My hair is thick and wavy, my eyes are brown and steady. My skin is not very dark nor very light, and I´m definitely not too tall. My tongue rolls r´s and sails past d´s, and has no trouble cooing u´s. If I keep my sentences short and uncomplicated, most days I can “pass.”
But the jig is up when I don’t have the common name for “the soap you use to wash dishes” or don’t know where to hacer la fila at the cheese shop. After I’ve revealed myself as a foreigner, most often the response is a cheerful and patient, “where are you from?”
Every once in a while we’ll get an eye roll or huff of frustration that we’re two more gringos who just don’t get it. But more often than not, we are treated with genuine kindness. Both the Llama and I have been warned and advised about the threat of thieves and pickpockets far more than we’ve been stolen from or felt any direct threat.
But I have paid twice as much for palta from a street vendor, and three times as much for a colectivo home late at night. I’ve paid the Gringa Tax more times than I´m comfortable counting and I expect to continue paying it.
Gringa (or gringo) tax refers to the price we pay for not being Chilean. The association with the phrase comes from being overcharged by vendors for the simple fact of being a white foreigner. In the examples above, it comes from a place of feeling “otherness” between ourselves and Chileans, who have the opportunity to take advantage of our ignorance or, in other cases, vulnerability.
But I refer to the Gringa Tax as any time I overpay, which happens a lot. It’s the price of learning, and of conquering my ignorance for having been born in a country with posted prices, high salaries, and a fierce sense of equality. In the Southern Hemisphere, not only the constellations are flipped on their heads. Many other fundamental concepts are as well:
First, knowing where to find an object can be a little baffling. Say, for example, a water filter (like a Brita pitcher) or bath towels. I could probably list ten different places back in the States where I could go and search for those items, each with a different set of expectations for quality and name brand or price. Those places do not exist here.
Second, knowing how much I should expect to spend on a desired object has been confused. Chile does not manufacture many commonly used items, meaning they are often imported at higher prices than I would expect to find in the US, so Chileans use alternatives while I pay for the conveniences I am accustomed to, without knowing any better.
The third has to do with paying in local currency. Sometimes even after calculating the price conversion in my mind, the reality of the cost doesn’t resonate. I may understand that the object in my hand, posted for $6,000 CLP equates to $9.00 USD; but as I’m counting out the cash, it still feels like I’m only spending $6.00.
In the first days after our arrival, we shopped at name brand supermarkets for items like produce, soap, paper towels, spices, etc. You know, the things you need and expect to find for fair prices in US supermarkets. Now I avoid the grocery stores at all costs, knowing that the odds are I won’t walk out without spending on three items what I would normally spend for a week’s worth of fresh produce at La Vega. For me, taking for granted the convenience of the supermarkets was paying the gringa tax.
As another example, the Llama and I were pretty proud of ourselves for finding a sturdy backpack on sale for 14,000 CLP in Viña del Mar a few months ago. It was sitting in the window, plain black with no obnoxious branding and a bold SALE sign on it. It wasn’t perfect, a little small, but it did the trick and we thought we had found a budget item. Wrong! After that pack was stolen from him at Starbucks (with nothing irreplaceable in it other than a cell phone), we needed to be replace it pretty much immediately. Imagine our delight at coming upon a vendor in Recoleta selling packs for 5,000 CLP and less. We walked away with a pack that was bigger and sturdier, with more pockets and a nice waist strap. We had paid the gringo tax in Viña del Mar, but it makes the power of knowing where to shop for such items that much more rewarding.
Sometimes when I realize how I’ve handed over my cash needlessly, it´ll get me down or make me mad. But it is the painful process of checking my privilege and learning how to appreciate reality with lower cash flow. I am thankful both that I have spent much of my life cushioned by this privilege, and also for the opportunity as an adult to shed it.
Whether it’s feeling like we should tip more than the cursory 10% at restaurants and cafes, or walking away from 200 CLP change on the bus, anxious to take a seat, there are lots of ways being a gringa has its price. But now that we are earning like Chileans, it’s time to start spending like Chileans. And that may be the worthiest test of all.
Hacer la fila: To stand in line. The Spanish use the phrase “hacer la cola” (or make the tail). I think of the difference the way I think of the way Brits say “to stand on queue” when Americans prefer “get in line.” So many ways to say a silly thing that many people in the world don’t really do very well.
Gringo/a: Have you ever heard the origin of this word? Two different Chileans have told us that it comes from Mexicans trying to tell Europeans or Americans (not sure which) “Green, go” in reference to the uniforms they wore and wanting them away from their land and communities. In Mexico and Central America, I’ve always had the sense that gringo was a negative, derogatory word that really connoted not only ignorance but condescention. Here in Chile, the term seems to be used sort of affectionately.
La Vega: La Vega Central covers almost six city blocks with its maze of market stands. Here we can find everything from scotch tape to free range eggs to knockoff Converse sneakers and toilet paper, and lots and lots (and LOTS) of fresh produce. So many fruits and vegetables it seems to be literally bursting at the seems. We make a pilgrimage to La Vega and the sub-markets of Tirso de Molina and La Vega Chica every week. It is a place that both enchants and intimidates me.