Archive for the 'Cultural Differences' Category

Haciendo Ecología: Being Green in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina

When I left New Zealand, I donated old clothes to the Salvation Army, threw away toiletries, and gifted my oil pastels and blue plastic bucket to my boyfriend.  One item that did make it into my suitcase was a bright green cloth grocery bag.  Available for $1.50 at most major supermarkets in New Zealand, the bag shamelessly implores you to “help us create a better environment”.   Girl scout cookies I can resist, but I never could deny the exigency in the eyes of the clip-art raindrop.

In Buenos Aires supermarkets, produce is weighed before you reach the cash register. Shoppers place fruits and vegetables into plastic bags and present them to a store employee, who affixes them with a price sticker.  The first time I went produce shopping after returning to Argentina, I selected my items, set them on the counter, and tried to explain in rusty Spanish that I didn’t want plastic bags.  The man behind the scale stared at me as if I were a talking orange cat.

“Because of the environment” I explained, brandishing my hideous, slightly self-righteous tote bag.

Ah. Ok,” he smiled after a brief pause, “estás haciendo ecología.”

“Yes, exactly, I’m doing ecology.”   After a few minutes of brainstorming, he agreed to weigh and sticker each item individually.  I walked out of the store with a clear conscience, albeit slightly self-conscious.

Unfortunately, the bags aren’t the only thing here made of plastic.  I recently invented a game called “spot the boob job.”  It’s easy – you just look for a tiny woman with a disproportionately large chest and no bra.  Ironically, women who get implants no longer want to appear as though they are wearing a corset, and so are requesting natural-looking fake breasts.  The result is girls with the body of an adolescent and the chest of a senior citizen.

In Buenos Aires, there is overwhelming pressure to conform to an ideal image of beauty.  According to a CNN article, an estimated 1 in 30 Argentines has gone under the knife.  OSDE, a leading health insurance provider, covers the entire cost of aesthetic plastic surgery if you hold their plan 410 or higher.  The concept of healthy is totally distorted. A popular brand of yogurt, known for promoting regularity, launched an ad campaign encouraging women to eat their yogurt because of its slimming effect.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it contains a mild laxative.

The moral of the story is that it’s not easy being green in Buenos Aires, and the struggle extends beyond being a vegetarian in a carnivorous country.  Buenos Aires is a city obsessed with physical appearance but utterly negligent of the physical environment.  The other day, I encountered a group of young Argentines on the terrace, drinking mate, rubbing tanning oil on their skin, and flicking their cigarettes into the pool.

I’m no sociologist or psychotherapist, but I speculate that this combination of personal vanity and environmental apathy stems from a lack of control.  Inflation and corruption are rampant, university classes are cancelled due to protests, public transportation is interrupted by strikes, and noise and air pollution are palpable.  I can hardly blame porteños for preferring to invest in their looks rather than their city.  Their bodies are one thing they can still take ownership and pride in.  Perhaps it’s unfair to expect people to care for a city that doesn’t take care of them.  Still, even if individuals can’t fix the broken sidewalks, would it hurt them to clean up after their dogs?

When I moved to Buenos Aires over four years ago, I didn’t care about or notice these things.  Instead, I was enthralled by the city’s sense of urgency, arrogance, and glamour.  But live in New Zealand (and date someone doing a master’s thesis on water conservation) long enough, and you start sprouting your own lentils and growing your own herbs.  I used to make fun of people for shopping at Whole Foods.  Now, I say things like, “I’ll just carry my tofu and flaxseed.  Why do I need a bag when I have two hands?”

Leading a healthy and natural life in Buenos Aires is not impossible.  There are vegetarian restaurants and organic cafes, gorgeous yoga studios, meditative breathing courses, and lovely parks and plazas.  However, even if you surround yourself with like-minded individuals and create a micro-community, fighting against the zeitgeist is like driving the wrong way on 9 de Julio.

Obviously, there are many things I adore about Buenos Aires; I wouldn’t have made a pilgrimage back here otherwise.  Unfortunately, the pervasive culture is not one of them. If you move to a new city or country where neither you nor the native residents hold you to the local standards, you can observe your surroundings without being personally impacted by them.  But if you and the local culture take each other on, as was my case in Buenos Aires, the prevailing atmosphere directly affects you, making it harder to accept.

