Argentines have a bad reputation. They are known throughout Latin America for being vain and arrogant. Porteños, residents of Buenos Aires, and Buenos Aires itself can be aggressive and exaggerated. Fights break out over being crowded on a crowded subway. People spend the entire time on line at the bank sighing audibly. An acquaintance of Cuban origin once shared with me a phrase used to describe Argentines – Vayan a donde vayan, les caen mal. Wherever they go, people don’t like them.
A long time passed before I was able to see things that way. As soon as I set foot in Buenos Aires, I was smitten with the city and its inhabitants. Everyone was vibrant, talkative, friendly, and warm. The city was exciting, active, and welcoming. In fact, one of my first days here, I serenaded the city with a rousing rendition of “I Think I’m Going to Like it Here” from Annie.
My adoration of Buenos Aires was partly a matter of taste, and partly the product of a quarter-life crisis. When I was a teenager, I came to the unfortunate conclusion that I didn’t like my life or the direction in which it was headed. Although it was a wonderful life, it wasn’t right for me.
My decision to move abroad was my first attempt at exploring the alternatives. Only, I didn’t so much explore them as swallow them whole. The truth is that three years ago, I wasn’t looking for options. I was looking for answers. Specifically, answers to the question Who am I?
Like any lost, vulnerable young girl in need of direction and scared of rejection, I transformed into who I thought I had to be in order to fit in and gain acceptance. “Clearly, I’m not American”, I thought, as if taking the girl out of the country takes the country out of the girl, “maybe I can be Argentine?” I didn’t want to like Buenos Aires. I needed to like it. Besides, who was I to criticize? I was just a guest here after all.
After three years of living, working, dining, dating, renting apartments, paying bills, and doing laundry in Buenos Aires, the novelty wore off and the blinders came off. I got to know myself better and I began to see the city for how it truly is. I had earned the right to judge.
It turns out that there are things that I don’t like about my biological and adopted homes in equal measure: Americans rigid adherence to rules and Argentines complete disregard for law and order; the way that American guys wait two days to call and Argentine guys call 14 times in a row; how Americans eat dinner at 6:00pm and Argentines go to bed at 6:00 am; how Americans are always in a rush and Argentines are never arrive on time.
Of course, there are things that I adore about Argentina. Like how Sundays are reserved for the family; strangers strike up conversations on the street; friends greet with a kiss on the cheek; nights unfold naturally, with dinner sometimes lasting until dawn; everyone has an extracurricular activity; and there is no shame on working on yourself, say with a therapist or personal trainer.
And there are things that I miss about America. Like diversity (cultural, linguistic, sexual, religious); variety (of foods, clothes, activities, and thoughts); quality services and products; women’s rights; respect for privacy (except that of celebrities); the emphasis on education, independence, efficiency, and ethics; and my family and friends.
For me, moving abroad was supposed to be about giving myself the freedom to choose, and more options to choose from. It was not meant to be a blanket rejection of my home country or a blind acceptance of my host country, but rather an opportunity to begin building a life of my own design, using the customs, traditions, habits, and styles best suited to me. I now understand that not sharing everything in common doesn’t mean that I don’t belong, and that I don’t have to like everything in order to be happy and comfortable here. Living in Argentina and traveling through South America have expanded my options exponentially, but I always retain the right to take them or leave them.
Right now, my life has some elements that are distinctly American, some that are distinctly Argentine, some acquired during travels, some that are entirely of my own creation, and some yet to be determined. I still haven’t found everything that I’m looking for. Perhaps I never will. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the journey.
Recently, I was on a flight back to Buenos Aires after nearly a month of traveling in Central America. As I observed my fellow passengers gesturing wildly, arguing indignantly with the flight crew, and blatantly breaking the rules of air travel etiquette and safety, I turned to my friend and muttered, “The problem with flying to Buenos Aires is that you’re on a plane full of Argentines.” But I’m allowed to say things like that because it’s my family that I’m talking about.