Archive for September, 2008

Taking the Country Out of the Girl

Buenos Aires, Argentina

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. 







Native English Speaker

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Like most little girls, I dreamed of being famous.  A famous what exactly – ballerina, singer, actress, first woman president of the United States – was irrelevant.  With time and the realization that I have no marketable talent, my dreams of stardom began to fade.  Fade but not die.

Two people forwarded me the email about a casting for a “juicy” role in a horror-suspense short being filmed in Buenos Aires.  The character was described as a “25-32 American girl, New York, blond, classy socialite.” And there was just one requirement, underlined and written in bold, must be a native English speaker.  Never mind that I have brown hair and zero acting experience, I’m a native English speaker!  My 15 minutes had finally arrived in my inbox, or so I thought. 

I emailed the casting director and scheduled an audition.  Let’s just say, I wasn’t good.  But I had a lot of fun and it was a great, albeit slightly embarrassing, experience that inspired me to take acting classes.  The real point is that under different circumstances, I would never have considered going on a casting and no casting director in their right mind would have considered giving me an audition.  I had been given this unique opportunity to try something I’d only ever daydreamed of because I am a 25 year-old American living in Buenos Aires.

Friends and acquaintances moving to Buenos Aires often ask me for advice, and the number one concern is employment.  People seem to be willing to do most anything, except teach English.  Ironically, in the words of a friend of a friend, “I’m most worried about the job as I will need a decent income.  I’m a teacher here but don’t necessarily want to be doing that there.”

I understand, I didn’t want to teach English either. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with teaching English, if you’re an actual teacher, which I’m not and you enjoy teaching, which I don’t.  Being a native speaker of a language hardly means that I’m qualified to or interested in teaching it to others.

Before moving abroad, I imagined that I would need time to find an apartment, meet people, learn Spanish, and familiarize myself with my new city, and that I would want time to sightsee, shop, eat at restaurants, travel, and stay out until 6am.  So I saved enough money to have time to play before worrying about work. 

When I finally decided to get a job, I was shocked by how limited the options were: food service, retail, or teach English.  In the end, I took a job with a private language institute where I used my degree in economics and international relations from a private American university to teach business English to employees of the consulting firm where I had interned the summer before moving abroad.

Argentina is a developing country with a recovering economy and even qualified Argentines have trouble finding good jobs with good salaries. Why did I ever think that it would be easy for a foreigner who barely speaks Spanish, commands a relatively high wage in the international labor market, and doesn’t have a work-residency visa to find a job in Buenos Aires?  Call it wishful thinking.

After months of inventing explanations for idioms, getting stood up by students, and filling two-hour breaks napping on the floor of empty classrooms, I got a “real job,” as a member of the content and support team for a nonprofit website.  Benefits included a regular work schedule, a generous salary, health insurance, and a work-residency visa.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune. It took just under a year to find this job.

During the visa application process, my employer was asked to justify my employment.  As they explained it, the position had to be filled by a native English speaker.  I was working at a glorified call center.

I disliked the idea that all I had to offer an employer was the language I was born speaking.  But the reality is that in the age of globalization and outsourcing, being a native English speaker in a place where English speakers are in limited supply was what allowed me to find a good job and demand good pay. 

Great opportunities for expats do exist, if you’re patient enough to wait for them to appear, and open and brave enough to go for them.  (I have a friend who was hired to be the producer of a series of Spanish language learning videos. National Geographic recently held a competition for Glimpse correspondents).

In the meantime, ask yourself why you moved abroad. My guess is that the answer has nothing to do with career advancement or your retirement plan. Always keep your real motivations in mind and don’t try to make your time abroad about something that it’s not.  And remember, whether you’re proud to be an American or not, it may just be your meal ticket, or your ticket to fame.

Qué Bien Que Hablás

Buenos Aires, Argentina

“Estoy buscando medias de color gris.” I’m looking for grey tights. That was the first thing I said to the saleswoman at the lingerie shop. 

“Oooh, muy bien el español.  Muy bien.”  Oooh, your Spanish is very good.  Very good.  That was the first thing she said to me.

We spoke for a few minutes about the different textures and shades of grey available.  She then led me to a rack of tights where she proceeded to draw her face right next to mine. “Entendés algo de lo que digo o no entendés nada?” Do you understand anything I’m saying? That is what she asked after having discussed with me at length the finer points of tights.

