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).
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.
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.