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More differences than meet the eye

I have been living in Chile for six months now. Being in a different country for that long allows you to recognize the differences between your home country and your new country.

When I first arrived in Chile, I didn't notice much that was different from the United States, other than the language. Sure, the obvious differences really stood out, such as clothing, houses, the language, the way people look and the roads. But the real differences were invisible.

I noticed right away the differences in clothing. Girls seem to prefer wearing low-cut cropped shirts, (so there really isn't even much of a shirt) and high-waisted elastic band jeans. Boys generally wear an oversized polo t-shirt with un-matching swim trunks on the bottom. Go figure! (It's such a beautiful sight).

The houses are almost like the ones you would see in the movies. Some houses are little shacks off the side of the road covered in mud with the laundry hanging out for everyone to see. Other homes are a creamy sort of swirly stucco with round orange shingles on the roof.

In the States, people come in many ethic backgrounds with lots of variety in hair color and complexion. There are many people with blonde hair, including me. We get used to seeing people of many races and colors. Not here. The Chilean people are almost all dark skinned and dark haired. When I first came to Chile, I could hardly tell anybody apart.

Roads in Chile are...not nice. Potholes dent the pavement like craters on the surface of the moon. You can't drive 20 feet without being shaken around inside the car. There are so many bumps and holes and gaps there's no way around them.

Now that I have lived here for a while, I realize that the real differences are the things that don't meet the eye. The way people treat people is extremely different than what I was used to in the States.

For instance, my family just assumes that I am fine around people I don't know. I mean, obviously I am fine, but they don't introduce me to anyone or tell anybody who I am. Many people I don't know assume that I don't want to know them, and look at me like I have 27 heads when I introduce myself.

Other people are just the opposite. They can't get enough hugs or kisses on the cheek from me. They think I am the coolest thing since sliced bread. They ask me what I like, what I don't like, why I'm here, what my family is like, and the list just keeps going. After a while, my answers become routine.

My classmates have treated me like I've been their best friend since forever. It really does seem to me that we've been friends that long. I couldn't have asked for better friends and I can't imagine ever leaving them. But sadly, that day does have to come.

In Chile, there is a noticeable difference between the rich and the poor, much more obvious than at home. The first difference is the kind of house a person lives in.

Is it one of those shacks I mentioned earlier or is it a big house with a pool in the backyard? If you have a pool, by all means you're practically considered a billionaire. The second thing is what school you go to.

You either go to the private school that costs a $300 entry fee and then even more after that, or you go to the public school with no windows. Even living in a certain part of town defines your financial status. The difference is huge, with not many rich, a lot of poor, and so it seems, a lot fewer in the middle than at home.

For example, in Detroit Lakes you'll never find an older woman selling Band-Aids out on the street to try and buy herself dinner. The streets are lined with people like that here.

Musicians hoping for a little extra change line the streets playing their various instruments, looking for a way to get by.

Another huge difference you don't notice right away is the school system. Students and teachers here openly smoke cigarettes in the courtyard and outside my school. Teachers don't make an appearance in class some days.

If a student comes to class every day of the week, it's considered a miracle. The maternity leave for teachers isn't just after the baby is born. It's the whole nine months and then four or five months after the baby is born.

People come and go so much it is hard to keep track of who belongs in school and who does not.

One of the last differences that I noticed is the difference that bothers me the most. Dogs -- they are everywhere. You can't walk down the street without stepping over three or four stray dogs. They even sleep in the schools. You can't seem to go anywhere without having a dog thrown into the mix.

It's funny. At first you see a lot of things that seem so different, but you get used to different clothes and different appearances pretty quickly. Then, once you speak the language for a while, it seems that we are all the same. The more I learn about the people though, the more differences just seem to pop out to me everywhere I go.

Sure, I didn't notice them at first, but once you do, you learn to live with them and love the fact that we are not all the same. They aren't even differences anymore -- just a way of life.

Berit Ramstad Skoyles is a junior at Detroit Lakes High School but is studying abroad this year in Chile.