Luckily, as a traveler, I have the freedom to move on if the lifestyle doesn’t suit.  As of now, I am a voluntary and temporary guest in Buenos Aires.  For the short time I’m here, I can overlook the city’s shortcomings and focus on the great things it has to offer.

On my next visit to the supermarket, the staff member in charge of the produce section informed me that plastic bags were an obligatory store policy.

“Why?” I challenged.

“To prevent theft.  We seal your bags so you don’t take more items between here and the register.”  I considered proposing another solution – to weigh fruits and vegetables at checkout, but that would result in slower lines, and put him out of work.

“If it’s one item, fine,” he continued, “but if you’ve got multiple items, like your bananas, I have to bag them.”

“But it’s one bunch of bananas,” I argued. “I can’t possibly add another banana to the bunch.”

“Look,” he said, agitated and annoyed, “I’m just trying to do my job.”

I realized then that he didn’t make the rules, nor was he in a position to challenge or break them.  Neither of us can change this city; but unlike him, I have the luxury of leaving in a few weeks for a place where the grass (and the people) are greener.

“Ok.  Bag them,” I conceded.  At that moment, his job seemed more important than my convictions.


Pedestrians Do Not Have the Right of Way: Returning Home After An Overseas Experience

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Near-hit, Traffic in Buenos Aires

Crossing the street in Rome could be the final exam for a 500-level course on “How to Avoid Getting Hit By a Car.”  It requires advanced preparation and specialized knowledge.  While studying abroad in Barcelona, I traveled with a friend to Rome.  We took a bus into town from the airport, hoisted on our backpacks, and began walking to our pensione.  At the edge of the grassy median separating the bus station from the main road we stopped abruptly, paralyzed by fear.  A group of travelers stood cowering like a family of pioneers about to ford a river.  In terror-stricken silence, we watched as multiple lanes of Italian sports cars raced past.  It wasn’t oncoming traffic; it was the Running of the Bulls.

Frantically, we searched for an intersection, crosswalk, or animal whisperer.  With none in sight, we resigned ourselves to spending the afternoon on the curb.  Suddenly, I remembered an obscure fact I had read in a guidebook: the key to crossing the street in Rome is eye contact.  I waited for a lull in the traffic, took a deep breath, stepped into the road, and with feigned confidence shot the Italian drivers an intense look that said, “Hey! I’m walking here.”  Magically, the vehicles slowed, kneeling graciously as we sauntered to the other side.

Fortunately, in New Zealand you don’t need wits to cross the street, just patience. You simply congregate on the corner and wait for the neon crossing guard to give you the green light.  It’s all very civilized, albeit boring.  The biggest risk is that it might be ten minutes before the light changes.  (Jaywalking was completely out of the question for me since I never could work out which direction the traffic was coming from.)  However, when pedestrians are finally given their turn, they have the opportunity to cross diagonally, thus getting two crossings in one.

The best part about being a pedestrian in New Zealand is the zebra crossings.  Alternating dark and light patches of pavement, and black and white poles indicate places where pedestrians always have the right of way.  Because the friendly, law-abiding Kiwis actually respect the road code, you can walk into the street while reading a book without fearing for your safety.

When I finally landed in Buenos Aires after a seventeen-hour delay, an eleven-hour flight, and traveling backwards in time, all I wanted to do was shower.  Before I could so, I had to walk a few blocks to the store to buy toiletries.  At the first intersection, I spotted the familiar black and white bands of paint, and mindlessly continued into the street. A gang of taxis fought each other for the chance to commit vehicular manslaughter.  I jumped back onto the sidewalk, barely avoiding an accident. Between the pharmacy and my friend’s apartment, I had three near-hits.  It seems I was a little unclear about what city I was in.

There are no pedestrian walkways in Buenos Aires; there is only target practice. Although Argentines are essentially displaced Italians, you can forget about the eye-contact strategy.  Staring at an Argentine motorist only helps him perfect his aim. Even where there are pedestrian lights, turning traffic has the self-appointed right of way. The best strategy for crossing the street in Buenos Aires is to run for your life.

