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Life in Buenos Aires: The Identity Crisis That Isn’t

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I am not Argentine. I am an American. I live in Argentina. I have lived here for almost five years. I feel disconnected from American life, and in many ways from Americans. I feel much closer to Argentines, but I am not Argentine, and culturally we are very different. In most ways I have adapted. There are some things I cannot change about me. Those things can make it a challenge, at times, to live here.

Yesterday I had lunch with an Argentine male friend. He recently came back to Buenos Aires to live after being gone for 40 years. During the course of our lunch he said to me, “I am Argentine, but I haven't lived here for 40 years. I don’t feel like I really fit in here. Yet I am from here. I lived in the US 30 years, but I never felt like I fit in there either. I guess I am just weird.” I looked at him and said, “Entiendo, yo también.” (I understand, me too.)

It’s not easy to change your country. With all the times I had come here, it still was not the same as living here. I was a business analyst. I was used to planning everything down to the last detail. There are just some things that don’t go on a spreadsheet. Adapting to a new culture is one of them.

I was lucky, when I came here; I had a foundation in Spanish – but not Porteño Spanish (Porteño is what the people of Buenos Aires are called), which is a completely different language. The Spanish language is difficult enough with its 14 tenses and irregular verbs, not to mention nouns that have to be masculine and feminine. Now all of a sudden the tu form goes out the window and I am saying vos. Mujer is no longer woman, that is the wife, and women are minas. Chicos are pibes. The future tense is not used, most likely because Argentines figure they have no future.

Don’t even start on the accent. In the entire Spanish speaking world the LL and the Y are pronounced the same. Not here in the Capital Federal. While every country has a unique accent, no Spanish dialect comes close to the Porteño accent. As soon as a Porteño speaks, every Spanish speaker in the world knows exactly where they are from. What I soon found out is that if you don’t sound like them, they don’t listen. Patience is not high on the list of Porteño priorities.

I was naïve. I never thought to think about prejudice. I am embarrassed to admit this. Me, who lived in Oakland, California, next to the People’s Republic of Berkeley. I am blond with green eyes. Silly me. Prejudice runs in many shades. I was “una norteamericana” and for some that was more than enough reason to hate me. I came from that imperialistic country up north. The one where Bush was president. There was usually a whole list of grievances thrown at me, as if I were personally responsible for the screwed up foreign and domestic policies of the USA.

I am not talking about the overcharging that sometimes happens to foreigners. I am talking about prejudice, plain and simple. Discrimination. Once in a taxi with a friend on the way to dance tango, we picked up another of her friends. Introductions were made. The friend started to make comments about Americans. I kept my mouth closed. I wanted to hear what she had to say. My friend stopped her and told her that I understood Spanish. Her friend responded with “But not our Spanish.” To which my friend replied, “Oh yes she does, because I taught her, and I am a very good teacher.”

This did not daunt the woman. She continued embarrassing herself and my friend. She asked my friend if I had to sit with them. She didn’t want me at the table. She was very surprised when my friend told her yes, because the table in the milonga (what we call where we go to dance tango) is mine. (Having your own reserved table in the milonga is an honor. This is usually unheard of for foreigners, but I have my own table in several milongas.) She was shocked and had no choice but to sit with this “Yanqui.”

Americans are positive. Argentines are amargo – dark, negative, some say. Americans work in teams, they look for solutions. Argentines fly solo. Everything is always about them. When I think about the U.S., I think about this old Mickey Rooney movie where he gets the kids together and says, “Come on kids, let’s put on a show.” Next thing you know they have a huge, flawless musical production. That usually doesn’t happen here. Everyone would have to present their opinion and demand to do it their way. They would just do it their way anyway, and in the end there would be no solution, no play, and lots of expenses. Or there would be a play but it would be difficult to follow. The big difference is that the Americans would work 24/7 and be stressed out to get it right. The Argentines would work in between arguing, and enjoy themselves. Getting it right might not be the main goal.

