When I had my trip back to the US in June the time I spent with other immigrants was the most interesting for me. We would compare notes. Many of them were interested, "What was it like for an American to live in a foreign country?" It seems no matter where you live, whatever your nationality, an immigrant is an immigrant.
The one thing that did strike me was when I listened to them speak English. Of course they would have an accent. Some of them spoke very well. Some of them struggled. But all of them had an accent. Some more than others. At one point it occurred to me. "That's me."
No matter how well I speak, no matter how well I blend in. I will always have an accent, and I will always be a foreigner, an immigrant. The woman who works in my apartment always teases me "Una cara de Yanqui." I tell her no. Most people think I am German. (There goes Nani Novitz rolling over in her grave.) Or Norwegian. Or Swiss. It really doesn't matter what they think I am. They know I was not born here.
I understand now the fervor my relatives had about fitting it. They came from Eastern Europe. They wanted to be "American." They didn't want to appear like the Eastern European Jews they were. It was the same with all immigrants. I remember talking about it with my friends in school. It didn't matter if their parents or grandparents were like mine or Italian or Greek. The message was the same "FIT IN".
The problem was that when we began to "FIT IN" we got accused of losing our identities. It was really boring. I remember as a teenager rolling my eyes and not wanting to hear this lecture on either side of the fence. I just wanted to be me, which was an American teenager. I didn't want to worry what wearing a flannel shirt meant or why I should be happy I didn't need a nose job.
Now here I am in Buenos AIres. I have lived here going on 6 years. The other day I taped a podcast for BAPodcast with 3 other immigrants and an Argentine who had lived outside of Argentina for 2 years in London. The 3 of us from the U.S. are committed to staying here. We have started new lives here with work, and families. (in the case of the other two, my family still consists of a demon dog and lots of friends.) We have permanent residency and have no intention of leaving Argentina in the near future.
Although we all came here for different reasons, it was fascinating to learn, that we all stayed for more or less the same reason. The other interesting fact was how we all adapted to living here. I spoke Spanglish before I got here. Maybe a little better than Spanglish, but not anywhere to the level of where I speak now. It was really important to me to integrate into society here. This was an important decision for me to sell everything and move here. It was a permanent decision. I needed to learn to live here as an Argentine, not as an American living in Argentina. I did not have the money to do that, and to be honest it was pointless.
I did not join any Ex-pat groups, I did not go on Ex-pat outings, or look for other English speakers to hang out with. I never asked anyone to translate for me. I went to the doctor or anywhere else I needed to go without help. It was not easy and at times people would be less than patient with me, but I pushed on. It also earned me a reputation among some ex-pats as an ex-pat who "hated" foreigners. This was not true. I had friends from the U.S. and other countries. However, if they were not people who I would be friends with otherwise, I saw no reason to be friends with someone just because they could speak English. I needed to learn to speak Spanish. I did not want to isolate myself, or as the Argentines say "vivo en una burbuja." (Live in a bubble)
The other two people were the same. They said for the first year they too immersed themselves in the culture and the language to learn how to live here. Daniel said that he tells people that they must be willing to take the time to learn the language and immerse themselves in the culture. It is the only way to make it here. Maya, said she feels the same. Her students ask her how she learned to speak Spanish so well, and she tells them, by immersing herself in the culture.
All of us had that drive to "fit in." It wasn't that we wanted Argentines to think that we were Argentines, we wanted to be respected, to become part of the society here. How could that happen if we were unable to communicate? We mostly agreed that the average person who comes here to live leaves between 6 months and a year. I find some do stay as long as two years. The main reason most people leave is because it is too difficult to live here for them. Why is it too difficult? Language and cultural barriers.
Last week I was at networking event and ran into an Argentine woman I had not seen in a few years. We talked about several things, then she asked me if I had been back to the U.S. lately. I told her yes, in June. She asked me if I went back regularly. I told her no that I did not. That other than 4 days in December, this was my first trip since January 2006.
She asked how it was. I told her the truth, it was a major culture shock for me. We both laughed over the things that were difficult for me. Unlike my American friends, she never once said anything about my being from "there." She understood.
She asked me if I ever met with someone who had been an acquaintance in common. I told her no, I lost contact with her a few years ago. Another American, a lovely woman, but really I had nothing in common with her, other than that.
This unleashed a torrent. "Doble facha." she said to me. "La mayoria de los yanquis. They come here and all they do is talk about how much better it is there. It would make me so mad. Then why are they here? They are nice when they want something, but really they hate us. They hate our food, our government and everything about us." She spat out.
I told her not to forget the sidewalks trying to lighten things up. It didn't work. "When they start," she continued "I feel this need to start to defend Argentina. Then I thought, why am I friends with these people? All they do is make me angry." I understood exactly how she felt. "I feel the same way every time I hear how corrupt Argentina is (Like there is no corruption in the USA) or how bland the food is or how there is no variety (I happen to like the food here) or how bad the service is, or how the Argentines need to change this, or they should be doing that. (People who live in glass houses....)" I told her "I too do not understand why some of them stay either. It is not like it is cheap here anymore. It is pretty darn expensive here now." I guess I get pretty worked up too. She laughed at me. "Tienes una cara de yanqui con una alma de una porteña."