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.


2 Responses to “Native English Speaker”

  1. 1 rolando díaz-pérez April 4, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Careful what you pray for! I was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI. Came to Asunción 10 years ago -in my 30’s- and had a ferocious accent quite offensive to Paraguayans’ sensibilities, as it was half yanqui and half porteño (my mother was argentine). Just like you, I also just wanted to just fit in and not be constantly reminded of my foreignborn status. Well, I’ve pretty much accomplished that. And I must admit, though I am proud of the enormous strides in my Spanish, including my pronuciation, I do sort of miss being the immediately recognizable “exotic” one, as it does bring various perks!
    Very well-written blog! Your English is excellent! 🙂

  2. 2 rolando díaz-pérez April 4, 2010 at 12:21 am

    Whoops! My previous comment was meant for the “¡Qué bien que hablás!” post…

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