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Updated 25 Jan 2018

Sarah is from New Jersey, USA, and used to be a volunteer English teacher when she first arrived in Chile. Now she teaches English at a Language School in La Serena. She loves yoga and cats, and writes about coming to terms with Chile on her blog, Sarita in Chile

About Sarah

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: New Jersey, United States

Q: Where are you living now?

A: La Serena, Chile

Q: When did you move here?

A: I worked in Chañaral, Atacama region August through December of 2016 and then moved to La Serena in January of 2017.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?

A: Alone.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?

A:  I came to Chile as a volunteer English teacher with the government-run English Opens Doors Program (EDOP, or PIAP in Spanish) in the tiny town of Chañaral in northern Chile. After finishing the program, I searched for work as an English teacher and was hired in La Serena´s Instituto Chileno Norteamericano. I currently work there part-time and have another online teaching job. I also teach occasional yoga classes (in Spanish) in a local studio.

Living in Chile

Q: What do you enjoy most about La Serena? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the USA?

A: I don´t feel one way or another about La Serena, but it is where I found my job and my boyfriend is finishing his second degree here. We plan to stay a few more years and then go to Santiago, where there´s more work and a faster pace of life. I like that La Serena is very accessible by bike and I don´t need to rely on my car. I love the weather, which is very mild and never reaches extremes. I also enjoy living next to the beach!  In general, I find that my quality of life is the same as in the States.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about the States?

A: Honestly, the only thing I miss (besides friends and family, of course) is central heating! The beginning of winter was difficult until my body adjusted to the temperature. It doesn´t get very cold here, but the humidity makes it ‘get into your bones,’ so to speak.  

In my opinion, a negative aspect of La Serena is the slower pace of life. Stores open late (10 - 11am) and close early (5 - 6pm) with a lunch break in between. The public transportation stops running early. People just generally take it easy here, and are content with where they are in life. When I visited Santiago, the faster pace was immediately noticeable. I have adjusted to La Serena but I´m also looking forward to living in Santiago in the future.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here in Chile? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?

A: There is the typical adjustment period in which you learn the quirks of the Chilean culture, as in any country. And naturally, this depends largely on context – location, generation, socioeconomic status, and as an expat, who you spend your time with. Chañaral was very different than La Serena and I´m sure both will be very different than Santiago.

Adjusting to Chilean Spanish was difficult. I had been learning Spanish for about six months before coming here, and I still struggled to understand anything the first month. I felt (and still do, to a degree) uncomfortable speaking in groups because the conversation just moves so quickly that I sometimes can´t get a word in. And the slang! Sometimes I understand every word but not the significance of the phrase itself. My goal is to learn more Chilean slang this year.   

Besides the Spanish, Chile is extremely bureaucratic. Everything requires notarized paperwork, a receipt, your RUT (ID number), etc., and a lot of waiting. I understand this is to prevent corruption, but it can still be frustrating. Chile doesn´t follow the State´s ‘the customer is always right’ model and you need to know how to work the system a bit. Companies (and people) tend not to respond to ‘I need this’. Instead, it´s, ‘I need this because I´m going out of town tomorrow’, etc. My boyfriend and I call it the Chilean way. Understanding the system took some getting used to, but now I do it too.  

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to the USA? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: The cost of living is comparable to the States, and is very expensive compared to the average salary. One exception is that rent, buying a house, buying land and building a house, etc. is much cheaper here, but can still be expensive for many families depending on their salary. Many young adults live with their parents during and after university to save money. I live in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in a fairly central area and pay 320 pesos chilenos or approximately 526 USD. Water, gas, and internet add up to roughly 40 CLP (65 USD) monthly between two people. I´ve heard it´s more expensive in Santiago.

Electronic prices are the same or more expensive. Same with clothes. Services such as haircuts are cheaper than the States, especially for women. A typical haircut runs anywhere from 4 to 12 CLP (6 to 19 USD), or perhaps a little more for speciality treatments.

Processed foods are usually the same price as in the States, and fewer speciality products are available in La Serena. Or, if they are available, they are double the price. However, I do most of my shopping at the feria, a farmer´s market that runs three or four times a week where you can buy fruits, vegetables, and often homemade food. The produce in the feria is cheap and tasty.  

