Some observations from Argentina
There is nothing more enlightening and eye-opening than living in another country for an extended period of time, especially in one that is developing economically, or not.
In 2010 I went to Africa for two weeks, but not even that experience prepared me for life in Argentina. The warmth of Argentines is drastically different from the attitudes of the Canadians I know, and it has been a welcome change.
I was at a party a while back and introduced myself to a few of the expats in attendance when they confided in me that Canadians don’t usually stay too long in Argentina, because they can’t adjust to disorganization. My intention when moving to Argentina was never to live here full-time, but to embrace the culture. If I was duly impressed, I might have taken up long-term residence.
I love Argentina for many reasons. For starters most South Americans do not have to be entertained in the same fashion that North Americans have to. They rarely get bored, and they are a calm, relaxed people who put family and friends above all else. I enjoy that quality, and I hope to take these lessons with me when I return to Toronto. I have learned that I am overly concerned with keeping busy, and filling my days with activities. I don’t know where I developed this trait, because I wasn’t this way ten years ago, I’m sure.
However, wanting to remain busy is not such a bad thing, and it keeps people active which I fully endorse. Maybe what I can take home is a little moderation from both perspectives.
I’m saddened to learn that Argentina is not without its many flaws. The government is corrupted, and this is true not just in Argentina, but most of South America. The locals have learned to tolerate it and that’s where much of their patience comes from. Their politicians routinely lie to them, and they know it, but it’s generational corruption, and most of it has trickled down into every facet of Argentine life. It’s within their culture, and you’ll be hard pressed to find an Argentine who does not believe that all the rules must apply to everyone else but him/her. That’s how their government works, and that’s how they work.
The Argentine government restricts almost everything. Strict import laws are maddening. The reason given is to protect Argentine industries. That’s why as an expat you’ll find most Argentine people ask that while you’re home visiting your family for Christmas, if you can return with iPods, and the like, because they simply can’t get them in Argentina without paying astronomical fees. That doesn’t stop government officials though from procuring these products; these rules do not apply to them, even though they’re the policy makers.
The president of Argentina labels herself a socialist, but she’s a millionaire with homes all over Argentina and a wardrobe said to rival Eva Perón. The latter grievance Argentines brush off because they believe everyone should look good, but they fail to recognize alarming mixed-messages that arise from this kind of double standard. Cristina wants Argentines to live in a socialist state, but she obviously does not want to adhere to the laws and provisions that she demands of her populus. It’s maddening to this freedom loving Canadian.
Simple tasks take ions to complete in Argentina. The pervasive thought is that red-tape, bureaucracy and arbitrary, yet unorganized and ill-planned rules and regulations make everything appear more official. But when I have to wait in three lines just to buy a pair of scissors, you haven’t convinced me. In the end these rules are put in place for optics, but even that they can’t do well because they never see long-term.
I have had man conversations with South Americans about this, and I look towards developed nations like Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., most northern European countries like Norway as an example of best practices that their governments can implement to make effective and positive change. Many times I will hear the excuse that the reason things are so disorderly in Buenos Aires, is because of the high population. But NYC and London are cities of almost 10 million people and they manage to make things work. Surely there are lessons that the Argentine government can learn from these places.
There are two reasons that I can think of as to why there is no improvement here. The first is cultural, and as I stated earlier, the people of Argentina are just as guilty about this as the officials that they elect. The second is that Argentina is not as democratic as other countries, and politicians hold an unusual and concerning level of power that allows them to make schizophrenic and eyebrow-raising legislation that requires little consensus to become law.
Laws change over night, government subsidies are taken away with only an hours notice, and workers strike for the mildest of grievances. Protesters take their demonstrations to Plaza de Mayo where they’re ignored; but they try, however hopeless their efforts are.
These are just theories, I don’t know if I’m even close to hitting the nail on the head.
One other concerning element of Argentine life that I’ve noticed while living here is an unhealthy obsessions with appearances, especially among women. Plastic surgery is covered under almost every medical insurance program, and anorexia is a real problem. When I was teaching English at International House I was shocked by how often my female students spoke about image, and how important it was to look good. If we somehow discussed movies, or singers, the conversation always veered towards how ugly or fat an actress or singer was.
Granted these problems exist globally, and our demands on women to meet social guidelines on appearance definitely contribute to their body image problems, not just in Argentina, but in Canada and other countries too.
Also, Argentines work a ridiculous number of hours. A typical work day is 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with many working until 7 p.m. They do not return home until after 8 p.m. eat extremely late, usually at 11 p.m. and make very little money. The quality of life is almost non-existent. They sleep very little, and that’s why on Sundays Argentina is dead to the world, because the majority of people are catching up on much-needed rest.
Conversely, what I find refreshing about this is that porteños try very hard to enjoy their free time, and restaurants and bars are packed with people every day of the week. However, there is a lack of energy from what I’m used to in Toronto. I use the word boring, but I know that’s not fair; however there is something so subdued about their demeanour that makes them almost unexciting.
Finally, I think that Argentine men are overly arrogant. If they have a thought, everyone must listen, even though their opinions are pretty basic. It’s not a good template for young boys to work from when their fathers think that everything they believe is valuable just because they happen to have a penis between their legs. Even gay men are overly concerned with being masculine, and look down on more effeminate gay men.
Couples are overly affectionate in public, and they each profess how much they love each other to anyone who will listen. It all means very little when they have a new boyfriend the following week.
I don’t mean to report that Canada is perfect. It’s not. But it’s my home and the place where I spent most of my life. I am proud of the efforts that Canadians make towards peace, and our universal health care and social systems that help those less fortunate with a chance to enjoy a society with a more equal distribution of wealth.
With 50% of Argentines living in poverty, and with Cristina securing their votes by giving them government money she simply can’t afford, I’m often left shaking my head in amazement that Argentina has been able to survive for as long as it has.