Mormons! Dozens of them, off to Argentina to make some more. One of them struck up a conversation with a woman seated in the row in front of mine, and she mentioned that she was coming to Argentina on a Fulbright research grant. An thus, the Mormon’s led me to my people.
I have been in Buenos Aires for two days now. I will be here one more day, and then on Friday I take a 12 hour bus ride to San Luis, where I will be an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at the local teacher training institute, the Instituto de Formación Docente Continua, for 8 months. My fellow ETAs are 15 incredible women from all over the country – California, Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York (so many from New York), Maine, Illinois, and Louisiana (me). The 9 Fulbright research grantees here with us are women as well, and according to the Argentine Fulbright Commission, this is a first. Several of the male presenters during the orientation have made awkward jokes about reverse sexism. No one laughs.
Many of my fellow grantees speak much better Spanish than I do, but I am taking comfort in the fact that I understand 99% of everything I hear and read. It’s when I have to speak that there are problems. I am at least able to make myself understood clearly, if not eloquently, and I just keep telling myself that the rest will come in time with patience and practice. That is what I want most out of this trip, and I am doing absolutely everything I can to make sure I am fluent in Spanish by the time I return home.
So far, the orientation presentation I enjoyed the most was from US citizens currently living in Argentina, who spoke to us very frankly about confronting cultural difference in Argentina. Here are some of the things they said about life and people in Argentina that particularly caught my attention:
- People here are blunt. They will tell you straight up if you’ve gained weight, lost weight, look tired, look . . anything. Many will tell you their life story without being asked and will expect you to do the same. When they say, “¿Qué tal? (How are you?)” they actually want to know, even if you share ALL THE FEELINGS, and they will keep at you until you actually tell them how you really feel in that moment.
- There is no taboo about talking money or politics with strangers. People ask how much money you make without thinking twice about it. As for politics, we’ve already had some firsthand experience with this. On our way from the airport to the hospital, one of the grantees who had studied abroad here during undergrad asked the taxi driver about some construction work on the subway system in Buenos Aires (“El Subte” for anyone interested in the mechanics of the city, which are fascinating, but better suited for a different post methinks.) In response, we were treated to a 20 minute lecture that somehow segued into the same complaints about “welfare moms” that we hear in The States. This was both comforting and not. Point being that politics were clearly not off the table even though we were complete strangers. This openness in conversation does not, however, carry over to sex. In fact, today we were warned that it is actually really shocking to eat a banana in public here. You get it.
- You are a loser if you are on time. This one is hilarious. Everyone warns us that no one is ever on time here, but we asked some follow up questions and we have found that like most things, it is much more complicated than that. So far the unspoken rules, as we can piece them together, are as follows: 1) If you have an meeting or interview with someone older or “more important” than you, you must be on time, but the Professor can be late and you shouldn’t be upset about it. 2) If you are invited to a party or out to drinks or to dinner at 9, show up at 9:30 at the earliest. 9:45 is probably better. 3) Never expect someone to apologize for being late. 4) Never take lateness as a personal insult!
Having been here only two days I have yet to encounter much of this, but I am ready and excited to see how I negotiate and am changed by my encounters in a country where I am an “other.” And I’m so grateful that I can e-mail, call or skype home when I need to see a familiar face or hear the voice of friends and family. Not the Mormons. No phone calls for them except for Christmas and on Mother’s Day. They’re more hardcore than me. Like those Mormons my dear friend, who for the purposes of this blog shall hereafter be referred to as Stubman (I swear it’s not as offensive as it sounds), once saw popping wheelies in Baton Rouge.
I find comfort in the strange symmetry of this beginning: a large group of Mormon men and a large group of female Fulbright grantees beginning our very different journeys in Argentina on the same day. They’re here to make more Mormons, and we’re here to teach English and be good global citizens. I hope we all find what we’re looking for.