Other than a few close calls at the beginning, the transition back into life in Buenos Aires has been relatively smooth.   The weirdest part is that it’s hardly weird at all. There are no suggestions of my time in New Zealand, save a few photos on Facebook, and many remnants of my former life in Argentina remain.  Most of my close friends are still around, I have an active social life, and I know where things are. It’s comfortable.  It’s home.

With everything so deceptively normal, I predicted that I would only need a few days to recover and establish a daily routine involving cooking, meditating, exercising, reading and writing.  After ten days, my biggest accomplishment was watching an entire season of America’s Next Top Model in one afternoon.  Apparently, you don’t get over an abroad experience overnight.

For more than a week, I did little more than sleep and sit on the couch in my pajamas. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel sent to the coast to convalesce.  Except that instead of taking a carriage to the seaside to breath in the salty air, I rode the elevator to the rooftop terrace to lie by the pool. At first, I was confused by my exhaustion and frustrated by my apathy.  After a difficult year abroad, I had been looking forward to going somewhere easy.  Now, I appreciate that reentry is harder than I expected, especially because I am so hard on myself.

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires

Returning to a city where you’ve already lived is certainly less challenging than, say, starting anew in Lithuania.  But, it’s still a process and it definitely takes longer than a long weekend. Even if mentally it’s as though I never left Argentina, emotionally, I’m still tied to Auckland.  I may not need to meet new people, but I do have to catch up with old friends and make sure no damage was done to the foundation of our relationship in my absence.  There is the work of creating and adhering to a new schedule, acclimating to local sounds and smells, and seeking out the raw materials needed to facilitate my lifestyle and hobbies, both of which have changed considerably since I last lived here. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about a job or a place to live.

Rather than reprimand myself for being lazy (or blame Argentine drivers for my reluctance to leave the apartment), I lowered my ambitions.  I set smaller, attainable goals for myself, such as getting dressed before noon or reading in the Recoleta Cemetery instead of on the couch.  Slowly and naturally, life is regaining a sense of order and purpose, and I am becoming more active and motivated.  More importantly, given that I am only in Buenos Aires for six weeks, I have reassessed my priorities.  I didn’t come here to be responsible; I came here to spend time with friends and decompress before starting a new adventure. Staying out until 6am on a Wednesday may decrease my productivity, but I am supposed to be on sabbatical. With no one to answer to but myself, maybe, for a little while anyway, I can stop being so demanding and unreasonable.

Bring a Culture to Pass: Confronting Cultural Stereotypes Abroad

Auckland, New Zealand

My team is the poster child for workplace diversity.  We have staff members from Australia, England, Ireland, France, India, Japan, the United States, and yes, even New Zealand.  In fact, the only institutionalized discrimination I’ve noticed at the office is towards contractors.  Sure, I’ve heard a few people complain about how difficult it is to understand some of the foreign customer service representatives; but this is often followed by the recognition that international employees are a reality of international business.

Personally, I find the broken English comforting.  When I worked in Argentina, I was hyper-aware of my accent and self-conscious of my Spanish.  I lived in constant fear that someone would make me answer the phone. Now that I work for a large, multinational corporation with a large, multicultural staff, I realize that for some people and in some parts of the world, living and working in a second language is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

However, the best part of working with such a heterogeneous staff is that I get to learn about other cultures. Did you know that “pom” is a nickname for a Brit or that a Pimms No 1 Cup is a classy English cocktail served during the summer at garden parties, croquet matches, and tennis tournaments? How about that in India, pregnant women are warned to stay in bed and avoid holding sharp objects during a solar eclipse or else her baby will be born with dark spots on its body?

In Japan, you can hire actors to pretend to be your family, friends, or colleagues. Special visitors to my company are greeted with a powhiri, a formal Maori ceremony of welcome. As far as I can tell, New Zealanders love outdoor music festivals and respect work-life balance (either that, or a striking number of Kiwis get sick when the weather turns warm).  And if you want to know anything about Ireland, from the speed of the Internet to the cost of electricity, just ask the girl who sits next to me.

Another great place for cultural observation is a hostel.  Most backpackers I’ve met are happy to explain their practices and rituals, as long as you are open to and accepting of the new and different.  Of course, you have to be careful not to generalize. One example is not a trend, and a trend is not a truth.  If I formed stereotypes based on the limited exposure I’ve had to members of certain nationalities, I’d believe that all Germans are chatty, all French people are cliquey, and all Dutch people are rational. I even have to be careful not to extrapolate from Aucklanders to New Zealanders, as Auckland is to New Zealand what New York City is to the United States.

