Some of the most interesting experiences I have been having over the past few weeks have been during lunch hour at my job.  I am fortunate enough to work with six really great Argentines, who in just the past few weeks have helped me to understand so much more about the local culture and language, that if nothing else were to develop from this job I would leave happy with that experience alone.

A night of cultural exchange

The first few days I kept pretty quiet and tried to smile a lot. Deep down I was really frustrated and got the feeling that my coworkers thought I was mute or really shy. The reality was, I understood so little of what was being said that there were few moments when I felt like I could actually contribute something.  I insisted everyone speak with me only in Spanish and I tried my best to not use English, but I has definitely been a challenge but one that has served me well.

In only the past few weeks I have really begun to catch on and finally interact and be myself, tell stories, laugh, and make jokes with everyone. I can even understand most of the stories my coworker Cecilia tells in super-sonic speed typical of a Bariloche native.  I still find myself saying things that I realize only later were way off topic because I misinterpreted something. I am known to tell some pretty long-winded stories in English, so you can only imagine how long it takes me to conjugate then translate everything in my head to tell my weekend’s gossip in Spanish. But I do my best, and everyone has been especially patient.

When I first began thinking about working for an Argentine company I wasn’t sure how I would be viewed, whether some spoiled gringa or that people would be frustrated by my still developing Spanish skills.  But it seems like we have very mutual feelings of wanting to understand so much more about each other – me about “los Porteños” and them about “los Yankees” (pronounced more like “Shankess.”) Because of the pronunciation, I sometimes don’t realize they are referring to North Americans and not the baseball team.

We ask each other questions non-stop throughout the day, whether it be food, pop culture, music, celebrity gossip, language, cultural habits the topics are endless. No one ever seems to tire of asking, however random it might be.  Our daily lunches together are long, leisurely, and filled with lots of fast talking (amongst them, while I try my best to catch on), laughing, and non-stop cultural exchanges.  If my plan was to fully immerse in a new culture and language (it is), working for an Argentine company with all locals is my golden ticket.

As I sifted through our delivery menus one afternoon, I began playfully complaining about the monotony of the food options.

“I have got it down.  Argentines eat six main food groups – meat, potatoes/fries, pizza, pasta, empanadas, and medialunas or some form of these,” I said while smiling coyly.

They laughed, emphatically denying this.  But I knew I had a point.  I motioned to the stack of delivery menus and challenged them to count how many menus weren’t one of more of these food “groups” and not much else.  The sheer number of empanada-only restaurants was evidence enough for me.

Being a celiac and not able to eat bread I find myself in a tough spot almost every day. I often cheat my diet otherwise in many cases I would go hungry.  It seems that anything and everything you order, whether it be a bread dish itself, is accompanied by…you guess it, more bread.

“Okay, so tell us…in the U.S. the most popular sandwiches are peanut butter and jelly and tunafish, right?” asked my coworker Sebastian.  I stopped shuffling the menus like they were playing cards and then started giggling.  “No, no! Someone may eat a peanut butter sandwich occasionally, but it’s more likely something you eat all the time when you are a kid.  As for tuna fish, for sure there are lots of people that don’t really like it and then in an office there is the whole smell/breath issue,” I said giggling a bit more.

I rave a lot about the fruit here (more on that in another post), and was shocked when my coworkers commented that they thought Americans probably didn’t eat much fruit because of how expensive it is, citing that an apple could cost something like $1. I know that having grown up in a place like Manhattan with so many food options and with a mom who was very into giving us healthy foods that my perspective might be a bit different than someone from, lets say, Mississippi.  But surely fruit is not a rare occurance in households across the U.S.

Sometimes you just have to laugh at all the funny things people around the world think of your culture.  I remember when I studied abroad in Milan, and my Italian roommate confessed to my American roommate Dorothy and I that she thought before she met us that we were going to be fat.  She was also under the assumption that Americans ate eggs, pancakes, and bacon for breakfast – every single day.

Don’t get me wrong.  I totally understand why these stereotypes exist, pretty much a direct result of what is portrayed in American movies and television.  And for me one of the best things about immersing myself in another culture is to learn how people view my culture, laugh about it, and also share with people the reality of my life back home.

I have learned how to make instant coffee taste good.  Here they make it “batido” or beated, which I had no clue about until my coworker Veronica showed me one day, and now I’m hooked. I have opened up their ears to pure, old-school, east and west coast rap music (or maybe they think of it as noise, I’m not sure yet), while they have opened my ears to Calle 13, Bajofondo, La Mala Rodriguez, and of course, cumbia.

I have a feeling my coworkers will never forget working with me after what happened at the other night’s happy hour.

My coworker Cecilia was telling a story, and at the end I realized I had never asked how old she was (somehow totally normal to ask in a work setting in many countries outside the U.S.)  “De cuantos estas,” I said, not the usual way I would say it but in my haste to ask before the topic changed, it came out that way.  Everyone at the table burst out laughing.  Turns out that’s how you ask how far along someone is in their pregnancy! We are still laughing and re-telling the story and I have a feeling there will be more Spanish faux-pas in my future.  This is one of those inevitable steps in the language learning curve. Thankfully I have mastered some of the important ones like when you are warm not to say “Estoy caliente,” which I’m sure you can guess the meaning.

Having visited both countries, I asked my coworkers one day at lunch why they thought Argentina hadn’t seen the same level of development as Brazil. I was really surprised by their answers. Instead of looking for ways to move forward, they feel people in Argentina choose to complain about the problems and stay negative, whether it be government corruption or poverty.  Added to that, the country is very fractured politically, with groups still aligning themselves with the Peronists, a family who ruled Argentina some 50 years in the past.  People are not coming together to move the country forward and there is virtually no major industry of goods produced in Argentina. Brazil they viewed as a different story.  First and foremost, the government is stable and not brimming with corruption as in Argentina, attracting an influx of foreign investment.  They also said that despite many problems the country faces, people are generally happy and positive about life which has meant more forward thinking.  And lastly is a greater wealth of natural resources.

I have become a student of my own native language.  Since we work with clients in the U.S. we get emails and documents in English all the time.  Almost everyone in the office has a high level of English, so when they ask me words they don’t understand they usually aren’t easy ones.  Thus far I have had to define “benchmark,” “milestone,” “faint,” “unbridled,” how to use “downpour”, and to describe what okra is.  It’s kept me on my toes and double-checking things on Google.  Somehow when it’s your native language we often know how to use a lot of words but have trouble defining them.

It’s these kinds of experiences that to me make living in another country so worth the challenge and difficulty of adjusting to a new life.  Leaving everything back in New York was no easy feat, but in exchange I get to expand my mind in so many ways it sometimes becomes subconscious.  I also know that living here and constantly interacting with locals is the only way to have such an intimate experience. I get into work in the morning and am invigorated at the thought of being able to absorb more new things and go home at night thinking about how different things are and make lists of more things I don’t want to forget to ask.

Photo: Cecilia Flensborg