Argentina, Namstudy, Scribble

I’m not your muñeca


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When I read “You Wouldn’t Understand” by José Emilio Pacheco, I was incredibly uncomfortable. It reminded me of what I experienced and witnessed throughout my childhood. Although my father exposed me to some rough truths about the outside world since an early age because as a journalist, he himself struggled with fighting for his integrity in a silenced culture, he still protected me from seeing the whole story for my own “safety.” My curiosity and young ego couldn’t settle for tids and bits of truth. However, at least he didn’t silence me, nor did he blatantly try to put out my desire to investigate the unknown; he just implied “to wait,” until I was able to go to a place where I have more freedom to question and curate my voice. The young daughter in Pacheco’s story didn’t have that privilege. She was her father’s muñeca, something more complex than just an expression of cariño (endearment). The father-daughter relationship is intertwined with intersectionality: gender, race, and class.

Read my thoughts here: I’m not your muñeca

Read the original story here.

Featured image Drusilla, 1860 by Julian Callos Illustration


Argentina, Nam en Español

Parque de la memoria y la dictadura militar

La visita al Parque de la Memoria me dejó muchos sentimientos. En las paredes, las placas están aglomeradas, grabadas con nombre y edad de las víctimas del terrorismo del estado del 1976 a 1983. Mi primera impresión fue que ellos eran tan jóvenes, muchos fueron estudiantes y agentes de cambio, quienes podrían haber tenido todo un futuro por delante. Me acordaba de cuando mirábamos el documental “Madres de Plaza de Mayo” en la clase, casi me hizo llorar escuchando los cuentos de las madres, abuelas y hermanas, sobre la desaparición y la búsqueda de sus parientes. No puedo imaginar que ser hijo/a, madre/padre, nieto/a, querido de los desaparecidos, tampoco de cómo sería ser yo sin conocer mi identidad auténtica por haber sido secuestrada desde la niñez. Continue reading “Parque de la memoria y la dictadura militar”

Argentina, Namgoeson

#2-Buenos Aires: Fighter and Dreamer–Luchadora y Soñadora

Then one day the honey moon phase ended. The hiccups became bigger, and I choked on my own tears in the middle of the street, hating every single minute being in the new city. (Later I blamed it on the full moon, the upcoming period, the changing temperature, the tropical storm that came later that night).

I’ve been postponing writing for a couple of weeks now. A lot of things have happened and I find myself step by step being able to navigate through this cobweb I’ve been in, which I consider an inevitable part of growing up. I had my 21st birthday in Buenos Aires, among dear friends who I’ve known for longest a month and shortest a week. I don’t know how it happened but people here connect faster than I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Thanks to the universe, they are all amazing young ladies that have so much strength, kindness, intelligence, and many dreams to accomplish. They empower me. I guess you will attract and gravitate towards people that share the same values and want to walk along with you on your path. That’s one of the most fantastic things about traveling: spontaneous connections that help you grow.

Anyhow, I had my first two weeks of “honey moon phase” in Buenos Aires––everything was so exciting and I was full of energy to discover around, meet new people, have fun, and overcome any small initial hiccups settling in a new city. Then one day the honey moon phase ended. The hiccups became bigger, and I choked on my own tears in the middle of the street, hating every single minute being in the new city. (Later I blamed it on the full moon, the upcoming period, the changing temperature, the tropical storm that came later that night). It was strange because I didn’t remember experiencing this kind of difficulty when I came to the U.S. for college. However, as my roommate Elisabeth said, maybe I did experience it but I just didn’t remember, because we normally remembered the good part. Not until we experienced the bad part again could we realize we had been through it before; didn’t make it any better, but at least we felt less clueless and slowly we grew accustomed to it. I didn’t believe in “cultural shock.” In Buenos Aires, I experienced this phenomenon, and also self shock, but since I don’t like to call them “shock,” let’s call them cultural friction (el choque cultural) and self friction (el choque del yo) instead (what happens from both the exterior and interior when an individual immerses in different cultures, values, and schools of thought). Overall, it is extremely exciting but also challenging. I’m currently in my “familiarizing” phase: inserting myself into the new city life with less friction. Despite all ups and downs, I’m extremely grateful for everything, and hopeful for what’s coming next.

I didn’t believe in “cultural shock.” In Buenos Aires, I experienced this phenomenon, and also self shock, but since I don’t like to call them “shock,” let’s call them cultural friction (el choque cultural) and self friction (el choque del yo) instead (what happens from both the exterior and interior when an individual immerses in different cultures, values, and schools of thought).

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Rethink discomfort 

To begin with, Buenos Aires exceeds my expectation in teaching me what I was looking for before I came: discomfort. I learned to be optimally patient, strong, and flexible. Now, please understand that what I’m about to describe next can exist in any city around the world, but the overall experience resulting from it, to me, is distinctive. First off, the system here is turbulent: from inflation, corruption, sanitary, to education. Everything takes so much time to resolve itself and bureaucracy is everywhere. In terms of living habits, people live at night and eat much later. Time is flexible: classes don’t really happen on time, actually everything rarely begins on time.  Yet, people really respect the lines here: you can mess up elsewhere but not in lines, stand your ground, follow your order and respect others.