Still, I must admit that I love it when someone turns out to be a walking cultural cliché, unless that person is an American.  One of the most interesting things for me about living abroad has been discovering what non-Americans believe about the United States.

What you’re about to hear will shock and appall you.

It represents one of the greatest threats to freedom and democracy.

Finally, the secret will be revealed: Americans send their children away to summer camp!

The question is what are YOU going to do about it?

See what I did there?  I “Americanized” my blog.  Apparently we are suckers for sensationalism and guilt.  Also, to the horror of one local radio announce, American parents ship their kids off to overnight camp in the summer against their will, scarring them for life and giving them abandonment issues that only years of therapy will resolve.  That a Kiwi would find the concept of summer camp distressing is particularly odd, as New Zealanders are known for flying the nest.  The New Zealand Government’s Population and Sustainable Development website states that approximately 600,000 Kiwis live overseas.  The total population of New Zealand is only 4.2 million people.

The Titanic Awards, a website that celebrates the “dubious achievements of travel”, features polls on topics of interest to travelers.   Categories include world’s rudest, worst dressed, most easily fooled, and cheapest tourists.  Americans rank among the top three in all categories.

Those results don’t necessarily strike me as suspect.  But when I saw that the United States was also voted as one of the places where you’ll find the worst tasting drinking water (behind India and Mexico), I began to question the validity of the poll.  I’m fairly certain that there are numerous countries whose drinking water is worse than that of the United States, both going down and coming back out.  This leads me to believe that the people surveyed either travel in a very narrow circle or are voting based on prejudice rather than direct experience.

If I ran the website, I would add another category: “Most Likely To Talk Badly About Their Own Country”.  No doubt, American tourists would top the list.  Gone are the days when American travelers affixed a Canadian flag to their backpacks in an attempt to disguise their identity.  Nowadays, those wishing to distance themselves from the ugly, arrogant masses do so by openly bad mouthing America.  In a roomful of backpackers, the most emphatic critic of the United States is likely to be an American.

Not long ago, I met a young African-American man from upstate New York, on holiday in New Zealand before returning to his graduate studies in veterinary medicine.  His primary conflict was trying to decide if he should specialize in horses or dogs.  When I told him I had been living abroad for four years and had no plans to move back to the States, he remarked that I must be, “as disenchanted and disillusioned as he is.”

“Not exactly.  American does a lot of things really well; but there are other ways of doing things that are just as good. I’m just exploring the alternatives,” I explained.

“That’s very wise of you.”

“Thanks.  By the way, I love your t-shirt.”  He grinned and puffed out his chest, where “MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK” was scrawled in large capital letters.

I’m no nationalist nor would I ever advocate defending America’s honor at all costs.  Certainly, the United States can stand up for itself (which is why everyone hates us in the first place).  American citizens should be honest about the mistakes and shortcomings of our country of origin.  However, in mixed company, maybe we could try to downplay our defects and emphasis our strengths. That American citizens are able to publicly denounce their country without fear of imprisonment for treason may be one of the highlights of American society; but it seems to me that we’re abusing that right.

You may think that by trashing the United States, you’re improving your own reputation, but really, you’re just reinforcing negative stereotypes that will later be used to judge you.  In my experience, many foreigners ask about the United States in the hopes that you will confirm what they already believe.  When you don’t, they grow bored and impatient and move on in search of someone who will.  Besides, someone who sees you as a nationality before they see you as an individual is not worth your time.

Recently, I listened to a group of travelers discussing the movie Bruno. “I’m so embarrassed by how many stupid Americans there are,” sighed the lone American in the pack of Europeans.  “Hey,” I interrupted, “if there’s one thing I’m certain of it’s this – all countries have stupid people.”

For more tales of cultural quirks, traditions, customs, and clichés, check out Glimpse, which features real stories from real travelers from all over the globe.