I snapped.  “Hace tres años que vivo acá.  Así que, sí, algo entiendo.”  I’ve been living here for three years. So, yea, I understand. You condescending bitch. That last part was muttered under my breath, in English.

“Buenísimo!  Tres años!” Great!  Three years! She practically clapped her hands with embarrassed enthusiasm.  “Entendés perfecto entonces.” Then you understand perfectly.

Obviously, the entire experience, including both the saleswoman and my reaction to her, was exaggerated.  But the moral of the story is that I cannot stand it when someone comments on my Spanish.  Which is a problem, because it happens all the time.

I know that I should find it flattering when people tell me how well I speak Spanish (qué bien que hablás), but I don’t.  Instead, I find it to be both presumptuous (for all they know, my parents are Argentine and I grew up speaking Spanish, albeit with an American accent, or I’m a visiting professor of Spanish literature), and insulting (I have absurd standards and can be hard on myself for not speaking impeccable Castellano after three whole years of living in Argentina). Mostly, it bothers me that people are not focusing on what I’m saying, but on how I’m saying it.  They’re focusing on the fact that I’m a foreigner.

I hate being identified as a foreigner. Recently, I took a seminar through the Art of Living Foundation.  The course teaches you, among other things, to accept people exactly how they are and we did multiple exercises to help break down social barriers.  During one such activity, I introduced myself to my partner who then responded, “Ah, sos la que no es de acá, no?” You’re the girl who’s not from here, right? My reputation had proceeded me.  I was officially that girl.  So much for “being free to be you and me.”

Maybe, like everyone else, I just want to fit in and don’t want the fact that I’m different constantly brought to my attention.  Which is ironic, because I love to think of myself as unique.  Or maybe I just don’t want to be forced to share intimate details about my life every time I ask for directions or ride in an elevator.  I now understand how celebrities feel when forced to give the same interview repeatedly.  What are you doing here?  Are you studying?  Do you have friends? Do you like Buenos Aires? Do you like Dulce de Leche?  Empanadas? Argentine men?  

Whatever the reason for my annoyance, I know I’m being ridiculous.  First of all, it’s a waste of time and energy to get upset every time someone notices that I’m not Argentine, which occurs at least once a day.  Second, it’s unjustified.  When I was living in the States, I fawned over everyone with an accent – “Oooh, you’re from South Africa? England? France? Italy?  You talk so pretty.”  And I always did so with the best intentions and genuine interest. (Though I can’t remember ever prying into someone’s sex life or telling a non-native speaker how well they spoke, unless asked first.)

Not to mention that being a foreigner is not without its advantages.  It is an amazing ice breaker.  When people hear you speak, you immediately become more interesting.  People want to talk to you, to help you, to get to know you.  In the States, I’m just una más – another short, brown haired, blue eyed Midwesterner.   Here, I’m practically exotic.  Still, sometimes I feel like screaming, “There’s more to me than where I came from!”

While doing laundry the other day, a woman asked me if I was studying here.  “No,” I replied, shortly but with a smile.


 “No.” Insert awkward silence.   “Was that rude?”  I wondered.  “Yea, that was rude,” I decided.  A big step for me. So, I struck up a conversation about coins and washing machines. Later, when I returned to remove my clothes from the dryer, the same woman began to ask me the typical litany of questions. But by then, it didn’t annoy me anymore.  We were already old friends.  Now if only I could learn to stop freaking out on complete strangers. 


According to Plan

Train Graveyard, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Buenos Aires, Argentina

“Hi, this is María, from the Consulate General of Argentina in Chicago.”

For months, I had been waiting to obtain an Argentina work-residency visa.   After nearly a year of “volunteering,” my employer was finally able to secure all of the necessary paperwork.   The final step required me to return to the States, gather personal documents, mail my application to the Consulate in Chicago, and wait for them to schedule an interview. 

Having recently started a master’s program in Buenos Aires, I was nervous about being gone too long.  So, I prepared as much as possible before leaving for the States – a friend of my mother’s translated documents into Spanish, and a friend of my father’s, a county sheriff, wrote me a letter verifying that I had no criminal record.  Over a week later, I received the call from María. 

“There’s a problem with your application.” My heart stopped.  “The envelope containing your application arrived open, and all of the contents are now invalid.  It looks like it was sliced open with a razor blade.  Do you have any idea what might have happened?’

