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Matt McKenna, Santiago

Who are you?

My name is Matt McKenna and I am from Austin, Texas, USA. I am a teacher of religious studies and philosophy. I am single and have close ties to my family. I had previously spent 3 years living and working in Monterrey, Mexico for a non-profit organization. After returning to the U.S., I spent several years teaching in Catholic schools. I enjoy trying new restaurants and exploring the Austin music scene with friends and am a huge movie buff. No matter where I live, I try to live with an expat frame of mind – to explore my surroundings and to get the most out of my experiences.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

In my mid-thirties, I wanted to have another out-of-country experience.Through my Catholic school network, I found a great opportunity at one of the best private schools in Santiago, Chile. They sponsor several English teachers every year and where open to have been help out in their Religious Studies and Philosophy department. I have always imagined myself looking at the Andes, and this was my chance. Further, I wanted to gain a perspective into South America.

While I had lived in Mexico and traveled throughout Central America, South America was a mystery to me. This area of the world rarely makes its way into the American news and is virtual non-existent in standard US curriculum. Thus, I was compelled to go.

What challenges did you face during the move?

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The main challenges arose from giving notice that I would not be returning to my teaching position in the fall. This was a bit scary because I was committing myself to strike out into the unknown. This occurred in early April, during the time when letters of intent where being signed.

The school in Chile requested that I come down for the second semester in late July or early August in order to adapt to the school and the cultural. As a result, I had a few short months to think about what to do with my TV, furniture and other large possessions. Had have always been a minimalist, but I had started to acquire quite a few things. I was fortunate that my apartment’s lease was up at the beginning of July. I decide to go ahead and sell my TV and furniture since I did not want to store it. My parents were gracious enough to take me in for a month, and the school helped me with all the paperwork necessary for my visa.

How did you find somewhere to live?

Since I had never been to Chile before and did not have time for visit beforehand, finding somewhere to live where I would be comfortable was a big worry. For this, I used Airbnb.com. This is a website that has rooms and apartments for rent all around the world. I found a room for rent in a nice part of town, fairly close to the school well within my price point. I was able to talk to the owners via Skype a couple of times. She was very friendly and I felt comfortable reserving the room for two months. My experience at the house was great. I ended up staying with the family for 6 months. This home stay really helped me adapt to the culture and make Chilean connections. Eventually, I moved into a flat with some of the English teachers that worked at my school. The apartment had been used for several years by expats teaching at my school.

Are there many other expats in your area?

Santiago has a really good expat scene. I had a built in connection through the English teachers at my school. Besides this, I met a lot of people who were making a decent living teaching English at one of the several language schools in Santiago. The most interesting expats, though, were the members of the diplomatic and non-profit community. I joined a rugby club comprised of various diplomats and English teachers. Further, backpackers from around the world pass through Santiago on the way down south to the Lake Region and Patagonia. The bar and nightlife scene, especially at a couple of places that cater to expats were a great place to meet travelers and resident expats alike. This was important for me, especially during football season and the holidays.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

I struggled to make close connections with other Chileans besides my home stay family and a few co-workers. Chileans are a bit reserved and can be hard to get to know. This is not to say that the locals where not friendly or helpful. I only had positive experiences with my day-to-day interactions. Yet, my life definitely ended up centering on the expat community and the constant stream of activities going on. I am grateful that my home stay family would invite me over frequently, especially during the holidays, vacation and Fiestas Patrias. Such times where difficult many expats because Chilean families head out of Santiago and go down south or to the beach. Without local support, this can be a lonely time.

What do you like about life where you are?

Santiago is a great, large city with plenty to do. The economy of Chile is solid and the standard of living is high. Santiago has a wonderful transportation system. Between the subway and the bus system, I could go anywhere I liked around the city. The other great thing about Santiago is that it is situated about an hour from the beach and an hour from the ski slopes. Several times, my friends and I would ski in morning and have a fogata on the beach in the evening. The food in Chile is simple, yet delicious. Chileans love to taste the freshness of food and tend to stay away from sauces, with the exception of avocados and mayonnaise. And Chilean wine is super and affordable.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

There are two things that are hard about expat life for me. First is that I do miss my family. My brother and sister-in-law have six kids and I miss being present for them. Further, my grandparents are really advancing in age. It is hard to miss family get-togethers. Second, I often feel that I am rootless, neither here nor there. Since I know that I am only staying in the country for a couple of years, it is not home. This creates a bit of restlessness within me. I do look forward to my trips back home to visit my family.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

I would definitely advise patience. I was fluent in Spanish before I arrived in Chile, but the accent and idioms did take some getting used to. Also, office politics are different to what I was used to in the U.S. It is important to have a couple of Chilean colleagues to help one navigate through the professional environment. Also, be prepared for the cold and rainy winters. Central heating is not common. I taught at a very exclusive school and the classrooms where heated with a small gas stove. The good news is that from September through May, one does not have to worry about any rain in Santiago.

What are your plans for the future?

After three years full years teaching in Chile, I have returned to the United States. I am happy that I had my Chilean experience and even went back to visit friends for a week and a half recently. Right now, I am considering two possibilities. I have a group of friends who have an idea for Startup Chile, a very successful, government program that sponsors an ever-growing amount of start-up business in Chile. If the project goes forward, I may be moving back to Chile to help manage this project.

Also, I have begun to look into possibilities of teaching in Asia. I’ve meet several people who have had great experiences teaching English in China.

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