While on a flight to Santiago for a conference, I was seated next to a couple that began the trip embraced in a cuddle. At first, I felt a twinge of jealousy, thinking that it could have been my mate and myself, who was seated several rows behind. However, as time progressed and proximity to Santiago approached, their cuddle dissolved into an argument that is almost as old as the ages. As they perceived me as just being an extranjero, a foreigner, and ignorant of the language, the man and woman didn’t hold back in their discussion, and I became a captive audience of secret disillusionments and expectations in the descent into Santiago.
The couple represented a part of Chilean society that had been forced into a secret liaison due to divorce being a relatively recent institution in Chile. It wasn’t until 2004 that divorce finally became a legal option for discordant couples. Prior to this, an untold number of couples formed separate relationships outside the constraints of their marriage vows. In some cases, couples would live apart with their new partners, and this eventually became a somewhat accepted part of society. Others chose to simply live their private life privately. Either choice presents difficult challenges and heartbreaks, as demonstrated by this situation-stressed couple.
I was introduced to this side of Chilean life during my first year here. While their stories are as private, as will remain that of my “flight-neighbors,” there is one incident that opened my eyes to this aspect of Chilean culture early on in my expat experiences, and can be relayed without revealing identities. We were invited to a dinner party given by a student’s father. At the time, my knowledge of Spanish was really limited, almost non-existent. So, I did not grasp that the woman sharing the father’s house was not the student’s mother, but referred to her as such. My faux pas caused some momentary discomfort at the dinner table, both for our hosts and myself. I didn’t understand at that time that someone’s “senora” was not necessarily someone’s wife. It was a faux pas that I have been careful to never repeat.
I had forgotten about that embarrassing moment until this plane ride, and it gave me time to ponder the nature and need for discretion in all public settings. Most important of all is to remember that discretion requires the restraint from assumption. One should not only NOT judge “adjoining books” by their cover, but also should not judge foreign titled “books” as being strictly monolingual.