Nouveau Riche: Moving Abroad and Movin’ On Up

Buenos Aires, Argentina

A funny thing happened on the way to Argentina: my socioeconomic status changed.  Growing up in the States, I, like most of my friends and classmates, was middle/upper-middle class.  I never wanted for anything, and often got exactly what I wanted, probably because I never asked for too much.  As is common to my social class, I learned that what you have does not define who you are, the value of hard work and earning your own allowance, and to judge the way that other people spend their money.  This middle class doctrine was only compounded by the quasi-Socialist values of the liberal, intellectual college town where I was born and raised.  Imagine my surprise when I moved to South America, and my assortment of iPods, brand name clothes, passport stamps, and Bat Mitzvah savings all catapulted me into the upper class, albeit the lower-upper class.

Because Buenos Aires looks and feels like a major European city, it can be hard to remember that it is the capital of a developing country.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the world’s ten richest countries, an economic powerhouse with per capita income similar to that of France or Germany.  Despite its strong start, during the past century the country was plagued with financial instability, thanks in large part to a turbulent political situation.  However, during the 1990s, with the peso pegged to the dollar, Argentina had one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  Citizens were once again wealthy at home and abroad.

Then, in 2001, Argentina suffered a disastrous economic crisis.  Convertibility ended and the peso depreciated significantly leading to inflation, as Argentina had no way of quickly compensating for its dependence on inexpensive foreign imports.  By 2002, Buenos Aires was considered one of the cheapest cities in Latin America.  The previous year, it had been the most expensive.  Even though the Argentine economy has rebounded sharply in the past five years, growing at an average rate of 8.5%, prices are rising and people are struggling.  Argentina is like one of those families who continues to keep up appearances after the father gambles away the family fortune, both reluctant to lose its place in high society and confident in its ability to stage a comeback.

Buenos Aires remains a beautiful, even luxurious place, but fewer are those who can afford to take advantage of what it has to offer, and many of them are not from around here.  It used to bother me the way that wealthy Westerners have converted Buenos Aires into the world’s hottest outlet mall, capitalizing on the city’s supply of high style and quality at low cost.  But even if it was not my intention to profit from the misfortune of an entire nation, I, too, have benefited from Argentina’s financial woes.

The quality of my life in Buenos Aires has been far greater than it would have been in the United States or Europe, under similar conditions. I have been able to treat myself to dinners at fancy restaurants, late-night taxis, scuba vacations, apartments in the nicest neighborhoods, and classes at the top dance and yoga studios.  Not all the time or every day, but enough.  And my lifestyle has been financed with nothing more than the money I made as a summer intern at an international consulting firm before moving abroad, and, later, a generous nonprofit salary.

My partners in consumption are either fellow expats or members of the country’s elite. Amazingly, although absolute measures of wealth may vary from country to country, social class stereotypes remain constant.  Having a roommate in Argentina is uncommon, as most young people can’t afford to leave home.  Argentines willing and able to open their doors to a stranger are often those whose parents have purchased them a spacious apartment, among other things, and want to fill the extra space and earn extra spending money.  I have watched such roommates eat Ramen noodles with a silver spoon, because they don’t know how to cook, and I have seen mothers come over to do the dishes and drop off dry cleaning.  On one occasion I heard a roommate chastise a houseguest for leaving clothes to dry in the living room, because, “it makes us look like we’re from the ghetto.”

Finding friends who share the same financial situation, background, and social values, priorities, and interests has been challenging.  I am neither obsessed with appearances nor incapable of caring for myself, and the assumptions can be aggravating.  A group of Argentine girls once confessed to a British friend of mine that they don’t eat fast food because they couldn’t be seen in “places like that.”  Since my friend is from London, they imagined she shared their snobbery, failing to realize that she routinely finishes her Saturday night with a Big Mac and fries.  If I comment on how expensive an item is, the store clerk inevitably reminds me that it’s cheap in dollars.  Leaving me to explain that I don’t have dollars, I earn and spend in pesos.  And people quickly assume that my parents are maintaining me.  Maybe I am well-educated, traveled, and dressed, but I am not a rich kid at heart.  We may dine at the same restaurants, shop at the same stores, and live in the same neighborhood, but we got there in very different ways.  Or did we?

Recently, I have come to the conclusion that I am more spoiled, and more of a brat than I would care to admit.  Thanks to my parents, I have no student loans, and following graduation, I had free room, board, and car insurance, enabling me to save for my trip abroad.  My financial freedom is backed by my parents’ dual income, and the knowledge that my bedroom has not yet been converted into a study.  I am notoriously careless with my possessions: dropping new cell phones in rivers, eating and drinking in front of my computer, and heaping dirty clothes in piles on the floor.  Partly because I am lazy and partly because I know that these things can be replaced.  After all, it’s only money.

Since moving to South America, I have wrestled feelings of guilt; for having so much while so many people have too little and, more importantly, for being ungrateful of what I have and taking my privilege for granted.  Growing up, I never felt relatively deprived, but I never felt relatively wealthy either.  I now understand that much of what for me is an expectation is a luxury to the rest of the world.

These past few months, I have had to cut back in order to stay within my budget.  I walk or take the bus, I cook instead of eat out, and I don’t shop or go to the movies.  I’ve also become domesticated, hanging up and folding, making my bed, and scrubbing the bathroom floor. I’ve learned to take responsibility for and pride in my belongings and to make the most of less.  At some point, I even considered renouncing the pursuit of worldly pleasures.  But, then I realized that having just enough to survive is not just stressful, it’s lonely, because you have nothing left to share.

Fortunately, my reality is not one of subsistence.  While I don’t want it to be one of excess, either, I do want to be able to go out for drinks with friends, have space for houseguests, and treat those people who have taken care of me to dinner. I like being able to do nice things for the people I care about, and that requires resources.  Besides, you are no help to anyone else if all of your time, energy, and money are focused on you and your own survival.   And sure, I don’t need pretty things, but I want them, because there is nothing wrong with having beauty in your life, especially if you appreciate it.  I guess it’s a good thing my mother’s coming to visit me in a week.

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1 Response to “Nouveau Riche: Moving Abroad and Movin’ On Up”


  1. 1 Farolera February 3, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Did you write all this just to take me to dinner? Aww.

    Just kidding. Very interesting piece of writing, dear! loved it.


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