Americans are goal-oriented and Argentines live for the moment. Americans until recently have always gone forward. Argentines live from crisis to crisis. They don’t think of the future or the past, they think of now, because that is what they have. Americans always look to make things better, faster, and easier. Argentines use what they have and just keep piecing it together to keep it running. They have procedures that used to frustrate me no end. Now I just accept that making things complicated and difficult is just the way it is. So much so, that many times when you ask an Argentine a question he will begin with “Es muy complicado” before giving you the answer.

For an American, there has to be a system. The system has to be followed, or you are punished. Here, well, mas o menos. Usually menos. I love crossing the street on a red light in the middle of the street. I still feel like a kid getting away with something. In California that was a nice big fat ticket for jaywalking and walking against the light. Here the cops just stare at you. The cars ignore the lights half the time anyway, and so do the cops – remember this is Buenos Aires.

People here always adapt. Maybe that is the problem. In many ways I admire my Argentine friends. High inflation is killing us. The government’s numbers are a joke. Instead of loud protests, people make do. They eat less meat, they buy fewer clothes, they go out less, but they still make time to enjoy life and their friends in any way that they can. Friendships and family are very important. I love that I am never alone. I always have somewhere to go on holidays, and my birthday is a three-day celebration.

In the beginning it was fun for me to meet other people coming here from the U.S. Now I am a little wary. You try to explain life here and they always have the answer, even though they do not live here, or they are only here for a short time. They don’t believe me or they think I am lying to them when I tell them how it really is. After all, they are armed with the Internet and Lonely Planet and five friends who were here before. It doesn’t matter that I live here.

When I first came to live here, I would insult Argentines without meaning to. I didn’t understand the cultural differences as well as I thought I did. Now after living here almost five years, I am starting to insult Americans. This is mostly because my “Argentine side” feels insulted by them. These are supposedly well-traveled, educated people. In the end, they don’t understand why the “Paris of South America” is more like South America than Paris, and of course, it must change.

The changes they mean, of course, are for the Argentines to adopt the American way of life. I get so tired of hearing what “Argentines need to do” and how “Argentines need to change.” It can be something as ridiculous as not understanding why people still do something “stupid” like clean their sidewalks with a bucket and a mop when they should be buying steamer machines, or something insulting, such as telling us how tango should be danced here to accommodate the foreigners. After all if the Argentines want to make more money…as if earning more money should be the end result to anything one does.

My dance partner once said about me: “Este gringa esta muy brava.” More or less that I have balls. This is not something all that complimentary to say about a woman. Here women are supposed to be more deferential.  But that is not how I am. I stand up for myself. That is not going to change. I am not Argentine. I am an American. I love my adopted country with all its quirks, all the things that don’t work, all the machista men. I feel the need to defend it like I defend myself, even when things here drive me crazy.

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About Tangospam

  • http://northwardho.blogspot.com/2009/09/tango-woman-in-buenos-aires.html danny bloom

    danny in tawian reading you loud and clear. bravo well done. [Personal contact info deleted]

    i am reporter blogger dreamer in Taiwan marooned here since 1991

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Wow, Deby!

    You do not know how I identify with this! Israelis are different from Argentines in that thay have a zillion different cultures (the folks from Tunisia do not agree with the folks from Syria, or Italy or the native born – who think they know it all).

    It has been very hard for me to get used to the chaotic Polish-Jewish culture that is the ruling culture here. This chaotic culture is overlaid with a worship of what the élites think are American, and as a native born citizen of the United States (unlike their sitting president), I know the badly smudged Israeli carbon copy from the real thing.

    I just spent a morning at the NII (the National Insurance Institute, the Israeli super-version of Social Security, Welfare, Workmens Comp, Unemployment and National Health Insurance) arguing over money that they say they owe us – but haven’t paid yet. We’re talking about a significant amount of moolah – a few thousand dollars, not coffee money. They gave me a form accepting our request for payment – but indicating that the account was in the wrong name, something I didn’t notice immediately. When I went back to the clerk (don’t ask me about how I was able to get back to the clerk without waiting on the long line) indicating that there was an error, and that this was likely to hold up payment further, he said the system works in such a way that the person whose name is at the top of the sheet and whose ID number appears there, is the name that will appear on the account automatically, and “not to worry, it would be alright”.