My friends and I tease each other that in Buenos Aires, you have to prepare yourself thoroughly before getting out of the house because it is jungle out there. Dog poop gilds the sidewalk like the game Minesweeper. The sound pollution is beyond my expectation: traffic, construction, neighbors, infrastructure, loud talking. Men look at women like fresh meat. I wanted to see Latin America but ran into somewhat an imitation of Europe (as I explained in the previous post, Argentina hosts a major population of European immigrants). The worst: no street food (except the fantastic choripán). Everything is expensive and touristy. I couldn’t understand how people could afford the living cost here especially food-wise.

That being said, discomfort doesn’t necessarily come from unfamiliarity. Interestingly, I find Buenos Aires to have a lot of things in common with Hanoi, my home city: the relaxing rhythm of life, the idea of time, family values, implicit machismo, the warmth of the weather and the buena honda (good vibe), the traffic, etc.. I felt like I was here before, I was home but speaking a different language. I call this phenomenon the “deja vu discomfort”––the discomfort you may have experienced previously and run into again. I felt uncomfortable at home when I was 18 and wanted to see a world beyond my bubble, so I left for college the U.S., and now I feel like I’m back again to a somewhat similar place: Argentina is not Vietnam, obviously, but it gives me some similar feelings. Similarly, the white ignorance I witnessed doesn’t just happen in Argentina but in the U.S. also; I forgot about it temporarily because I chose to focus on other issues. Now, as the cultural friction resulted from all directions: Argentina, European countries, urbanization, I started having a rewind of everything I’d experienced/noticed having lived in several distinctive environments. Instead of getting stuck in my own feelings, I pushed myself to ask more questions and dig deep into the causes behind my observations. Otherwise, I would just stop at being a tourist and I seriously didn’t want that. The ugly side of tourism is the ignorance and exploitation, the pleasure from “sightseeing” and the unbalanced power dynamics between the watcher and the watched. I’m here because I want to learn. So I formed my discomfort into curiosity and tried to look for the answers through a more critical lens.

Question of privilege and criticality

The biggest observation of Argentina that I value so much is the ability and spirit to fight and survive. In Vietnam and a lot of places in the world, we are accustomed to being silenced for our own safety. Here, observantly, people stand up for what they believe in. In a conversation, porteños (people from Buenos Aires) are very vocal in the sense that they are willing to argue with each other and sometimes very stubborn with their points of view. They vocalize themselves on the streets. Marches and strikes happen on a weekly basis, resulting in suspended traffic, blocked streets, cancelled classes, closed businesses. People of all ages and all walks of life, especially women, get on the street to let their voices heard, against various issues: injustice, machismo, femicide, exploitation at work, the implementation of “el programa nacional de education sexual integral,” etc. I joined a march for the International Women’s Day my first week in Buenos Aires in Plaza de Mayo. It was chaotic but extremely exciting because there was a lot of “ruidazo”—banging pots and pans—and collective singing. I saw a little girl wearing a shirt saying “mi abuela y mi mamá me enseñan a luchar” (my grandma and my mom teach me to fight). The collective resistance empowers me a lot and challenges me to rethink privilege.

To me, this spirit is an expression of motherhood, stemming from a long history of protecting la tierra (mother land) and family traditions of an originally matriarchal society before colonization came with its machistic value system of the Catholic church.


On one hand, I witnessed how having classes on-schedule was a privilege. In Buenos Aires, even though public school is free and of good quality, protests and marches prevent classes from happening. Teachers stood in front of the Ministry of Education, in public squares, striking for better pay, certain rights related to working conditions, and against inequality in the education system. Last year, the inflation rate adding up to 40% put teachers in a dead-end situation. The disparities between public and private schools are deeply engrained in the issues of social class. In a country where the middle class is not the biggest force and everyday anyone can turn into a “cartoneo,” a person who picks up cartons from trash sites and sells them to earn a living, the fight is grave, constant, and can cost more than what one can afford. On the other hand, being able to fight is also a privilege. As I’ve said before, in Vietnam and a lot of places in the world, people are not used to vocalizing themselves through protests and fighting for their rights, especially those who live in the margin like women and girls, people in rural and mountainous areas, ethnic minorities, and the poor workers. Standing against the system might put themselves and their families in danger, not to mention death (a cleansing method for contra-forces). Despite the differences, Latin America and Southeast Asia have one thing in common: resiliency. No matter how we react to a turbulent system, we prevail and survive. We are the ants that keep working, marching and producing in masses. We maintain our forces and build up our fences not just for ourselves but for our families and future generations. To me, this spirit is an expression of motherhood, stemming from a long history of protecting la tierra (mother land) and family traditions of an originally matriarchal society before colonization came with its machistic value system of the Catholic church.

