By Tali Perelman
A Vicarious Globetrotter Interview with Alexandra Esnouf, BR ’17
I traveled to Santiago, Chile five years ago, and one of my fondest memories is of watching businessmen striding down the streets, each with a briefcase in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. When I mention this to sophomore Alexandra Esnouf, who grew up in this city, she laughs, saying, “I don’t know why you find that funny! Why is that funny?”
I’m not sure why I love the image. It might be because I love that the professionals are unconcerned with maintaining a certain image, or because the external, literal work-play balance they strike is one that reflects so much about deeper threads of the culture. This balance, Ali tells me, is prevalent throughout the Chilean culture.
“The priorities are different. Work is really till 5, and then you have life, and friends, and sports. Even here, in university, people are always working, always have something to do. I’m like, it’s the weekend. I’m not saying you don’t have to do anything, but your life can’t be solely devoted to work. You finish reading something, and instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I’m finished,’ you think, ‘Oh, I have to do the next one now.’ ”
She sips her Cappuccino and looks out the huge Book Trader windows to the pouring rain. “I miss my tea time. In Chile, we have dinner much later – you have lunch at around two, dinner at around nine. At six, you get tea time, which is the best meal of the day. It’s an event, like, ‘What are you doing now?’ ‘Estoy tomando once. I’m having teatime.’ You have tea and biscuits, or bread with avocado. Oh, I miss avocado. I had avocado like three times a day at home.” She laughs. “This is making me so nostalgic.”
I can understand the nostalgia, especially as she tells me more and more about her home culture. “It’s very warm, very affectionate, and very family-oriented,” Ali explains. “Your family and social groups are very close and important. You go to the same schools, you live with the same people. Your social groups don’t change much. They love to go out, they love to have a good time. Play definitely comes before work. At one point it was a running joke that Chileans’ biggest pride is that they have the record for the largest number of national holidays and also the most long weekends.”
As she tells me about other aspects of Chilean culture – like “People are always late. You’re invited to dinner at 9? Don’t arrive at 9. No one’s going to be ready by then” – she pauses to mull over how cultures are defined. “I did a French language and culture program over the summer. It was 10 girls, and the other 9 were all American. They were asked to identify the American culture, and they got into such deep debates. I was like, ‘It’s your culture, it shouldn’t be that hard to define.’ I’m not that surprised; I find it really hard to categorize the American culture because it’s such a big country. But I feel like with any other culture, you can say, ‘Oh, Chileans are like this, are like that’ even if you don’t identify with everything you say about them.”
Although Ali is currently the only undergraduate from Chile (according to Yale Facebook), she mentions that there are a couple of Chileans in Yale professional schools, and that there have definitely been several Chileans in the past. Most of her friends from home, however, stayed nearby – just as Ali did initially. The school year in Chile runs from March to December, so Ali began to study business in a Chilean university in March. But by the end of the month, she had heard back from Yale, and, by May, stopped attending. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study, so I liked the liberal arts system at Yale,” she explains. “My brother and sister both did a foreign exchange during high school, and I’d never done it. Then my brother went to Boston for college and my sister to Edinburg. I was very, very Chilean, I loved my home and my family and my friends, so I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not going to apply to go abroad, I’m very happy here.’ But because of my siblings, I was thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just apply.’ Then when I got into Yale, I felt like I couldn’t really say no.”
Yale differs vastly from Chilean universities in ways beyond the liberal arts versus career-oriented culture. Ali’s Chilean friends take nine courses per term, all of which are lectures. “There’s a lot of reading, but it’s not a seminar system. It’s not, ‘Ali, what do you think?’ It’s more, ‘This is what this person thinks.’ ” And yet, although she describes the university system as “very intense,” Ali’s high school experience “could not have been more relaxed.” She laughs, “My last two years of school, I don’t think I ever had homework. I mean, I had homework, but it was very much optional. We had very very good relations with our teachers. Some of my teachers were some of my best friends. We talked a lot, discussed a lot, but it wasn’t like ‘Today, we’re going to debate.’ ”
Despite these great relationships – or perhaps due to their casual nature – Ali says her friends loved to play pranks at school. I ask her to describe one of her favorites, and she smiles. “There were these seeds at school that had a terrible smell. Like, disgusting. So some students put them underneath teachers’ chairs. It was so bad that you couldn’t stay in the classroom. We were like, ‘Woops, guess we have to go outside now!’ Eventually, the school took the tree down.”
Ali’s stories make me wonder why anyone would ever want to leave Chile, and I think back to my trip to the gorgeous lake region to the south of Santiago. I suddenly remember how difficult it was for me to understand people when I asked for directions, despite growing up in a Spanish-speaking household. When I tell Ali about this, she immediately glows with pride. “Chilean Spanish is very special,” she smiles. “We often had gap students staying at our house and they’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m fine, I know Spanish, I’ve taken it for two years!’ And we’d say, ‘Okay, just be careful, you might not understand it!’ And they would be like, ‘No, yo hablo espanol, todo bien.’ Then they would go out and come back like, ‘What are people saying?’ ” She pauses for a satisfied sip of her coffee. “People speak really fast. They never finish sentences, and they just don’t use the endings of words. It’s a beautiful language.”
Ali, now a potential Global Affairs and History double major, is active with the Latin American Student Organization (LASO). She is also involved with Yale Runs for a Cause, Yale Outdoors, and the International Students Organization (ISO). Although her love for Chile is palpable, she loves Yale – or, as her friends would pronounce it, “jail.”
Tali Perelman ’17 is in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.