    Whenever I hear that phrase out of an Israeli, I get very nervous. But there was nothing I could do. So, I left and had some shwarma with a friend (he paid).

    In Israel, a country that lives bamínus, always in the red, almost every discussion eventually gets down to four words – matái m’kablím et hatashlúm? – when are we getting paid?

  • http://www.tangospam.typepad.com Deby

    Hey Guys, great to hear from both of you. Sometimes I am afraid to post my comments as an expat on my own blog. When I do, the funny thing is that the Americans blast me to hell and back, and the Argentines are amazed at how well I understand and have assimilated into their culture.

    Ruvy, there are many Argentine Jews in Israel. Perhaps they have infiltrated your culture as well. Oy voy!

    The thing is that I have become so much more Argentine. I really do like living here, except for the men. But then, that is another story…

    Besos from Buenos Aires…

  • http://www.tangospam.typepad.com Deby

    Danny, I went to your blog, are any posts written by you? Thanks for putting a partial post of mine on your blog.

    Deby

  • Geoff

    I agree totally with your assessment of Argentina – especially the bitter attitude vs the American ‘can do’ approach. I don’t feel any need to defend what I don’t like here, however. I don’t see the issue of how Americans can teach the Argentines to improve their society. I think it’s more an issue of how Argentines can learn from other societies, not just the US, how to have a better society. To me there is just no defense for the corruption, the lying and cheating and some of the third world conditions that exist here. It doesn’t have to be that way except that the Argentines allow it to happen.

  • http://www.tangospam.typepad.com Deby

    I always find it interesting when people always talk about “corruption” and Latin America. The US is full of corruption. Go to my blog and read the story beneath this post. What about the 40 or so officials rounded up in New Jersey for corruption a couple of months ago which included of all things a Rabbi selling body parts? Look at the last two Republican senator who use public funds to fund their personal lives, trips, gifts, etc. How many politicians are in jail? How many have not been caught? Watergate? These are just the ones we know about, how many have been covered up?
    This is the developing world, it is not the so called first world. I do not think you should hold people to the same standards. Where ever there is power there is corruption. Everywhere.

    I agree that no matter where you live, you can learn from others, that not only goes for Argentina, but for all countries. Thanks for reading my blog! Besos..

  • Geoff

    Deby, I guess I did not express myself clearly. I never stated that there isn’t corruption in the US. Of course there is – you mention the New Jersey public officials (mostly Democrats I believe) and the numerous rabbis (not just one!) who were arrested on corruption charges. Yes, there is corruption and New Jersey is on the top of the list. There IS a difference, though and you have stated it: “How many politicians are in jail”? That is precisely the point: a lot of US politicians are in jail. And here in Argentina? It almost NEVER happens and when, on the very rare occasion, it does happen the politician or official is soon released. The point is that corruption is not the norm in the US, it is an aberration. When it is discovered there is a public outcry and a demand for justice. Nixon had to resign or face impeachment and imprisonment. That was justice. In Argentina the public routinely accept corruption. It’s a way of life and, sadly, a vicious circle as most people are involved in some form of corruption, many times just for survival. As for the US, I’d say that things are getting worse as cultural and religious values continue to break down but compared to Argentina life is infinitely more transparent in the US and the system far, far more fair. I say these NOT as someone who dislikes Argentina. That is not so but I recognize the positive aspects of the US including the fact that the US gave me a degree of wealth that enabled me to buy property and live here in a way that I could not had I been born Argentine.

  • jorge minor

    Ex-pat experience is a fascinating, life-changing dilemma. Twelve years after the fact, I still ponder what it all means. I am neither an American nor an Uruguayan. I no longer apologize or make nice-nice with visitors from the states. Their narrow-minded view of themselves and the world is precisely why I became an ex-pat. I give them a few helpful, well-meaning tips about how to behave and dress, but it does little good. An American woman recently came for a week, causing havoc every hour of the day in public places. Her demanding sense of entitlement was seen for what it was – arrogance and rudeness. She had delusions that all waiters were sexual predators simply because they didn’t kowtow to her demands. I was greatly relieved when he flew home to her little world in New York. May she have the good sense to stay there.