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

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.”

About Tangospam

  • 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

  • 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?

  • 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…

  • Deby

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


  • 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.

  • 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.