Archive for October, 2008

I Want a Pony: The Impact of Technology on an Expat

Buenos Aires, ArgentinaSaddest Pony in the World.  In front of the BA Zoo.

I want a pony. Not for my birthday, to deliver my mail.

Since moving to Argentina, I have developed a love-hate relationship with technology. Sure, email is great, enabling you to cross a hemisphere faster than a speeding bullet. But I long for the days of the pony express.

While my friend was living in Kenya, she and I became more than friends. We became pen pals, keeping in touch the old fashioned way with pen, paper, and stamps. Once, I made the mistake of giving her a hard time for not writing me sooner. In her defense, she argued, “If you ask me, 3-5 months is a perfect amount of time to pass between people on DIFFERENT CONTINENTS.”

She was right, of course. If I am living in Argentina and my friend is living in Kenya, it is only natural to expect that a birthday package mailed in June should arrive in September, with half the contents missing. Not only is it natural, it’s part of the fun. But technology has no respect for nature.

Technology is deceptive, luring you into a false sense of proximity. Features like Facebook, Skype, and Gchat trick you into thinking that everyone is more accessible than they really are. And make you believe that a 10-hour plane ride, a three-hour time difference, and a foreign language will have no effect on your personal life.

All choices have consequences and one of the consequences of moving, whether to a new city, state, or country, is that you leave behind many of the people, places, and things that you know and love. But when I moved, I secretly hoped that my life would remain frozen in place and time, patiently awaiting my return. In the beginning, I spent a lot of time online, relying heavily on my friends and family back home for support and companionship and trying to stay connected to my old life.

But each time I looked at a friend’s photo album online, I was forced to see with my own eyes that life had gone on without me. And I realized that no amount of emails, chats, and wall posts could compensate for the fact that my friends and family are no longer part of my daily life. At some point, I decided to look for opportunities to make my own memories.

Rather than surf the web, I began to volunteer and teach English, and eventually I found a full-time job. Rather than send a mass email after traveling, I began to invite friends over to look at photos, listen to my stories, and plan trips together. And rather than chat online, I began to have conversations, mostly in Spanish, over dinner and drinks. As the months went by, Argentina became not just my place of residence but my home.

Time spent in cyber space is time spent in limbo, suspended between here and there. You have limited mental, physical, and emotional resources. If you want to give yourself a chance at building a new life abroad, you have to be willing to take time and energy away from where you came and redirect it to where you are and where you want to go.

Recently, I received an email from one of my best friends from high school, who I had long since taken for lost. She explained, “I swear I’m not as much of a jerk as I must look like. This email went straight to my junk mail folder – I didn’t even see it until I was cleaning out my computer this week in prep for my move (departments not cities) and found it!  I was starting to wonder if you had completely disappeared…”

Relieved, I understood that while I was busy building a life in Buenos Aires my friend was doing the same in Columbus, Ohio. Moving abroad may magnify the challenge of growing up but all of us mature and move on. Some of my old friendships have been lost entirely and no number of new friends, regardless of how wonderful, will ever replace them. But fortunately, many of my previous relationships remain intact, albeit modified, and continue to grow across distance and time.

Choosing your own unique path in life is not without sacrifice. But lamenting your loss and trying to hold on to the past only prevents you from being present in the present and limits your options for the future. The best you can do is concentrate on the here and now, and hope that your path runs parallel to that of your loved ones so that when they do cross again, whether virtually or in person, it feels like nothing has changed.


Voting Across Country Lines

Buenos Aires, Argentina

“I really don’t see why I should have to pay taxes. I didn’t live in the United States last year.” It was March and I was seriously considering tax evasion.  I hadn’t sent children to school, driven on roads, or asked a fireman to remove my cat from a tree. It hardly seemed fair to pay for public goods that I was in no position to benefit from.  And yet, the IRS had extended its long arms to Latin America. I knew I couldn’t escape death by moving abroad, but what about income taxes?

Even though I lived and worked in Argentina during all of the previous fiscal year, some of my income had been earned in the United States.  For a few months, while I was waiting for my work-residency visa, I was on the payroll of my employer’s New York headquarters. In the end, a combination of peer pressure, the promise of a generous rebate, and fear of future repercussions convinced me to pay my taxes. I couldn’t believe that the U.S. government had followed me to Buenos Aires.

I have been living in virtual anarchy for the past three years.  Residing legally outside of my home country but not a citizen of my host country, I am practically untouched by government.  The notion of domestic politics ceases to exist, and what exactly are “foreign” politics when you yourself are a foreigner?  I knew that all around the world people were dying, temperatures and unemployment were rising, and governments, institutions, and companies were failing.  But the only current events that I cared about were how expensive tomatoes had become, whether I would able to take the subway to work, or if the taxi driver would want to talk to me about Iraq.  Civic engagement became a choice rather than a duty, and I chose to abstain.  Except on special occasions like tax season and national elections.