One difference I´ve found with the use of credit/debit cards is the use of cuotas.  Many Chilean bank accounts allow you to pay for items with your credit or debit card in a certain number of cuotas, or payments, without interest. For example, my boyfriend can pay for items in 3, 6, or 10 cuotas without being charged interest. I found this a lot fairer than the United States system of ‘pay for it this month or you pay interest’. Of course, as in any country, some people rack up huge monthly payments, while others use it more responsibly. The EODP program that I worked for originally set up a CuentaRUT debit account for me, which serves me fine, but I´ve heard that getting a bank account as a foreigner can be difficult.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in La Serena? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?

A: The public transportation in La Serena isn´t great. There are colectivos, which are like shared taxis, and micros, or your typical buses. You can get to most, but not all, areas of La Serena by public transportation. However, the micros stop running in certain areas as early as 6 or 7pm. The colectivos run later, sometimes until 2 or 3am, but you´ll often have to wait. It seems that on holidays there is absolutely no transportation available. This past New Year´s Eve my boyfriend and I wanted to take a taxi from his parents´ house to the beach, and of the eight taxi companies he called, only one answered and said there was at least a 50 minute wait.

I live a neighbourhood close to the center of town where I can walk or bike pretty much everywhere (the supermarket, my job, Plaza de Armas, etc.). There are bike lanes in some suburban areas, but in my experience drivers respect the bikers if you´re not reckless. I have also heard it is rather difficult to get your Chilean license as a foreigner. As a side note, there are a few automatic car models available, but the rest are stick shift. This is not the case in the States, and I´m hoping to learn how to drive stick shift/mechanic this year!

If you live in the neighbouring city of Coquimbo, you might want to consider getting a car. There are colectivos and micros to and from La Serena, but it´s significantly faster by car.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in La Serena? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?

A: Throughout Chile, it´s very normal to hear that someone went to Santiago to see a doctor because the care wasn´t available in their city. It is no different in La Serena, where it´s incredibly difficult to find specialists. In La Serena at least, the public hospitals are not recommended unless you want to wait. Generally, two clinics are recommended: Clinica Elqui and Integramédica. I went to Integramédica to get new glasses and the doctor ended up correcting an incorrect prescription that I was given in the States. I went with my boyfriend to the Clinica Elqui and I was somewhat satisfied with the care. I´ve heard in general it´s better in Santiago. There are two options for insurance: FONASA and Isapre, which is a private insurance. The former is public and the latter private, but I don´t know much about either of them.

In comparison to the salaries, the healthcare costs seem rather high. I have talked with many Chileans who say the health is a big issue in this country and that people are not getting the care that they need.  

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Chile? Are there any areas expats should avoid?

A: My boyfriend and I were watching the news around the time of the famous Teletón, a telethon to raise money for children with disabilities, and they told the story of a driver that hit and killed marathon runners. I asked him if it was a terrorist attack or intentional. He looked at me curiously and said no, it was a drunk driver.

I never fear a shooting or terrorist attack like I would if I were in the States, considering I lived thirty minutes outside New York City. In Chile, the common consensus is that violent crime is increasing, and that Chile is a dangerous country. However, Chileans are very cautious people and I sometimes think this fear is stoked by the media, which shows violent crime after violent crime. People in La Serena tell me they would never live in Santiago because it´s dangerous, although it largely depends on the area.

As a woman, I tend not to go out at night alone, which I avoided in the States as well. Foreigners are especially easy targets and are at risk of pick pocketing. Be aware of your belongings and surroundings, and use common sense.

In La Serena, areas such as Tierras Blancas, Las Compañías, and sometimes La Florida tend to be more dangerous.

As a note, the 2017 Global Peace Index rated Chile as number 24 safest countries out of 163 and the safest country in Latin America. The States was ranked 114. Of course, it depends on the area, and any ranking is to be taken with a grain of salt. But I thought it was interesting to compare this ranking with the cautious nature of Chilean people.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in La Serena? What different options are available for expats

A: There are condominiums in most areas of the city and vary by price. Apartments come furnished or unfurnished. Almost every condominium has 24-hour guards, and you´ll always enter through a gate. Houses are also available to rent. One aspect that is different than the States is that all houses have gates around them.  

I don´t know what it´s like entering into an apartment contract as an expat, as the contract has always been under my Chilean boyfriend´s (or roommate´s) name. However, I have heard from other expat friends that they had no problem entering into contracts with their apartments, and some used rental services. One unexpected issue for one French couple was installing Wifi! You need a RUT (or ID number) to get internet, and as they are still waiting for their visa to be approved, they kindly asked their neighbours to share their internet while they paid half the price.  

