It has been a week and a half since my arrival in Buenos Aires for a semester abroad. I have been getting used to the living rhythm here and organizing my daily/weekly schedule. Classes start this week and I’m really excited. Strangely enough, I didn’t really feel the cultural difference when I first got to college in the U.S. but here I do, big time. Buenos Aires is such a cosmopolitan city with people coming in and out from all over the world. Friends get together really fast–-I’ve never met so many friends in such a short period of time! I promised myself that I would keep a blog during my time here to compile every piece of my experience. I was deciding whether I should write it in English, Vietnamese, or Spanish, since I need to practice writing in all three. For now I’ll stay with English to skip the translation process (I don’t have much time and this is the best way to make sure I continue the commitment). So far I’ve gathered a lot of observations and experiences regarding #lugares (places), #idioma (language), #etiqueta (etiquette), #comida (food), #gente (people), #arte (art), #sociedad (society), #academia (academics), as well as photos for visual documentation. Let’s get started!
To back it up a little, when I got to my third year of college, I had a crisis because I was so confused about everything I was pursuing and stressed from a lot of the work I signed up for. I planned to study abroad, hoping I would find a solution, just like what my professor told me: “Don’t be afraid of messiness. You need to throw yourself out there and see what’s up.” I spent a month in Mexico last summer to prepare for Argentina (the study abroad program I chose was interesting and most financially-feasible for me). I first knew of the Argentine culture through the literary world, the riveting works of Borges and Cortázar I read for my Spanish classes at Bennington. Before I came here, my objectives were to be fluent in Spanish and to discover more the socio-media-political landscape of the city, and thus being able to understand more Latin America as my region of interest. I had an initial understanding that the political and media landscape in Buenos Aires had a lot of division and intersection, especially with the new media laws in the context of technology advancement and globalization. Besides taking classes at school, I also expected to discover the multifaceted culture of the city, meet new friends from unexpected encounters, and observe the Argentine way of life. I wanted to see for myself the place that possessed photographic shots of Borges’ childhood and youth memories and Cortázar’s literary inspirations – how Buenos Aires existed beyond the confines of time. I wanted to see how the urban integrated with the antiquated by gentrification, influenced by vestiges of European colonialism. I wanted to witness how the walls of Buenos Aires represented the voice of the people through street art, and to experience mate (Argentine infused tea) as a cultural ritual linked to the Argentine indigenous identity, as well as as a social ritual to connect people from different backgrounds. But most importantly, I just wanted to explore beyond my college bubble and experience the discomfort/challenge of being in the wrong place, where I’m not dependent on familiarity and have to open myself up to extensive learning and growing.
Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina, located on the western shore of the estuary of Río de la Plata (Plata River) in South America. It’s one of the most populous and cosmopolitan cities in the Americas with around 17 million people. The people of BA are called porteños (people of the port city) because they live on one of the busiest ports in South America, connected to Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. (I will write more about the porteños identity in my next posts). My first impression of Buenos Aires was its liveliness – the city lives at night and exists in its own time zone (we call it “la hora argentina” (the Argentine hour) because people are not very punctual and it takes quite some time to respond to everything). It’s currently late summer/start of fall (November-March) so the weather is awesome: a lot of sun, chilly at night, and very tropical. It was such a huge change for me coming from the winter of New York. I arrived late at night and had orientation the next morning at the university – the city welcomed me with more than half an hour jostling in the no-air-conditioning subway and a 70% sweaty, transparent shirt as a result (which reminded me of Vietnam a lot). However, when it’s not too hot, the air is quite fresh and nice (just like its name: “good airs” in English). In terms of environment, BA is still battling a lot of issues such as polluted water, waste production, and climate change. The government issued an urban-environmental agenda called Ciudad Verde (Green City), which committed to energy efficiency, sustainable mobility and waste management (featured on the website of Buenos Aires government). There are a lot of trees, parks, botanical gardens and ecological reserves. People use public transportations like colectivo (bus) or subte (subway), bike, and walk a lot (the public bike system is everywhere). One of the most surprising observations I have is there’s no plastic bag when you go shopping here. People have to pay for a green bag or bring their own bag. While glass beer bottles can be returned for a refund at stores and recycled, milk is not sold in cartons or bottles but in plastic bags, which to me is economically smart and consumer-oriented but environmentally questionable.