“Have you registered for an absentee ballot yet?”  That question, recently posed by my mother, burst my self-centered bubble of ignorance and apathy.  My initial response was an obstinate “no.” I tend to turn into a bratty teenager when my mother tells me what to do.  But in all honesty, I felt detached from every aspect of the presidential election – from the candidates to the campaigns, from the issues to the results.  But more than anything, I felt detached from being an American.

In fact, not being identified as a stereotypical American had become a source of pride.  During a family vacation to Colombia, a waiter, with whom I had been speaking in Spanish, asked me where we were from.  “The United States,” I replied. 

“Yea,” he insisted, “but where are you from?”

“The United States,” I repeated with a smile. 

“Oh,” he replied, embarrassed, “I was sure that you were Argentine.”

I have also been mistaken for Italian, Spanish, and Brazilian, and others simply can’t identify my origin.  “But you don’t look, dress, talk, or act like an American,” they tell me. “Thanks,” I always reply, flattered.  Being asked to vote was asking me to take interest in something that I had long since written off – the American public.

Nevertheless, a few days ago, I agreed to go with friends to a Vice Presidential debates viewing party hosted by democrats abroad.  “I’m drowning in a sea of Americans,” I remarked upon arrival. While people were playing Palin Bingo, I was busy inventing my own game – count the North Face fleeces, baseball hats, and button-up shirts. 

When the debates started, the room went quiet.  The only sounds were those of active listening – laughing, cheering, clapping, and jeering.  I looked around the room and found myself surrounded by educated, passionate, socially aware, culturally curious, and adventurous Americans.  We were hardly fit the description of “dirty, American tourists,” and yet we were all made in the U.S.A.

Maybe I would have turned out exactly the same if I had been born in a different place. I can credit much of my willingness and ability to live and travel abroad to having grown up in a country that promotes independence and freedom, appreciates diversity, advocates women’s rights, is financially stable, and is respected internationally, or at least used to be.  I may consider myself a citizen of the world, but this is in large part thanks to the fact that I am first and foremost a citizen of the United States.

I understand now that this election does directly affect me. Especially because everywhere I go, I become a representative of my country and the image of America is projected onto me, even if it doesn’t represent me.  U.S. politics are world politics, and as an avid traveler, I have a particular interest in the number of stable countries that welcome Americans.  And the reality is, no matter how far from home I travel, my permanent mailing address is still my parent’s house in Michigan.  I may be an expat, but I’m not disenfranchised.  So the answer is yes, mom, I’m going to vote.

*If you are a registered voter living in Buenos Aires, Argentina and have not yet received your absentee ballot, there will be a voting party at the US Embassy on October 8, 2008, 9am to noon.

Silent Retreat

Buenos Aires, Argentina                                 

When I moved to Argentina, I lost my voice.  It’s not that I didn’t know Spanish – I had studied Spanish in college and even spent a semester abroad in Spain.  It’s that I didn’t speak Spanish.  And I certainly didn’t speak Argentine Spanish.

Yet, despite my inability and reluctance to speak, I began to make friends.  One of the first things that I did when I arrived in Buenos Aires was sign up for classes.  Rather than enroll in a Spanish course, I took dance classes – an activity of few words.  In addition to teaching me the parts of the body, giving structure to my life and allowing me to develop and explore hidden talents and passions, I met people who had similar interests.   And they began to invite me to do things.  Particularly things that didn’t require a lot of speaking like dancing, watching movies, eating dinner with a large group of Argentines, and listening.

Truthfully, I never understood why anyone would possibly want to hang out with me.  I could not have been less boring. I spent a lot of time questioning people’s motivations and doubting myself – was I was just the token foreigner, the pet yanqui, a status symbol, a chance to practice English, a potential hook-up?  I also spent a lot of time faking it – smiling and nodding vaguely, laughing when it seemed appropriate, and matching my facial expression to the mood in the room.  And when I got really tired, I resorted to staring blankly.

I felt invisible. Many of my best qualities are expressed orally – my sense of humor, intelligence, wisdom, and empathy.  If I couldn’t make jokes, give advice, discuss politics and philosophy, ask questions, or tell stories, who was I? I hadn’t just lost my voice. I had lost my personality as well.

Except that you don’t suddenly stop being you when you stop speaking. People can still see you even if they can’t hear you.  The things you do, the places you go, the way you act and react, your walk, dress, and body language all say as much, or more, about you than your words.

Words are not the only way we have of communicating who we are. Sense of humor is evidenced by how often you laugh, especially at yourself, as well as by how often you make others laugh.  Intelligence is measured by how quickly you learn, as well as by how much you already know. Who I am was understood, even if it was never clearly stated.

In fact, during my vow of silence I discovered that language had been holding me back.  I used to talk about doing things rather than actually do them.  I used sarcasm to conceal my emotions.   I analyzed, evaluated, and justified every action. Without words to hide behind, I was more exposed than ever. I couldn’t talk about who I was, I could just be. And I learned that if you are a person worth getting to know, people will invest time and energy in getting to know you. Even if it does require patience and the occasional game of charades.

With time, I learned Spanish, recovered my voice, and began to talk again.  A lot.  Especially since I now have much more interesting things to say and twice as many ways to say them.  But sometimes, I still prefer to just listen. 

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