Sunday, July 4, 2010

South America and non-personal impressions

I believe pretty much everywhere I have been, close relationships have the potential to be very similar in nature. I think even if, at first glance, the people or culture seems to be upside-down and inside-out from our own, we would find those closest to you essentially the same at heart. Relationships between casual friends, coworkers, and acqaintances have more potential to differ depending on culture. But I think interactions between people that don't yet know each other, and the progress between first meeting someone to bringing it to another level is something that contributes to one of the first impressions we get of a country and culture. This is the impression we get as a tourist or a newcomer- the impression we get before having friends or a boyfriend (and his immensly extended family) to show us around and lead us towards meeting the right people.

Essentially, when I'm traveling, the answers to questions along the lines of the following help me form a basic opinion of society in a non-personal sense:
  • How do people interact with each other on the streets, does there seem to be common courtesy?
  • How willing are people to engage in conversation or small talk, is doing errands around town purely robotic or will you likely exhange smiles or comments with the people you interact with?
  • Are interactions with people you meet or deal with while getting around generally positive, negative or neutral?
Ok, so its not like I travel around with a little survey and checklist, evaluating places by these exact questions, but they give an idea you can probably understand or relate to about the type of interaction we observe and participate in before we really have any good reason or ties to make a more profound one. Perhaps this impression is one of society overall that will stay with us, or perhaps more time and connections will modify the way we see the culture. Overall, I found almost all South American countries I have been to (almost all of them) to fare quite well on overall non-personal impressions.

Actually, the only one I've been to that didn't at all was Bolivia. Every Bolivian I know is extremely nice, and I even have extended relatives that have been living in Bolivia for a long time and report back a great image, but traveling there and experiencing society without any personal ties was a different story. And, though I did get the impression people somewhat stuck to themselves in public, the negative energy did not seem to be so much overall, but rather towards foreigners. I know, as an American, I shouldn't expect much otherwise. We haven't exactly been the most favorable influence to their economy. But my roommates were English and Greek and expressed similar vibes. I also experienced a lot of name calling, at me, with profanity.  One anecdote that humorously exemplified my time in Bolivia (spread out over 4 cities), was when I asked a man for directions to a museum and he said "see that building?" While I turned my head to look where he was pointing, he ran away.

(edit:  friends traveling around the same time reported similar feelings, however those having visited more recently had much more neutral or positive interactions.  And again, to restate: everybody I know personally from Bolivia is awesome... so I do strongly believe my experience was time-sensitive, and possibly illustrative of the difference between being an anonymous outsider vs. having a personal connection). 

For Chile, my take on society in a non-personal sense has stayed fairly true to my initial impression. I've written about various aspects of Chile in a non-personal sense over the years on this blog. Without considering any personal connections or familiar faces, interactions tend to be rather neutral, possibly skewed negative, with limited possibility for conversation or small talk. In public, everyone is usually concerned mostly for themselves and this can even come at the expense of others.

However, (thankfully!), my take on society in a personal sense is immensely different, and much more positive. To me, Chile in a personal sense is much more friendly and caring, people are not selfish in the slightest, and courtesy is the expectation. While there are still barriers to break down in terms of making close friendships, people you have connections to will generally open up and treat you in a very positive way.

Anyway, the reason I was thinking about first impressions of a society actually has its roots, again, in the World Cup. Strange how soccer meddles its way into just about everything these days, no? As I've documented over the past few weeks, I was first rooting for Chile and the US (Either way, I win!) Then, I was in it for Brazil. I have a lot of ties with Brazilian people and activities here, and having them win would be quite fun for me. In the end, Brazil got kicked out of the tournament right before a big "Brazilian night" event, which naturally, was still immensely enjoyed for the party it was.

But one of yesterday's games was Paraguay vs. Spain. I knew since Paraguay started going forward in the tournament that they'd be one of the teams I'd like to go on. It wasn't much to do with the whole "underdog" thing, but rather that I have an extremely positive opinion of Paraguay. When I traveled to Paraguay I didn't have many expectations. It is a country often overlooked, without too many internationally famous sights or attractions. However, when I got there, I was extremely pleased. People on the streets would stop and chat in a way that wasn't creepy, when I entered a store the employees were eager to help and share stories, and everyone was full of smiles. I remember one time a man in a plaza invited us to have dinner with his family, a restaurant employee explained every single traditional food on the menu without the slightest annoyance, and a large percentage of mall customers went outside to laugh and play in the hail together. My time in Paraguay didn't have any particularly notable experiences, but all of the little things just traveling around added up to make a great impression. So Paraguay going to the World Cup?

Hell yeah, I was for that.

Plus, they were the only team left in the tournament that I have actually been to see play live. But, unfortunately, they lost. And now I am unsure who to root for. I know its not Germany, despite significant ancestry, for no real reason other than I haven't been there and don't feel much connection to the team. I have set foot in the other 3 countries, but only spent considerable time in Spain. However, I think to some level I want Uruguay to win. I'm not sure why. Perhaps its still my heart rooting for the South American continent.

edit: thats right SA, you can get me to root for your teams but not to buy into your 5 continent convention


  1. I ended up watching the Brazil game in a Brazilian neighborhood here in Chicago. Although the fans were devastated, it was fun to return to the same bar several hours later (after going out for breakfast!) to find everyone still there, now dancing, happy, and drunk, and gearing up to root for Uruguay. It was a fun little preview for me since it was as close as I could get to South America for now!

  2. Oh no, I laughed out loud a the thought of the Bolivian man running away from you!! How awful/funny! How did you feel? I would have been shocked ... like stepping into the Outer Limits!
    I'm rooting for no one in particular, and if I root for Germany it's more of a technical stance. Technically, they're far superior in soccer (as I've seen in this World Cup anyway). Further, I'm anti-Spain for the mere reason that they beat Chile and are egotistical. Plus I hate that Villa character just for the fun of it.
    See? I make no sense.
    But I'm with you that I'd love to see Uruguay go far!

  3. Where'd you get that shirt? My good friend from college is in the Peace Corps in Paraguay. I want to go there, and now with your great review, I want to go even more. I was sad when they lost. Now I guess I'm rooting for Uruguay, or Holland. It's hard because they're playing each other. I'll probably just root for whoever's winning. Is that bad?