The American Dream from a Chilean viewpoint

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

By the time you read this, I will probably be back home, my time in Chile complete. The six months I spent there went quickly, and as a sort of wrap-up, I'd like to use this column to discuss what I think I've learned from the experience.

One of the first lessons to be learned by the American living in a developing country is that of flexibility. As consumers, employees and citizens, we are used to relative certainty and efficiency, concepts that can seem as foreign as ancient Greek in Latin America. Adapting is the only viable coping strategy. Soon one gets used to stores not posting business hours, school officials not knowing when the last day of classes are for the semester, government officials not deciding on how long a holiday to give for independence day until the last minute, and electricity and water service blinking in and out randomly. And Chile, I should note, is relatively good about all of these things in comparison to other Latin American countries.

Beyond merely learning to relax and adapt, I can point at more specific things I've picked up here as well. My Spanish, for one, has improved remarkably, though it recently has tended more toward the colloquial.

I've also learned a lot about classroom discipline and some about teaching English as a foreign language. I climbed an active volcano and peered over the edge at the bubbling lava below while feeling the burning sulfur sear my lungs; I went sandboarding; and I learned the cueca, the national dance of Chile.

I have gathered stories like valuable jewels: about the kindness of my Chilean family; how my two little brothers always greeted me with "What's up, man?"; about the English teacher who only spoke in the present progressive ("he is being Chilean," "he is wearing the blond hair"); about how older Chileans blame "bad air" for illnesses ranging from the common cold to muscle pulls; and about my encounters with anti-American sentiment.

The most fascinating aspect of my time here is related to that last point: the relationship Chileans have with the United States. "Morbid fascination" is the most succinct way I can describe it. Though Chileans love American movies, music, clothes, sports and food, they are quick to elaborate on their disdain for perceived American arrogance, ignorance, materialism and selfishness. They admire our work ethic and innovativeness, but claim they are repulsed by the consumer culture that has been the result (though they are beginning to replicate it here).

Though this relationship can seem contradictory and schizophrenic, it makes some sense once you acknowledge that there are inherent advantages in being born in the North rather than the South. The American Dream, I've realized, is something that is largely confined to the United States. There are simply fewer opportunities and less hope for those individuals born outside of the United States. Whether we asked for it or not, we were born with an advantage unlike any other. The question becomes, then, what responsibilities ought to come with that advantage? It's a personal question for each of us, but my time in Chile has only strengthened my commitment to expanding the American Dream to include all parts of America -- urban, rural, north and south. I hope you'll join me.

Justin Cox is a graduate of Scott City High School and Washington University who spent several months in Chile teaching English.

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