Can You Spell That, Please?: Speaking the Kiwi’s English


A woman walks into a bookstore in Wellington.  She is well dressed and well mannered, probably an executive assistant for the CEO of a dairy company, or some such profession.  She approaches the information desk and asks the salesgirl, an American, for help finding a particular title. The salesgirl begins to enter the customer’s request into the computer’s search engine, but hesitates:

“I’m sorry ma’am, but can you please repeat the title of the book?”
Sick and Violent,” says the woman, a hint of annoyance in her voice. Trying not to judge, the salesgirl assumes her position at the keyboard.
“S-I-C…” She stops, and again asks, “Um, can you repeat that one more time?”
Sick and Violent,” snaps the customer.
“Yea, ok, can you spell that for me, please?”
“Oh, second!” exclaims the salesgirl with a sigh of relief. She pauses. “And the last word?”
Second Violin! I thought you said ‘Sick and Violent.’”  As the woman looks mortified, the salesgirl tries to alleviate the tension with a joke, “I swear we speak the same language.”
“It must be my accent.  I’ll go home and practice my English,” replies the customer, with not a hint of a sense of humor. Sadly, this type of misunderstanding happens all the time.

I understand how pathetic this is; but one of the reasons why I finally decided to leave Argentina was that I missed English.  Or maybe it was that my English had gone missing.  I had already been living in Buenos Aires for nearly two years when my friend came to visit.  After a few minutes of conversation, she remarked, “I’m so happy that you don’t sound like a Neanderthal.” She was right: thanks to my job as a customer service manager for a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, as well as my American friends and co-workers, my English was still standing; but it was also starting to deteriorate.

Between living in Spanish and studying French, my total vocabulary had no doubt increased considerably.  However, the quantity of English words under my command had decreased markedly (a fact which I successfully disguised with the help of  I no longer noticed when I Espanglishized my speech: “Sure, I’d love to meet you there.  What’s the direction?” (Dirección being the Spanish word for address.)  And don’t get me started on prepositions – do you arrive at, in, or to a city? Honestly, I’m still not sure.  Yet, it wasn’t until the following conversation with my mother about her upcoming dinner party that I realized just how bad things had gotten:

“So, what time are people going to your house for dinner?” I asked.  My mother giggled, somewhat condescendingly, like she was watching an episode of Kids Say The Darndest Things.
“Oh, Amy.  In English, we say what time are people coming to your house for dinner.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” I protested, “I’m not at your house and neither are the guests.  Logically, it should be going not coming.”
“I appreciate your argument, but it’s still coming.”
En serio?
“Yes, Amy, en serio.”

With the decision to dedicate myself to becoming a writer, I concluded that it would be beneficial to immerse myself once again in English.  My father was quick to point out, repeatedly, that in New Zealand, I would have to learn a whole new dialect.  As much as I hate to admit it, he was right.  Differences in punctuation, pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary abound.  For example, Kiwis seem to have an adverse reaction to the Oxford Comma (such as the one used before “and vocabulary” in the previous sentence), apostrophes, and periods at the end of abbreviations (as in Mr).  Harbor becomes harbour, theater becomes theatre, organize becomes organise, and so on.  I am often accused of being Irish because, as it turns out, only Irish and Americans pronounce their “R’s”. Just what are togs, jandals and singlets, you ask?  You’ll just have to go clothes shopping in NZed to find out.

Perhaps my favorite part of Kiwi speak is its “as” (not ass, as).  “Sweet as” is probably one of the most common phrases you will hear in New Zealand (and see printed on t-shirts in tourist shops).  Basically, it’s just the first half of a simile, and means “cool” or “awesome.”  The “as” format can be used with just about any adjective –  “It’s cold as outside”, “I’m tired as” – and saves you from having to come up with a clever comparison to describe the situation.  Sure, it sounds like people are speaking in incomplete Mad Libs; but while some may call this lazy, I call it genius.

My least favorite part, in case you were wondering, is how excessively polite people are:
“Your total comes to $100.”
“That’s lovely.  Eftpos [debit card], please.”
“Your card was declined.”
“Cheers.  I’ll use a different card.”
“You entered the wrong pin.”
“That’s lovely.”
“Is that your baby?  I ask only because it’s hideous.  Seriously, get it out of my face.”
“Thanks. You have a wonderful day. Taa.”

