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Living In Buenos Aires: The Identity Crisis That Isn’t

This was first published on 8/31/09

I am not Argentine. I am an American. I live in Argentina. I have lived here for almost 5 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 to live here at times.

Yesterday I had lunch with an Argentine male friend. He recently came back to Buenos Aires to live after being gone 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. However, not Porteño (Porteño is what the people of Buenos Aires are called) Spanish, 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, none 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 Berkley. 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 for people 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. It was like I was 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 responded back “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 unheard of for foreigners. 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. It 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 he says “Come on kids, let’s put on a show.” Next thing you know they have a huge musical production that is flawless. 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 always 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, that many times when you ask an Argentine a question he will begin with “Es muy complicado” before giving you the answer.

To 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 jay walking and walking against the light. Here the cops just stare at you. The cars ignore the lights half the time anyway, 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.  Whenever I need something or someone there is always somebody I can call to help me out.  People make time for each other.  They don’t make appointments 2 months in advance.

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 5 friends who were here before. It doesn’t matter that I live here.

When I first came to live here, not meaning to, I would insult Argentines. I didn’t understand the cultural differences as well as I thought I did. Now after living here almost 5 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 of course need to be for the Americans, and 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 insulting on 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 deferent. It is 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, things that don’t work, and the machista men. I feel the need to defend it like I defend myself, even when things drive me crazy.


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Diego Sebastián Gonzalez

HI Deby!
I am a Porteño hecho y derecho, but I dont´n feel tango as much as you do, i´m becoming addicted to your blog, cause i´m very interesting about how foreigners, who have adopted Baires as Your "casa" see us! and I´m delighted when you describe the details an ways that we have, and the way it works.
Un abrazo!


Hi Deby: I visited BA twice a few years ago, and it is still on my list of places where I want to live for at least two years. I'm currently living in Guanajuato, Mexico, run a small B&B, have a computer engineer background, and have dabbled unsuccessfully in salsa, ballroom dance, and tango. I relate to much of your story, and intend to come stay at your B&B soon. Living in Guanajuato is similar in many ways to your experience in BA. Best of luck!


I have been reading a number of expat blogs (mainly written by Americans)and find yours a refreshing change from the general whines about things not working, dog shit and lack of peanut butter. Half the charm of Baires is that it is a font of civilisation with the undeniable benefits of a third world country. A lack of maple syrop seems a small price to pay for this! Having spent about seven months in BA over the last few years I am moving out permanently in a couple of weeks with a sketchy business plan, enough money to buy a good string of polo ponies and my very lovely girlfriend. I'm intending to write a blog called "Miles Better - the Best of Baires", that will simply cover everything that is good (there are enough people covering the downside). So, polo, horses, travel, food, music, clubs, cultural events etc. However, I know little about Tango, though this may hopefully change. Will you be my Tango advisor?



caron malecki

i have been reading your blog for only a short time, but i'm completely addicted. it's like a fun summer novel that never ends. the only difference is that i feel like i'm in your head totally relating to daily situations that surround an "american in paris" well, south american in "paris".

i like this post in particular, i feel like i've been in a similar situation, but in Italy without the dancing. i mean, trying to integrate yourself into a small closed community in a town that has it's own dialect and ways of doing're really never one of them, always the outsider listening in, even with all the smiling.

thank you!

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