First glance and neighborhood: Buenos Aires is heavily influenced by European architecture; a lot of the buildings and streets were built to imitate Paris, London, and Venice. I wasn’t very excited about this because I don’t enjoy going to touristy places and seeing a city through the beauty standard/as a version of some white, European, well-adored colonizers of the Western world. That being said, it was interesting to observe the variety of styles in architecture and public infrastructure. I particularly like the apartment buildings here: a lot of windows, open balcony, standing side by side in a sisterly manner. The city is divided into different barrios (neighborhoods); some of the most well-known are Palermo, Recoleta, San Telmo, Belgrano, and La Boca. I live in Palermo, a popular area for students and young people to stay in because of its lively cultural scene and fair price, with a German roommate, Elisabeth. One interesting thing is the streets are connected in one barrio and a lot of them were named after Latin American countries (Guatemala, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua) so it was quite easy for me to figure out my way around. Security is highly concerned in Buenos Aires (robbery and scam), and thus all of the doors are locked automatically. At night, it is always recommended to walk in pairs or groups, especially if you’re a girl/woman or foreigner.
Around my house, there are a lot of cafes, restaurants, and different kinds of shops: dietéticas tomy (healthy store, which sells dried fruits, cereals, oatmeals, and healthy snacks to scale), carnicería (meat store), zapatería (shoe store), panadería o pastelería (bakeries), etc. The most famous food item here is carne (red meat), fairly priced and of high quality. I thought I was in heaven because I have quite a passionate relationship with beef. People would go out for parrilla (carne on grill), which compiles all kinds of meat on a wooden board: steak, chorizo (sausage), blood sausage, ribs, intestinos (I am. obsessed. with. intestines!) Since we are students on a budget, my friends and I would get together once in a while for an open grill at a friend’s house, where we bring meat, vegetables, and drinks to feast and meet new friends. For some reason, my friend group happens to live 5-20 minutes away from each other (see, less than 2 weeks and I already have a friend group), so it was convenient to hang out or go to class together. I think the Argentine greeting etiquette has a lot to do with how fast people make acquaintance here: one kiss on the cheek, sometimes plus a hug, just like the Mexican way of greeting/saying goodbye that I experienced last summer. I prefer it to shaking hands because it’s more warm and intimate (plus I can smell the person). Every week, there are so many events to attend, especially for international students. I’ve never spent one day at home! People party until morning, and they actually dance (which I loveee). I normally go to cultural events during the week and a boliche/discoteca (night club) on Friday (one of my favorite activities is Mate Club de Conversación, a great group of cultural exchange through mate, snacks, game, and conversation). Overall, people in the city are really open, kind and friendly; I don’t see the stereotype of the “egoistic” and “proud” Argentine at all. Speaking of which, I just had my first class about identity and stereotypes in Argentina and Latin America – can’t wait to dig deeper into it!
Friends in my circle come from different parts of the world: Mexico, Israel, Argentina, USA, UK, Denmark, Germany, France, Belgium, with very different backgrounds. I’m the only Vietnamese and I’m surprised that I haven’t met any other Asian international student (when I mentioned this observation, an Argentine told me that there were a lot of Asians here, “you weren’t that special”). I have never talked so much about my country and the U.S. like this before – here I represent both (today someone was very surprised to know that I’ve never watched The Simpsons). Even though I love the multiculturalism I witness, I want to see more students of color. A lot of people still have surprisingly limited knowledge about race and ethnicity. Having a body of students of color would strengthen the discourse and extend the experience beyond whiteness here. Argentina is a country of immigrants, with the majority coming from Europe (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, England, Russian, etc.). A large amount of Argentines nowadays are descendants of Italian immigrants, concentrated in Buenos Aires. There are also a big population of Jews and Arabs, focused around Once towards Corrientes. Asian neighborhoods are not very integrated and tend to exist in close social circles, while the black population only takes up 1% of the total population. Racism and xenophobia in Argentina, rooted in the history of colonization and immigration, exist towards indigenous people, immigrants of other Latin American countries such as Bolivians and Paraguayans, as well as Jews and people of African descent. These issues deeply interconnect with the issue of class and discrimination based on socioeconomic/political status. I would discuss more about this subject as my classes move forward, and would also do some more research to have a comprehensive understanding of the system and social characteristics in Argentina compared to other countries in the Americas.
In the next posts, I will write about some parts of the Argentine culture: #idioma (slangs!), #comida, and #lugares I’ve been to so far. (Or I will not). SALUDOS!
(P/s: fun observation: there are 2 types of toilet seats for men and women in one baño (restroom) here. I can never decide which one to chose!)