They also have a penchant for shortening words and adding a “y” or “ie” to the end of them – brekkie for breakfast, cardy for cardigan – making it sound like the language was invented by two ten-year old girls named Tiffany and Brittany while playing with their Barbies.  Then again, if you’ve ever heard a rugby player ask if you’ve seen his sunnies, you might find the practice more charming than juvenile.

What really gets me into trouble is Maori, especially in place names.  When a customer returns an item, we have to ask for their address, which often goes something like this:
“Can I ask for your city/suburb?”
“Sure, it’s Paraparaumu.”
“Your papa raises emus?”
“Para-para-umu.  How could you miss that?”  At least most cities are spelled exactly how they sound.

The other day, one of my coworkers came up to me with a giant grin on her face,
“When it’s time for your break, there are Shrewsburies, Squiggles, and Tim Tams in the staff room!”
“I want you to know you just sounded like a passage from Harry Potter to me.  What are all those things?”
“You’re so cute,” she laughed.

Most people find such barriers to communication amusing, and are eager to explain to me the meaning of Kiwi words, phrases, and product names.  Unfortunately, when I can’t understand their accent, most people seem to find that offensive.  When we learn a different language, we tend to ignore the accent, concentrating on memorizing vocabulary and mastering grammar (this is likely due to embarrassment, as no one wants to speak French like the chef from The Little Mermaid).  However, this is a huge mistake.  It doesn’t matter how complex are your sentence structures if people can’t understand a damn word you say.
Trust me, there is nothing more frustrating than asking the cashier at the supermarket if you can pay with a tarjeta de crédito while waving your credit card in front of her face, and having her spit at you, “no te entiendo.”  On more than one occasion while living in Argentina, I had someone stop me mid-conversation to ask, “what language are you speaking – English or Spanish?”  And then there were the infamous “I don’t hear the difference” exchanges:
Dónde está el libro?
El qué?
El libro.
El qué?
El libro.”
Ah, el liiiiibro!”
“I don’t hear the difference.”
Eventually, I resigned myself to the importance of the accent, and set about relearning how to pronounce Spanish words.  By that point, it was too late for perfection, but at least I wasn’t humiliated every time I spoke.

Just as Argentine Spanish (Castellano) sounds radically different from Spanish, Mexican, or Chilean Spanish, Kiwi English sounds radically different from English, American, and yes, even Australian English.  In “Eh?”, a recent article featured in Your Weekend (the Saturday supplement of Wellington’s Dominion Post), David Killick explains, “Want to talk like a Kiwi?  Easy.  Put a peg on your nose. Now, change the vowel sounds: A to E; E to I; I to U. Talk in a monotone, and finish each sentence with an upward inflexion, like a question.”  So, for all you Flight of the Conchords fans out there, the answer is yis! Kiwis really do talk like that, sort of.  According to the article, many New Zealanders themselves struggle with New Zealand English, deeming it ugly and incomprehensible.  Even Prime Minister John Key has come under attack for his strong Kiwi accent; although the article is careful to emphasize that clarity, not accent, is the real problem.

In fact, the New Zealand accent may be a solution.  I have read elsewhere that New Zealand’s departure from the Queen’s English mimics the country’s attempt to distance itself culturally and politically from its former colonial ruler.  Following this line of argument, New Zealand, a young country just now entering its rebellious teenage years, is using speech to establish and assert its unique identity.   Personally, I support and empathize with New Zealand’s attempt to create (or find, whichever you prefer) itself, even if I can’t always understand what its saying.

I’ve long since believed that the way you speak says as much about you as your actual words.  I finally came to embrace my accent in Spanish because it perfectly expressed my experience in Argentina: I lived there long enough to insert myself into the local community and adopt many local customs and colloquialisms, but not long enough to abandon my native tongue or disassociate from country of origin.   Already, I have versions of my CV and cover letter in Kiwi English, and the words “reckon” and “meant to” have been sneaking into my speech more than I would care for them to (as in “What do you reckon the Prime Minister meant to say?”) There’s no telling how much worse it will get.  Just do me a favor: if you ever hear me say “cheers” in place of “thanks”, smack me. Taa.

