the states or heard in Spain when I was there last summer. Chilean Spanish is saturated with slang found nowhere else in the world and is spoken with a thick accent -- the "s" sound disappears -- that I had never heard before. I have picked up quite a bit of the slang already and am getting better with the accent, but I am hesitant to learn either too well for fear that I won't be understood anywhere else in the Spanish-speaking world if I speak like a Chilean.

At any rate, though there have already been moments where I feel very far from my family in Southeast Missouri, it looks like I will be well taken care of by my new Chilean family.

Justin Cox is a native of Scott City.

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