In a few short weeks, I will have been living in Buenos Aires for seven consecutive years (not to mention the time that I spent here as an exchange student and as a tourist). I can say without any doubt that one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do while living here is say goodbye – Over and over and over again. Not to my loved ones during my occasional trips back to the U.S., mind you. The fact is, I find myself a minority of a minority in the sense that I am the only expat who I know of still living in Argentina who has been here for the duration that I have.
Whether I consider myself an expatriate, a foreigner, a permanent resident, an immigrant, or something in between still remains to be seen. Nevertheless, over time, I have begun shunning potential opportunities to socialize and become friends with most expats in this city, because there seems to be an expiration date on the people who come here from abroad. It’s one that feels like it’s getting cut shorter and shorter as Argentina’s political and economic situation grows more and more extreme and unpredictable.
The fact is, Buenos Aires is a very transient city. Moreover, the other fact is that very few foreigners from “first world” countries tend to hang here around too long.
Their initial reasons for coming here in the first place can vary, but their reasons for leaving seem to be quite similar. It’s the crime, the inflation, the ugliness of the city in all of it’s dog poo and graffiti-covered glory. In some cases, it can be the lack of economic opportunities (apart from teaching English), the difficulty in saving money, or the language.
Whatever their reason(s) may be, by this point, I feel like I have a pretty accurate idea if someone will be on that plane leaving from Ezeiza Airport within the next year or so. I am also quite good at sizing someone up if they will be successful as an expat, whether they remain here long-term or not. I feel like I want to get on a soapbox when I meet a newbie, and school them (or incidentally frighten them a bit) about what is in store for them and how to be a successful Buenos Aires expat.
In my moments of grandeur, I imagine that my schpeel might go something like this:
The first thing that you should know when it comes to being a successful Buenos Aires expat is that your country of origin really doesn’t bear too much importance. Despite the fact that this is a country built on immigrants and what they brought with them from the motherland, many Porteños who I have met are xenophobic to some extent. Are you from the United States? Peru? The U.K.? China? It doesn’t really seem to matter; they will find some fault with it. There are overgeneralizations (“Yanquis are war-loving gun nuts”) and unflattering stereotypes (“Perucas are here to take advantage of the public healthcare system and sell drugs”). There are ridiculous grudges (“The British piratas stole the Islas Malvinas from us and Chile supported them”), and some outright demonstrations of racism (as in pulling the corners of your eyes up into little slants). I honestly don’t see much advantage of one country over another as far as being an expat goes.
Patience is an absolute virtue here, which happens to be one of my weak points. I’ve damn near given myself an ulcer while trying to deal with “customer service.” Queuing here (for the bank, the colectivo, anything really) is a national pastime. There are days that are fine, and there are days when you go to three different ATMs in hopes of finding one that will actually dispense cash. Count to 10 (or possibly 100), take a deep, cleansing breath, and carry on.
As important as patience is, it’s also important to know where and when to draw the line, and not to tolerate crap. One example of when I wish I had put this notion into practice in the past, like when I was at an Argentine friend’s dinner party. Some of the real zingers that I got beaten over the head with were that almost no Americans can be bothered to learn a foreign language. Moreover, 9/11 was a conspiracy thought up by George W. Bush to promote his war for the oil we need to fuel our hummers and SUVs, which we obviously all drive. Obviously.
I am the first person to advocate for being your own ambassador when you are abroad. However, there is a limit. Know what yours are.
Furthermore, make a concerted effort to really learn the language. Not just español. Castellano bien porteño. That, and integrate and immerse yourself in daily life. It’s not always pretty, it’s certainly not easy, but why else would you go abroad if it’s not for the real experience? It honestly irks me when people never bother to leave Palermo and venues like the Sugar Bar or Casa Bar to venture out to the less well-known parts and barrios of Buenos Aires.
Would I have lasted as long as I have if I had known what was in store for me when I first arrived? I can emphatically say “Helllllllllll, no.” That’s also why I accredit a part of my longevity as a Buenos Aires expat to being naive to a certain extent. The process of securing an apartment rental without U.S. dollars and without a garantia can mind-numbingly difficult if you just arrived here. Somehow, I did it. Getting a job en blanco is also complicated as a foreigner. I paid my dues over the years, but I was able to do that, too.
The final piece of advice that I might give to an expat hopeful? Don’t necessarily listen to jaded (though well-meaning) cynics like me. There’s no one right way to expat. Find your niche, find what makes you happy here, and regardless of how long you ultimately stay, hopefully you’ll also find an Argentine part of yourself that you didn’t even know existed.