In Buenos Aires, self friction happens when I challenge everything I thought I knew, from what I study to my future plans, from personal relationships to my social life. Honestly, I cannot count how many times I told myself: “No Nam, why the heck did you think so?” I became more vigilant and critical. Nothing is to be sure here, not just because of the fluctuating system but also because I witnessed clearly that life was constantly changing and so was myself. I’ve been learning to suspend judgment but at the same time develop a clear sense of point of view and values (what I deem worthwhile). In turbulence, you need to have an anchor and from there you swing, otherwise you’ll go crazy. I started reading news from both Clarín (pro-Macri, right) and Página 12 (contra-Macri, left) to have a balanced point of view. I talked to people from different backgrounds, from the porteño taxi driver to the high-class youngster in a private university. Rarely do I see people offer the same points of view, not even in politics. That diversity intrigues and fulfills me. I have never met and talked to so many different people in a short amount of time before in my life. The more I learned, the more I felt like I was not enough; but then I thought: “Hey Nam, you’re only 21, chill!” Being critical is good, but since learning is a lifetime process, I need to be patient with myself and just be—it’s okay to not know the answer and it’s okay to live slower.

Idea of time

At the moment, to me, time illustrates itself not just externally but internally. As I briefly mentioned, chronemics (the role of time) in Argentina is distinctive: it stands outside the North American and Northern European idea of productivity and punctuality. Even though the city life is intense, it exists in a much slower time frame. The people are luchadores (fighters) but also soñadores (dreamers). Intially, I was extremely annoyed by this dreamy, “no pasa nada” state of mind, but then I looked at it again and saw the value in it: you can’t fight if you don’t dream. Dreaming, living slower, more chill, is a way to nurture yourself and save up your energy tank; it’s also a method of healing. Before I came here, I was confused. Even though nothing was going wrong, I still felt insecure and a bit disoriented. I knew what I had but I just couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I felt dumb, yes, that’s the feeling. I was moving too fast.

Another fantastic thing about being in a completely new place: the unfamiliarity and cross-cultural adaptation helps you see much more of yourself from different angles. It can change you drastically and it’s not a completely beautiful thing. It’s tough and painful and depressing and confusing and messy. It makes you cry and angry and frustrated and missing the familiar. But in the end, you swallow your tears and you continue.

I was constantly throwing myself into different projects and asking myself to come up with solutions, while what I needed most were a lot of space and introspection. I made the right call to come to Argentina. It’s all about timing. At this time of my life, I need to reconnect with my dreamer self and my own oriental cultural value of mysticism: knowledge can be inaccessible to the intellect and may only be apprehended through self-contemplation. I love the fast-pace environment in the U.S. but I’m also exhausted from it. That being said, in Argentina I’m not stress-free, but at least I have more spare time to reflect, come up with new ideas, and look at myself from a different perspective. The only thing I wish to have more of is nature; what the city lacks most are green spots to contemplate and reconnect with nature. There are parks and botanical gardens but you can’t really sit on good grass and have a picnic for yourself.

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In a conversation I had with Emma, a Colombian-American friend from class, when we were sitting next to the river in Tigre, enjoying a lovely lunch under the sun, she asked me what my purpose of being in Buenos Aires was. I said to be fluent in Spanish and have a more clear idea of what I wanted to do (for my senior thesis and further). She said for her it was to have a better sense of self. For some reason, we both recognized and appreciated each other’s value but failed to do so with ourselves. Self-doubt hit us harder than we thought. I’m not sure if it’s just a 20-something thing. Another fantastic thing about being in a completely new place: the unfamiliarity and cross-cultural adaptation help you see much more of yourself from different angles. It can change you drastically and it’s not a completely beautiful thing. It’s tough and painful and depressing and confusing and messy. It makes you cry and angry and frustrated and missing the familiar. But in the end, you swallow your tears and you continue.

Before I came here, my one goal beyond other hopes and dreams was to stop being a people pleaser––I was always giving and caring too much and it exhausted me. I want a complete detox. I want to learn how to confront and say what I think frankly without being afraid of hurting others or being judged. I want to stop seeing and treating myself through other people’s eyes. I just want to be just as I am. So step by step (poco a poco in Spanish, I love this phrase!), I start doing it. I speak up my mind without censoring my words. It feels freaking amazing. By doing that, I have a clearer sense of what I like and what I don’t want to waste my time on. I’m learning to save myself from the social mercy of others. I’m learning to be Nam, welcome her, and trust her wholeheartedly.

Argentina, Namgoeson

#1-BuenosAires: Orientation period summary – Introduction

Hola chicos!

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.

A green street scene in Palermo, my neighborhood

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.

View from my balcony

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!)