In Chile, I became obsessed with dating. I asked out a rental car salesman, multiple students, and a street artisan who wove macramé bracelets. I left my phone number on a napkin for a cute waiter, got into a club for free because I had danced with the saxophone player in the bolero band, and was invited to house parties by a guy I met rock climbing. I dated someone from the northernmost city in Chile and another from the southern tip of the continent.
I did these things for a number of reasons. There were some bragging rights involved — I wanted to be able to list off all my romantic adventures like I just did. But I also wanted to learn more about the “real” Chile, not the one presented to me by my professors. After the first two weeks of classes I decided that I could learn about the country and improve my Spanish more at the bar than in the classroom.
In the beginning, I thought I could become friends with Chilean women by chatting with them at bars, but they intimidated me too much to even try. They traveled in small, tight packs that seemed impenetrable. Even when I caught one ordering a drink alone, they seemed oblivious to me. Men, on the other hand, seemed overly interested in my gringa friends and me. They approached us alone or in small groups, first staring from across the crowded, smoky room and then sidling up to us and leaning in close to ask us to dance.
I always tried to turn these flirtations into a conversation about where these men came from, their views on politics, their families, etc. They were my unofficial professors and participants in the anthropological research that is “studying abroad.” In my head, I made lists of topics to cover on our dates — educational reform, machismo, and natural resources, for example. When I first met these men, I tried to judge what they could teach me. One guy I dated for a few weeks racked up points early on because he studied psychology, was born Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the country, and had ancestors from Germany who settled in Chile in the 1800s. I decided he was intelligent and could teach me about a region I’d never been to, Chilean colonial history, and current affairs. Another studied agronomy and knew all the city’s best bars, so I learned a lot about viticulture and holes in the wall.
These men were an educational resource, but more important, they provided me with a sense of belonging. When I am somewhere new, I become overwhelmed by the desire to intimately know that place and feel like I belong. I hated not knowing my way around Valparaíso; I was tired of having to constantly question bus drivers and fellow passengers about where I was headed. When I stopped people to ask for directions, they often asked where I was from before responding. I never understood the puns in the newspaper that my host-family chuckled at, and I was sick of constantly calculating how much something cost in dollars to know what it was worth. On a previous trip to New Zealand I had discovered the warm, smug feeling of belonging, and now I was addicted to it. The need to feel this way was so strong that it consumed me, and I became desperate to be accompanied by someone, anyone, who fit in.
In exchange for the sense of belonging that they granted me, I provided these men with companionship and intimacy. And while I never slept with any of them, I understood that physicality was supposed to be part of the deal. Many Chilean men like to date gringas because we have money and an exotic appeal. They also assume that we’ll “put out” more easily than Chilean women and that we’ll be leaving the country in a few months, freeing them of any real commitment. I like to think that some of them may have actually been attracted to me, not just my stereotype, but I’m not sure. After all, what interested me most about the men I dated was what they could teach me, not who they were.
Usually these relationships were short-lived. The first one began when I wrote my phone number on a napkin for a waiter at a pizza place. On our first date, we met at a club and left together, alone and drunk. He assured my friends I would be fine and took me home in a cab. I didn’t know where I was when we got out, and I had to depend on him to walk me down the dark streets to my house. That night it felt exciting to be escorted home, but the next morning I shivered when I thought about what could have happened.
We met up once more, this time in a café during the day, and I realized he wasn’t as smart or as attractive as I thought. When he texted me later that week I said I wasn’t interested anymore. Weeks later I ran into him at a fish market; he reeked of liquor and his eyes were narrowed and blood-shot. We circled awkwardly around each other as he lurched toward me, telling me how he wanted to see me again, and I backed away. I told him off sharply and disappeared into the crowd, nervously looking over my back the whole way home.
I wish that this risky behavior was an isolated incident, but more often than not I put myself in sketchy situations just to feel like I belonged. A few weeks later, I met up at a bar for drinks with a guy I had met the night before and invited myself back to his apartment. I did these things because I felt that my judgment was impeccable, and therefore that the risks were minor and worth taking. But I also acted boldly with the men I met, because I wanted to be worth keeping.
I like to think that my forwardness was attractive and differentiated me from other women, but I wonder if it only confirmed the stereotype that American women are easy. My longing to accompany them and feel like I belonged led me to be more aggressive than I would have liked, but I felt like there was no other way to keep them interested. I wasn’t confident that my personality alone would keep them around, and I wanted a Chilean guy to spend time with. I wanted to meet up with someone at night for drinks and lean across the table to kiss; I wanted to wake up in someone’s apartment on Sundays and take the microbus home like all the other Chilean girlfriends.
The desire for others to think I belonged was all tangled up with my own longing to feel this way. On those rare occasions when I did walk down a busy street holding hands with a Chilean guy or huddled with one at a table in a crowded bar, I always wondered what we looked like to others. Did they think I was as legitimate as I felt? Did they even notice us?
Or worse, did they know it was an act?
I often found myself wondering this when I saw American women out with Chilean men. Once, a pretty American girl with a blond pony tail and lots of mascara sat down at the table next to me in the sunny outdoor patio of a café where I was reading the newspaper. Nothing identifies you as an American more than speaking English with another one in public, so I ignored her. Soon a greasy Chilean guy with gelled hair and acne scars showed up and, to my surprise, pecked her on the lips before sitting down across from her and resting his hand on her leg. I was shocked, and immediately questioned why someone as good-looking as her would be dating such an unattractive guy. Then I paused, and wondered if she was in it for the same reasons I was: to trick herself and anyone who was watching into thinking she belonged.