Where Am I and What Day Is It?: Recovering and Readjusting in Auckland

Auckland City Bus Asks For ForgivenessAuckland, New Zealand

Traveling to New Zealand is like solving a word problem: If a plane leaves Buenos Aires on Wednesday at 2:30am and arrives in Auckland on Thursday at 7:10am, where did that day go, will I ever get it back, and more importantly, just how long will it take for me to get over the jet lag and culture shock?

Clearly, I’m not in Buenos Aires anymore.  The air here is so clean and clear and the clouds are so white and fluffy that I keep thinking that I’m feeling off due to altitude sickness.  And then I catch a view of the Tasman Sea and remember that Auckland has an elevation of about 12 feet.  Not to mention that I could walk around all day without shoes (as some Aucklanders are wont to do) and my feet still wouldn’t get dirty.

Yet it is all somehow strangely familiar.  Perhaps because Auckland, with its laid-back, environmentally friendly, pseudo-intellectual vibe and penchant for vintage shops, cheap ethnic restaurants, and houses with gardens, is eerily like my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.  It doesn’t help matters that I am currently crashing with a good friend from high school, who also recently moved to New Zealand.  My first night, it felt like we were having a sleepover at one of our parents’ houses – the only things missing were a Ouija board, a boy to prank call, and raw cookie dough.  But we’re not in Michigan anymore. We’re halfway around the world in New Zealand.

Readjusting to New Zealand means more than getting used to the fact that while people here are getting ready to go back to work, my friends and family are just finishing their Saturday night.  Aucklanders seem to be big fans of the adage “early to bed, early to rise,” with lights out by 11pm (the time that most Argentines are eating dinner) and alarms set for 6am (when most Argentines are leaving the nightclub).  My body, desperately craving a bit of structure and routine, eagerly latched on to this new schedule.  The other night, around 10pm, I fell asleep mid-sentence, like I had just been shot with a horse tranquilizer.  An hour later, my friend woke me up to send me to bed.  “Is it tomorrow yet?” I inquired earnestly.
“No, it’s 11pm.”
“Oh, I thought it was tomorrow.”  And the time change is the least of my troubles.

The first day here, I kept trying to speak Spanish to people.  This is partly because the language is so ingrained in my subconscious that in certain situations, it comes out without warning.  But it is also because despite the fact that everyone here speaks English, they still have an accent and we don’t always understand one another, causing “second language mode” to switch on automatically.

The other day, my friend and I returned home to find her roommate sitting on the couch watching sports.  Back in her room, she remarked, “In case you hadn’t noticed already, you’re going to hear cricket everywhere.”
“Yea,” I replied, “but I don’t even notice them.  It’s like white noise to me, they just blend into the background.”
“Cricket the sport, not the insect.  Besides, those are cicadas.”
When my friend’s roommate took me to the supermarket and I asked her if the store carried granola bars, she thought for a moment before replying,  “Hmm, granola bars, yea, that sounds familiar.” The next thing I knew, I was speaking to her like English was her second language, avoiding contractions and idioms so that nothing was lost in translation, and saying things like, “I cannot understand you, please.”

Even pronouncing street names is a challenge, probably because many of them are Maori.  Thankfully, even the locals have abbreviated Karangahape Road to K Road. And then there’s the fact that the streets curve and switch names without prior notice.  One moment you’re happily walking down busy Richmond Rd. and suddenly you realize that out of inertia you went straight when you should have veered, and now you’re standing in someone’s driveway in a residential neighborhood.  You retrace your steps back to civilization only to find that the street formerly known as Ponsonby Rd. is now referred to as St. Mary’s Rd.

For the purposes of “research,” and to ask for directions, I’ve been stopping in every store, library, market, and bakery I pass, and I’m still amazed (and pleased) by how healthy this city truly is.  Although, personally, I draw the line at butter, egg, and gluten free sugar cookies made with chickpea flour, applesauce, and soy milk.  It’s like being on the campus of a small, private, liberal arts college in Oregon, where everyone walks around barefoot and calls their professors by their first name.  I keep waiting for someone to pull a Hacky Sack out of his pocket or challenge everyone to a rousing game of Frisbee golf.