You can also rent rooms in houses. Generally, these are advertised on a website called Yapo.cl or in expat groups. However, it goes without saying that one must be cautious before choosing to live with a stranger, as in any country.

Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?

A: Well, that certainly depends on the expat. I currently live in Puertas del Mar, which is a middle-class neighbourhood close to supermarkets/mall, the center of town, the beach, and the (soon to be open!) public library. I love this neighbourhood because it´s relatively quiet and I can ride my bike everywhere. I know other expats who live in Peñuelas, Coquimbo, which runs from normal to upscale. Everyone I know who lives there has a car, as public transportation can be limited. San Joaquin is also a nice suburban neighbourhood. Avenida del Mar provides you with a view of the beach from your window, but there´s no public transportation and apartments can get expensive.

Meeting people and making friends in Chile

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women?

A: This is something I´m still trying to understand because it´s so complex, so I can only comment from an outsider´s perspective. Please take that into consideration when reading below!

In Chile, people are usually classified (or even self-classify) according to their socioeconomic bracket: flaite, which is lower class, and cuico/a, which is upper class. Interestingly, even flaites who have more money are called just that: flaites or rotos con plata. Socioeconomic groups also influence language, as certain word pronunciation, ways of talking, and slang are openly labeled as flaite or cuico/a. I personally see racism within the separation of flaite and cuico/a because the latter often are blonde with lighter eyes, although I´ve found that people don´t necessarily identify it as racism.

I´ve never experienced any issues as a gringo. However, people from Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, and Haiti often experience discrimination. I´ve heard people say that Colombians are dangerous and bring drugs into the country, and Haitians are taking all the work (similar to the unfortunate mentality in the States towards Mexicans).

The culture of machismo is also noticeable here, but is much stronger in the older generations. The closest translation I have found for this word is male chauvinism or sexism, but the Spanish word is used far more often than the English version. Women know that machismo exists openly and identify it as a problem, and there are many, many feminist groups against it. However, it´s often the mothers themselves who pamper their sons and are stricter with their daughters, and thus pass on the machismo culture. The only time I have received attention as a woman is when I have walked around without my boyfriend with female friends while talking in English. I never receive that attention when talking in Spanish or walking alone.  

In general, Chile is less politically correct than the States, but that doesn´t mean it´s wrong; it´s just another way of thinking and labelling.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in La Serena? How did you go about meeting new people?

A: I haven´t really found it easy to make friends in the USA sense of the word. There, friends are a vital part of your life and are sometimes even more important than family. The social groups we form and identify ourselves by are the base of our community.

In Chile, family is often the most important part of your life and forms the base of your community. I´ve found it especially difficult to make friends in La Serena, and it doesn´t help that I´m not an outgoing person. I blamed myself until I talked to Chileans from other cities and they told me they struggled with similar issues once they came here. People in La Serena tend to keep to themselves and hang out with friends from as far back as elementary school. It´s also common to hear people say yes when you ask them to hang out even if they don´t want to. I´ve made some friends at yoga classes and work, but I don´t hang out with many people outside of these settings. This was difficult for me at first, but I´ve learned to get used to it, as I´m also a rather private person. I imagine this could be difficult for someone who is more social.

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?

A: I spend almost all my time with Chileans – my boyfriend, coworkers, and acquaintances from yoga classes. The only time I talk to expats is occasionally chatting with other teachers at my job. As far as I know, there are no expat groups in La Serena. I have enjoyed meeting new people through my job and yoga classes. I met my boyfriend when I went rock climbing alone my second week in the city. I would say try to find activities that you enjoy and give it time for relationships to develop!

Also, learn Spanish! A lot of people here understand English relatively well because of movies, tv shows, etc., but often are too shy to converse.                   

About working in Chile

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?

A: I came here on a temporary six-month visa to work in a government program as an English volunteer. The temporary visa in my passport and my ID card had two different expiry dates. Long story short, I mixed up the two dates and this led to a two-month delay in even applying for the visa. It´s been nine months since I´ve applied and I still haven´t received my ID card, which I was told is still being processed.

The Chilean government is incredibly bureaucratic and requires notarized paperwork for everything. As I said in another question, I understand this is to prevent corruption, but it can still be incredibly frustrating! It´s also common for a government official to tell you one thing, and when you go back a second time to reconfirm, another official will tell you something completely different. I always went with a copy of government guidelines printed from their website to prove that I had the correct documents.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in La Serena? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?

