They wore patterned sweatshirts or blocks of bright color. Boys grew their hair out to the level of unkempt crew cut. Girls straightened where necessary and dabbed their eyes with enough mascara to beautify a small village. Both genders were prone to long, eye-blocking side bangs and multiple piercings. They called themselves Pokemónes, and in the town where I was volunteering — a tourist hub in the region of Patagonia, in southern Chile — they donned the label with pride.
My fellow volunteers and I were rather confused by the craze for Pokemón, an exuberant blend of emo and Japanese kawaii, or “cute” styles. But it was clearly a widespread phenomenon in that part of Chile. Seven of us were teaching English in various schools around town, and we’d all had excited students in Converse and neon jeans announce to us, “Soy Pokemón” — “I’m a Pokemon.”
Was it a joke, or some horrible mistranslation? We’d each been the subject of at least one language blunder — my friend Kendal, asking the members of her host family if they’d seen the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” chose to apply the word “coger.” In the Castillian variety of Spanish she’d studied, “coger” can translate to “catch,” but Latin American Spanish has its own, slang definition of the word, and Kendal, through no fault of her own, forlornly suffered the humiliation of realizing she’d named a film “Fuck Me If You Can.” I repeatedly used the word Californiano to refer to myself, as in “I’m Californiana” or “This is how we Californianos do it.” It was only during the last week of my stay that a giggling student finally told me that in Chile, Californiano means “horny.”
But Pokemón was no such linguistic mistake. It was a legitimate fashion trend — nay, way of life — for the teenagers we taught. Once, on a weekend trip to Argentina with the other volunteers, I took a picture of myself wearing a blue sweatshirt ornamented with silk-screened metallic stars. I pushed my hair in front of my face and widened my eyes. When I managed to get the photo up on Facebook a few weeks later, numerous students let me know how hilarious I looked — an American Pokemón. But my friends and I laughed just as hard at their instant recognizing of the picture as mock Pokemón. The fact that we could so successfully make fun of it meant that, as funny as it was, Pokemón was real.
A few months after returning from Chile, I began my freshman year at the University of Michigan, where the boys wore douchey shades and Rainbow-brand flip-flops and the girls sported Uggs and straightened their hair to death. My first style conclusion was that the good people of the University were complete fashion slobs. I had arrived decked out in souvenirs of my year abroad — a stiff double-breasted jacket with a Belgian label, crinkled grey jeans from an upper-crust boutique in Patagonia and a periwinkle beret from France. Pretentious? You betcha. But my wardrobe was how I saw myself at that time. Fast forward a semester or so, and I had bought my first poofy, knee-length North Face and learned that leggings were the best kind of pants. Without any conscious effort, I’d adopted a style that was never my own.
We’re taught to see style as a pure mode of physical self-expression, the outside showing what the inside knows and all that crap. But my first year of college taught me it’s not always so. For me, style was more of a process of cultural evolution, of changing and adapting to new surroundings — in my case, the urban San Francisco Bay Area fashion trends gradually giving way to those of a small-town Michigan college student.
Style as a symbol of the collective rather than the individual identity, style as a marker of belonging — all concepts on which I could wax eloquent if I were an anthropologist or psychologist. But I’m not. So what really gets me about this new definition of style is just one thought: If I had grown up in Chile, would I have caught on?
For all that we make fun of silly trends in other countries, there’s an idea that stops me in my assoholic culture-teasing tracks. If trends are product of the people rather than any one person, it seems logical that — and the thought stops my laughter in its tracks — if I were a teenager in Chilean Patagonia, chances are I myself would be a neon, pierced, made-up Pokemón.