Adventures Abroad: Awkwardness in Arica

This column is the third in a Life&Style series exploring the study abroad experiences of students from around the 5Cs. The entries will be widely varying in style and topic depending on each student's particular perspective, and serve as an extension of the writers' accompanying study abroad blogs. This week's column comes to us from Arica, Chile courtesy of Abigail Jones SC '12.

I am awkward. Always have been, always will be. So you can imagine how shocking it was when I realized that the rest of the world isn’t as hyper-aware of everything they do as I am. Maybe I’ve always known that I was uniquely gawky and constantly on edge, but it's only really dawned on me during my semester abroad in Arica, Chile.

Awkwardness simply does not exist here. Or maybe it does, but the culture simply doesn’t linger on it. I mean it: there isn't even a word for awkward in Spanish.

Yes, you read that correctly. It just doesn't exist. Every time I experience what I would describe as “awkward,” I asked the nearest Chilean what word best describes the experience (an act in itself that tends to be a bit, well, awkward). An example of such a moment? Our first night in Arica all the gringos decided to go out and experience a quality all-night Chilean carrete (slang for party). After a tour of some of the best and cheapest bars, we headed to a disco called Bucaneros, where I saw a friend of mine busting out some spicy salsa moves with an Ariqueño. She came up for air after a couple songs, and I cleverly said something along the line of “Who’s the babe/when’s the wedding?” Turns out the boy was her host brother. Awkward? Uh huh.

But as I was saying, there’s really no translation that carries the sentiment of “awkward.” You know that moment after you say a mildly offensive joke and no one laughs immediately, or when you make a questionable comment in class and everyone looks at their papers, or when you start your blog post publishing how many Imodium pills you’ve had to take in the past week? The times when the social world seems to stop and tell you, “You should have said/done something differently” or, “Quick! Make this situation better!”

The word most Chileans provide me when I bring up the idea of something “awkward” is incómodo, or uncomfortable. Or the rare individual will give me “torpe,” or clumsy. Doesn’t quite work in all situations. For example, take the statement, “Now, those are some awkward shoes.” If you try to substitute in incómodo, you end up with the only thing worse than awkward shoes: uncomfortable ones.

There is no word for awkward in Spanish because awkwardness isn’t recognized as a cultural phenomenon like it is in the United States. I’m not a sociologist or psychologist or anything, but to me, the awkwardness that runs rampant in the United States is the result of how we treat social situations. During interactions we are extremely conscious of social dynamics, constantly judging our own awkwardness or that of others, whereas Chileans are more about experiencing their social interactions than scrutinizing them.

You may not believe me when I say that Chileans just aren’t nearly as awkward as Americans, so I have come armed with not one, but two solid examples of the relaxed and suave nature of Chileans.

The first is the fact that men dance here. I know, right? Men dance. They dance by themselves, in groups of other men, with a woman, as they walk through the clubs, and even with their hips! Even more importantly, when they want to dance with a girl, they do practically the exact opposite of the dance etiquette at the Claremont Colleges. Think about when you are at a party, ladies, dancing and enjoying yourself, when all of a sudden you feel someone creepin’ up behind you, grabbing your hips and all-in-all interrupt your groove. Not in Chile. Boys here approach with their dance-walk, ask you to dance, and actually listen to your response!

Another fad that demonstrates Chileans’ ingrained coolness? Their use of fanny packs. Yeah, think back to your mom circa 1987 and bang, you’ve got it. But here, fanny packs aren’t limited to grandmothers on vacation in Florida or 80s-themed parties. Everyone wears them. Kids, teenage boys; I even once saw a construction worker, in all his masculinity, sporting the waist-purse.

So whether we’re talking about fashion decisions, linguistics, or men’s hips, it's incontrovertible: there simply is a lack of awkwardness here in Chile. That is, of course, apart from me.

For more about Abby's experience in Chile, go to abbyinarica.blogspot.com.

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