Living in Argentina while Studying Spanish in Buenos Aires
In three days, I will have officially been in Buenos Aires for two months!
It’s not like I haven’t felt it coming, since that’s one of the first questions I get when striking up a conversation with locals: “How long have you been here?” It comes right after, “So, where are you from?” and “Do you realize how the rest of the world feels about the U.S.?” Yet it still feels weird to think that one-third of my time here has already passed me by. In the weeks preceding my study abroad take-off, I had tried to imagine what a scene from the two-month mark would feel like.
I’d be sipping mate on some grassy knoll—accompanied by my new porteño social circle—and discussing the nuances of the Argentine politics I had by now mastered. All in fluent Spanish, of course.
BTW if you like mate you might want to read The 101 of Yerba Mate
My friend, who’d studied abroad last semester in India, advised me that study abroad experiences are typically divided into three distinct stages. During her first two months, everything had felt exciting and new, from monkey raids in the Himalayas to life-or-death rickshaw rides. During the second two months, things that may have seemed “different” at first now became uncomfortable. (Although, I can’t quite see how taking showers with buckets of cold water could have lost its appeal.) Alas, during the last two months, everything had become fine and dandy again, as she realized that her time was nearing an end, India was culturally and visually astounding, and traveling is infinitely more interesting than finals.
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Luckily, I haven’t started to feel uncomfortable about anything yet. I don’t really see myself doing so either, since I’ve already grown accustomed to neighborhood catcalls and learned early on that running on the street is a cultural faux pas. But I think my lack of discomfort is also because I may have skipped the first stage as well. I’ve loved Living in Buenos Aires thus far, and would still pick Argentina as my study abroad location if I were to choose again. And yet, I’m still waiting for a lot of the “new” and unfamiliar to kick in. Walking the streets of Puerto Madero feels eerily similar to San Francisco and the Bay Area, while Palermo Hollywood might as well be in Los Angeles. I speak much more English than I do Spanish, and hear much more English in general than I thought I would. I haven’t been adopted into an Argentinean social circle, and I’m perpetually confused by Argentinean politics …
I guess what I’ve come to realize is that, depending on where you are and how you choose to adapt, studying abroad can prove to be more like vacationing than actually assimilating into a culture. Or worse, you can fashion it to feel as far from “abroad” as possible. In my own study abroad program, I’ve noticed students who will unwittingly choose to go to the most American bars in Palermo, who will keep their Spanish restricted solely to the classroom and put on a gringo accent outside of it, and whose biggest efforts in cultural immersion have centered around adjusting to the late partying schedule.
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It’s both easy and comfortable to stick to what we know— to settle into our extranjero (foreigner) routines, to give up on trying to make Argentinean friends and leave our cultural immersion to exchanges within boliches (night clubs). We can cook pasta on weekday nights, meet up with friends in Palermo and Recoleta near Vamos Spanish Academy during the weekends, briefly lament about the fact that our Spanish isn’t improving that fast, but just be generally content with the fact that we’re having the time of our lives. The specific locations would be different, but our previous lifestyle (minus studying) would be intact.
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But there’s a fine line between comfortable and lazy. While discussing the poverty facing most Argentinean, my professor went on a tangent last week about the manicured façade of Buenos Aires, and about how much of it doesn’t represent Argentina at all. “Recoleta es una ficción,” he had said. Though we came here to experience as much of Buenos Aires (and Argentina) as possible, I know too many Vamos Spanish students who have barely ventured outside of the parameters of Recoleta, Palermo and Belgrano.
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been guilty of at least some of the above; a few months ago, I never would have suspected that culture shock would be something I’d have to work for. But I’ve been taking baby steps, striking up conversations with baristas at my barrio café about their lives in Salta, making it a point to speak more Spanish with friends and getting excited about getting up early for Spanish classes at Vamos Spanish Academy and all their social and cultural activities, and opting for hidden local favorites instead of tourist traps. It might not be as extreme as experiencing monkey raids in the Himalayas, but I’m trying my hardest to get uncomfortable.
So don’t cry for me, Argentina. While it’s true that there’s some pasta on the stove tonight with my name on it, I’m not ready to give up on you just yet.