Auckland may have the perfect balance between urban jungle and the great outdoors, a paradise for nature lovers trapped in the body of a city dweller. Beautiful beaches where you can sail, surf, or sunbathe are just 30 minutes away, dormant volcanoes offer fantastic views, and parks hosting free events are scattered throughout the city. Plus everyone here is so friendly and polite, even the buses apologize profusely for being out of service. You get the sense that Auckland is a place where people live well, and slowly but surely the city is growing on me.  A girl could get comfortable here, too comfortable perhaps.  So, will Auckland become my new hometown?  It’s still too soon to tell.

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.

Reversed Seasons: Keeping Track of Time in the Southern Hemisphere

Other Side of the World

Argentina may be three hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time but for the past three years, I have been six months behind.  In the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed, and my internal clock has never been properly reset.

Each year when the weather turns warm, I get depressed.  I have a June birthday, and I begin to stress over if I will celebrate getting older, and if so, where, how, and with whom.  I start to resent having no locker to decorate, I worry that all of my friends will be away at summer camp, and I have terrifying flashbacks of my 18th birthday, when the evening consisted of my brother buying me scratch off lottery tickets (I didn’t win) and watching a rented movie on the couch with my best friend.   At the same time, I get excited because the second and best half of the year is yet to come.  And then I realize that it’s December.

When it starts to get cold, I feel relieved.  One year is about to end and another is about to begin.  I can finally put to rest all of the unfinished business that has been haunting me and embark on new projects and resolutions.  Besides, months of good cheer, food, and gifts are on their way.  And then I realize that it’s June.

How am I possibly supposed to keep track of time when all of my external cues are upside down?  I still can’t get my head around listening to my parents talk about losing power in an ice storm while I am sitting in the dark drinking ice water to keep cool.  And the seasons aren’t the only think I’ve had difficulty adjusting to since crossing the equator and changing time zones.  As it turns out, within the circadian rhythm there is room for variation.

In Argentina, people leave the office at the hour considered by most Americans to be dinnertime, and eat dinner between 9-11pm (past my parent’s bedtime).  On Sunday mornings when my Argentine friends complain of being tired and I ask what time they went to bed the night before they reply, “Early.  Like 4am.” In the States, if an event is planned for 6-8pm, people arrive dutifully at 6pm and make their way to the door at exactly 8pm.  In Argentina, 6-8pm is the period of time during which it is acceptable to arrive.  The event starts at 8:01pm and ends when the last person leaves.  In the States, people respect each other’s time.  In Argentina, people respect each other’s rhythm.  Time is definitely relative, at least culturally.

Now that I think about it, I’ve never had a fixed concept of time.  When I was a child, a year revolved around my birthday, because the universe revolved around me.  While I was a student, the year only had nine months.  According to my agenda, the year started mid-September and ended mid-June.  July and August went on sabbatical.  Since graduating from college, I have measured time using a series of milestones: an anniversary in Argentina, a trip home, the day I began my job, the day I quit my job, a first date, the last time I had sex.  A year doesn’t always have 365 days, and sometimes I have more than one year happening simultaneously.  Because for me, a “year” is just a convenient way of saying “time between important moments.”

The calendar is a useful tool for coordinating the logistics of your life.  Like making sure you pay your taxes on time, or that you don’t go to work on Saturday, or that you take your sweaters out of storage, or that you don’t forget to call your friend on her birthday, even if it is in the middle of the summer.  But the calendar is pretty useless when it comes to assessing personal growth and development.  We all have our own way of calculating a year, and our own rate of emotional, mental, and biological maturation.  Yet we obsess over the numbers, measuring our progress, determining what we should be doing right now, and judging where we should be in our life by how many 24-hour days we have been alive.

Clock time is just a guideline.  It is not a rule or a law.  So, if December 31 doesn’t feel like the right time to stop what you’re doing, or if January 1 doesn’t feel like the right time to start something new, don’t worry about.  They are just two more days.  Personally, my new year is going to start on February 25, when I board a plane to New Zealand.

We seem to think that life is a choreographed routine, and that we’re all supposed to be dancing the same steps to the same music.  Like pre-schoolers at our first ballet recital, we spend the entire performance staring at our feet or looking around at our peers to make sure that we are on beat.  But each of us has our own unique soundtrack. We can’t pick the play list.  All we can do is dance. Or in the words of Prince, “party like it’s 1999.”

And with that said, Happy New Year!

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