A: There is significantly less work here than in Santiago. As far as English teaching goes, there are only five or six institutes. I´m not sure if a teaching degree is necessary to teach in a colegio, as I didn´t go that route. Most private classes, or clases particulares, are students who are looking to improve their grade in English class. I really enjoy working at the Instituto Chileno Norteamericano, but have heard the other institutes vary in quality (Koe, Wall Street English, and Tronwell, if I´m not mistaken). English teacher salaries are generally low and it´s almost always necessary to have private classes on the side.

Chile, and especially La Serena, isn´t as email-heavy as the States, so it´s more difficult to apply for and acquire a job online. That means if you´re outside the country, you might have to wait until you arrive to get a job. I was already in Chile when I applied for my job and went to an in-person interview the same week. Some companies will only hire you if you have a temporary visa, which you need a job to acquire.

Q: How does the work culture differ from the USA? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in the city/country?

A: Time is a bit ‘looser’ in Chile than in the States. It´s normal to start an English class five to ten minutes late, although not everyone does it. In my institute at least, the teachers all arrive on time but sometimes end up conversing before classes for longer than planned. This is common in the workplace – people will arrive on time, leave to get a coffee, chat a bit with their co-workers, and then return to start their work. Meetings, job availability, etc. are announced with much less anticipation.

Also, it´s acceptable to leave work for a doctor´s appointment, for a trámite or government documents, or family issues. Usually in the States, the workplace is stricter about leaving to take care of personal issues.

It can be difficult for expats to get jobs due to the pituto system of recommending jobs to family members or friends. I was lucky to get a job just sending a resume, because that´s usually not the case. I hear that a lot of expats are self-employed.

Many Chileans say they work too much and don´t have enough time for family. A typical work week is 45 hours. Depending on the company, it´s sometimes debatable how much work actually gets done.

Family and children in Chile

Q: Do you think a spouse or partner will have problems adjusting to La Serena? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?

A: I came alone and met my boyfriend here, who´s Chilean. I imagine the language would be a difficulty for a trailing spouse.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?

A: There´s three different kinds of Chilean schools: municipal (public), subvencionado (government funded/parent funded), and privado (private). Public schools are considered low-quality. Subvencionado schools can vary in quality. The private schools are the most expensive and are often bilingual English/Spanish. It´s not uncommon for private school students to classify themselves according to their school, which ties into the cuico/a culture.

I have worked with students from all three types of schools and there are some tendencies I´ve noticed. The Chilean education system tends to be appearance driven. Students recopy their work to make sure it´s neat enough to hand in, draw and redraw lines with a ruler to make sure they´re straight, highlight and underline just so, etc. University students in certain majors must wear certain uniforms in their internships. However, this drive for uniformity truly contrasts with the creative and intelligent students I´ve worked with and many people say that the schools are due for a change.

In La Serena, the two most well-known private schools are The International School and the Colegio Alemán, the German School.  

The two best universities are La Universidad de Chile and the La Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago. High school students take the standardized test known as the PSU to get into college, and their score determines which majors they can apply to and thus the career they work in. University students receive a licenciatura, a professional degree, in four to six-year programs that include a practicum and thesis. I always have to explain that my Bachelor in Psychology from the States is not the same as being a licensed psychologist.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?

A: Don´t compare! When I arrived here, I was very stuck on how things are ‘supposed’ to work based on the United States system that I grew up in. Try not to box a different country into the model you grew up in and accept it for what it is. There are positives and negatives in every country.

Living as an expat, I´ve learned a lot about myself and my culture. Think critically about why your home and host countries run the way they do. Ask questions or research about the history, traditions, celebrations, etc. Remember, you are a guest in this country. As a new expat, let your interactions come from a place of curiosity and humbleness. Don´t make snap judgments based on a few experiences. The longer you live here, the more accurate your view of the country becomes.

Learn the language. Don´t expect people to conform to your English. Chileans are a bit rougher with their way of joking, so don´t be offended if they light-heartedly joke about your Spanish. But it´s not mean-spirited, and I´ve never once been looked down upon for asking the definition of a word or phrase, or asking someone to repeat themselves.

Mistakes and misunderstandings will happen, and learning a new system and way of life takes time. Take it in stride, and don´t be afraid to laugh at yourself.

~Interviewed January 2018

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