7 years ago I left the United States with a little over $4,000 USD in my bank account with the vague idea of teaching English abroad. Buenos Aires, Argentina was to be my first destination, a city that I had never visited before. In fact I had never gone further south than the border of Mexico. But since the ripe age of five it was apparent to all that I was simply not meant for corporate life, a white picket fence and a cookie cutter lifestyle.
Within the first 10 minutes of landing at Ezeiza international airport I had managed to realize 3 things:
1. My Spanish was not nearly as good as I had thought.
2. The traffic laws in Argentina were effectively non-existent.
3. I was in for a hell of a ride both literally and figuratively speaking.
Like many hopeless romantics I had fallen in love with the idea of falling in love or in this case, living abroad. I had completely overlooked the possible negatives and had not prepared myself for any jarring setbacks. Not being able to find work, not being able to get a date with my limited Spanish skills or simply not being able to assimilate were not in the cards until I landed in Argentina. These eye openers are what drive many to tuck tail and turn back or to simply not try at all, but I suggest the opposite. Embrace these differences and make the most of them.
Living abroad brings about many challenges and at times the cons feel as though they outweigh your sanity. I often equate it to starting your own business. It takes a different mentality. It takes guts. Most importantly it takes an odd trait that can be developed and honed: adaptability. You got to roll with the punches, go with the flow and so on.
You can pick up a Lonely Planet, Frommer’s or Time Out to read all about the wonderful attractions and things to do in Buenos Aires or wherever you may be traveling. Those books, websites and magazines rarely even mention the downsides of a country because they are focusing on the world renowned tourism of that particular place. What they fail to mention is what happens once the honeymoon is over.
Those little differences start to add up, you’re out of your comfort zone and it all just comes crashing down on you. Culture shock is not easy to deal with and can trigger the worst cases of homesickness.
To stay positive and keep trucking you must remember and perhaps imagine what life would be like if you had not moved abroad. That same to and from route to the office, those same everyday lunch options and that all too familiar environment set on repeat. I recommend taking one trip home per year to serve as both a break from life abroad and to load up on your favorite goods, but more importantly a reminder of why you left.
It never hurts to create “support groups” or expat circles, join local forums in your native language, frequent those infamous expats bars and keep a hefty stock of good books and comfort foods.
The Day to Day
Everyday annoyances can begin to wear on you once you have begun to assimilate to your new country. Here in Argentina there are endless lines of bureaucracy, strikes, protests, inflation and other hindrances to a smooth day to day routine. You could get frustrated or you can try to make these roadblocks advantageous.
The most obvious is just this, you are no longer in a simple, repetitive day to day routine. Most expats and people who move abroad are looking to disrupt the binary code of life. Believe me, there will no longer be a predictable day to day routine in Argentina.
I am notoriously late and now have a brand new stack of excuses I am able to use that are not questioned what so ever. There was a neighborhood protest, sorry.
Ask yourself why these things are happening. It often leads to eye opening research about the country’s political situation, economic policies or culture in general. Not 30 years ago Argentina was under a brutal military dictatorship where protesting was crushed upon first sight. Now protests are almost a basic variable of a salary increase equation.
If nothing else, focus on the pro’s of where you are living. Here in Buenos Aires I have a whole slew of interesting things to do on the weekend that people travel thousands of miles to see. The world famous Teatro Colón, a Boca Juniors football match, polo lessons at a Argentinean ranch, tango lessons…you cannot forget what you have at your disposal.
Being unable to communicate to the same degree as that of your native language can be frustrating. Every day is a learning day whether you like it or not.
You mustn’t forget that you stick out, you are different and this can be used to your advantage. Attempting to develop relationships with your local store owners or clerks, taxi drivers, waiters, bartenders- they are all much more likely to remember the foreigner that speaks with a funny accent. If you make a good impression then all of a sudden you are the Don Corleone of your block greeting everyone on the way in and out of your neighborhood.
Don’t skip out on playing dumb either. If you feel like you are in a sticky situation simply pretend you do not understand what the other person is saying. It’s a trump card that many of us expats forget to use.
And don’t get me started on dating. If you are single, your accent could be the bane of your loneliness or the key to your very successful dating schedule. It never hurts to try and play up the accent and innocence. Maybe teach a word here and there and be extra interested in listening. Listening is often the key to dating success anyway.
Since his rocky arrival, Jed Rothenberg has adapted very well to life in Buenos Aires. He has an Argentine partner and a beautiful baby boy with her, and he runs the incredibly popular go-to website for all things Buenos Aires, http://LandingPadBA.com. You can find info, tours, reviews, events, etc. Visiting the site is a must for anyone traveling to or living in Buenos Aires.