What do you do?

31 July 2007
4:48 PM

Simple questions can have complicated answers. For me it’s not always easy to answer the question, “What do you do?” In the U.S., where the idea of a post-graduate service program is not quite so unusual, it’s not difficult. I say it’s something like the Peace Corp. with the Catholic church and then give a laundry list of the places I work. Here in Chile being a full-time volunteer is unknown and explaining myself can be tricky.

That said, there’s no worse time for complicated answers than when the police are asking the questions. After I received my latest visa I had to re-register my current details with the police. I went to the central office in Santiago, waited two hours, and finally got to sit down at one of the officers’ workstations. He reviewed my triple-copied pile of paperwork. He asked my name, birthday, address, and then the dreaded question: what are you doing here?

I gave the concise version, “I’m a volunteer with the Catholic church, working in social services.” “Oh. Are you studying at Universidad Catolica?” No. “Are you an exchange student?” No, I already graduated from college. “So what did you receive your degree in?” Philosophy. A pause. “What did you say you do again?” I gave a slightly longer version, with the names of the places I work. Silence.

I sat uncomfortably for five minutes as the officer pecked away at his computer. Finally he printed out my white card and sent me on my way. I was so relieved to be done that I only looked at the card after I had left the building. It read, “ACTIVITY IN CHILE: NONE.” To worsen the blow, the back side told me that I had to inform the police if I ever changed my work. Together with my present status it meant, “Let us know if you start doing anything.”

What do I do? Well, according to the Chilean police, nothing.