A gang attacked the FedEx delivery guy and took a straight edge to my visa application?  My real guess – someone at the Consulate had accidentally opened the envelope before they were supposed to and then blamed it on the mail.  Whatever the reason, the outcome was the same – two more weeks in the States sorting everything out.  I was devastated. But in the end, I got the visa.

I don’t know why I was so surprised.  In Argentina, nothing goes according to plan.

You want to do laundry?  You can’t.  The bank won’t have coins until the end of the month.

You want to pay bills?  Come back between the hours of 11am-1pm.  Better yet, come back tomorrow. Pago Facil, the payment system, is currently out of service.

You want to make your flight?  Leave plenty of time to get to the airport, just in case a group of protesters sets fire to the highway.

These things happen. Sometimes for a reason – during those extra two weeks at home I discovered that I no longer wanted to be in graduate school.  But mostly, they just happen. 

I used to find such incidents frustrating, if not downright demoralizing.  While at times justified, this reaction was often the product of inflexibility and my own sense of fear and failure. When I first moved abroad, everything felt out of my control. In order to get a grasp on life, I made a schedule for myself with small goals and milestones.  It looked something like:

Week 1: Find an apartment. Week 2: Make friends and start dating someone. Week 3: Speak Spanish fluently.  Week 4: Find a job.  When life didn’t live up to my unrealistic expectations, I was disappointed and, even worse, began to wonder if accidentally sending all of my clothes, including socks and underwear, to be dry cleaned meant that I just wasn’t cut out for living abroad.

With time, I’ve learned that successful living abroad doesn’t mean that everything happens how and when you planned.  It means accepting things for how they are, and not getting upset when they’re not how you thought or want them to be.  It means adjusting your standards to local limitations and being open to different, and possibly better, ways of doing things.  It means learning to laugh when you take a bus in the wrong direction and arrive 45 minutes late to your first day of work.  It means seeing life as a comedy, rather than a tragedy (or at the very least, a tragicomedy).

Every city and every thing, from meeting people, to learning a language, to figuring out the subway system, has a natural rhythm and timing. (The formula I now use to calculate how long it will take to do something here is 2x + 1, where x = the time it took to accomplish the same task at home.)  The best thing you can do is fall into step, be patient, and trust that things will work out.

Recently, I traveled to Guatemala with a friend and fellow expat.  We took a guided group tour of a natural park and at the end of the day, everyone was exhausted and ready to return to the hotel.  About 15 minutes into the two-hour trip, the van turned around – the driver had forgotten to pick up two additional tourists.

As we observed the indignation of the other Anglo-Saxons, my friend and I turned to each other, exchanged a knowing glance, shrugged our shoulders, and uttered a complacent “eh.”

“Wow”, I remarked, “Argentina really beat it out of us.”


To Befriend or Not To Befriend

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I used to be xenophobic.  When I first arrived in Buenos Aires, I refused to associate with other foreigners (the major exception being my first roommate – a French girl with whom I continue to be friends).  I didn’t sign up for Spanish classes, I didn’t go to Irish pubs, I didn’t spend Sundays shopping for antiques at ferias, and I didn’t befriend other expats.  

Rationalizing this decision was easy: if I had wanted to hang out with Americans or speak English, I would have stayed at home; mastering Spanish required total immersion in the language; assimilating to Buenos Aires culture and society would be impossible if I spent time with foreigners. 

After months of volunteering and teaching English, I got a “real job” doing customer service and content review for a U.S.-based nonprofit website.  Although the majority of my coworkers were Argentine, my immediate team was comprised of four fellow Americans. I feared for my Spanish and resented being forced to spend 40 hours a week with other expats. 

We were five American girls working together in an open office with no cubicles.  In other words, we talked, a lot.   We discussed our love for peanut butter and spicy foods, traded tips for renting an apartment without getting ripped off, complained about bureaucracy and visas, discussed dating, shopping, and dining, analyzed cultural differences, and comforted and coached each other through homesickness and the other perils of living abroad.  We got closer, and I realized how misguided, if not stupid, was my decision to reject the expat community.

Moving abroad is not like going off to college where everyone is new and in need of a friend- most locals already have an inner circle, a family, a job, and a routine and aren’t looking to make fast friends with a foreigner.  Establishing relationships in a new country and a new language takes a lot of time and patience, and typically involves bouts of depression and self-doubt. My decision to exclude myself entirely from the expat community resulted in a lot of lonely nights, waiting for a phone call from a recent acquaintance while secretly hoping that it would never come – I was often too mentally exhausted to speak Spanish for hours and too emotionally vulnerable to spend an entire evening feeling like an outsider. Whereas it can take months to feel integrated into your host city, you become part of the international community the second that you move abroad. 

As I met more foreigners, I realized that expats are more than just great starter friends, and have more to offer than advice and theme parties.  Someone who has left their own country to explore the world and live abroad is someone with whom I’m likely to have a lot in common. And I never would have met them had I stayed at home.

Most people, including myself, move abroad to broaden their horizons, meet new people, learn a new language, and experience a new culture. But by choosing not to befriend expats I was doing just the opposite.  I was denying myself the opportunity to become a member of an elusive but inclusive group of open-minded, curious, adventurous, interesting, inspirational, and unique individuals.

Obviously, when you move abroad learning about your host country, including the language, customs, and people, should be one of your major goals.  If not, what exactly are you doing there?  But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  Making friends with foreigners does not mean living on the surface – it means widening your social circle, enriching your experience, and having friends from all over the world. 

This fall, my family is going on vacation to Europe.  And for the first time in over two years, I will get to see my ex-roommate, when I stay with her in Paris.



Finding Yourself Far Away From Home

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Living abroad is not easy.  I know this from experience. 

My first attempt, a semester abroad in Barcelona, was a complete disaster. Before leaving, I imagined myself not just “studying” in Spain but actually living there- taking classes at a local university, speaking Spanish, assimilating to the local culture and making Spanish friends.  But this fantasy had nothing to do with reality.

An illustrative anecdote: I signed up for an economics class taught in English at a private university. The first day of class, the Professor announced that if everyone wanted him to teach in Catalan (not Spanish mind you, but Catalan) he would have no choice but to oblige.  He then asked, “Who actually wants the class to be taught in English?”  Me and about ten other exchange students tentatively raised our hands, causing everyone within a two-row radius to turn and stare at me as if I had just announced General Francisco Franco’s return to power.  Needless to say, I dropped the class.

To be fair, I was a victim of my own expectations. Given that there were almost 300 Americans on my program, six of whom were my roommates; all five of my classes were taught at the program’s private institute; and I didn’t exactly speak Spanish, it was unrealistic to think that I could live in Barcelona while studying abroad there. Luckily, I fell in love with the city, traveled around Spain and Europe, and met a few people, albeit fellow countrymen, who helped make the experience a little less painless.   Nevertheless, if I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn’t.

I say “probably” because if it wasn’t for the terrible time that I had that semester, I wouldn’t be where I am today: living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Right before I graduated from college, my mother invited me to be her date to a wedding in Buenos Aires.  Jokingly, I replied, “What if I go if I go with you and don’t come back?”  But with time, the idea began more attractive than funny.  I spent the summer after graduation living at home, working, saving money and preparing for my move to Argentina in November. 

Living abroad, round two.

The original plan was to take an eight-month sabbatical from life, to live off of my savings and just enjoy myself. But thanks to the lessons learned in Barcelona, I achieved what had been impossible for me in Spain- I built a life in Buenos Aires, complete with a real job, health insurance, and Argentine friends.  Three years later, I’m still here.

This victory was hard won.  Since arriving in Argentina, everyday has been a battle and an existential crisis. Mundane tasks such as opening a bank account, paying the bills, or making a set of keys become a test of will. I am confronted daily with questions that most people don’t ask themselves in a lifetime – Who I am?  Where do I come from? Where am I going? What the hell am I doing here?

When you compare life abroad to life at home, where social security numbers are granted at birth and everyone speaks your language, you realize that life doesn’t have to be this hard.  But if you can make it work, it’s worth it.  Living abroad is one endless opportunity that opens your mind and shapes you in ways that you cannot even imagine.

Unfortunately, there can never be a “how to” guide for carving your place in the world, nor a yardstick for measuring the results.  Still, we expats, past, present, and future, can benefit from, take comfort in, or just laugh at each other’s travels, trials, triumphs and failures.  That is why I created Expat Essays – to share insights on life, living abroad, and finding yourself far away from home.

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