Embarking on a journey to South America, a region of the world I had not previously been to, I knew I would need time to adjust to living here. Before arriving, I felt really nervous about standing out too much. I consulted google and Middlebury’s handbook (from my program) to learn what to wear, what to expect when going out, and what life would be like living with a host family. Middlebury also tried to help us adjust through a two week orientation, in which we picked our classes and studied Argentinean culture. Though this really helped to give me a general idea of what to expect, I still encountered many obstacles in my attempts at assimilation.
One of the challenges I had anticipated was Spanish language immersion. On the first day in Buenos Aires, I sat in a café for almost two hours with Grant and Brad because none of us were sure of the correct way to politely ask for the check. Additionally, the Argentinian pronunciation and lunfardo (slang) threw me off. All of their y’s and double l’s sound like j’s, which took some time to get accustomed to and incorporate in my own Spanish.
Other aspects of culture shock were more unexpected. Basic tasks like figuring out the public transport system in a strange city required considerable focus and effort. My lack of understanding of the Argentinean currency led me to believe that I could just easily withdraw pesos out of an ATM in the city. Not only did most ATMs not accept my card, but they also put limits on how much I could take out, and offered a poor exchange rate. Had I known that the black market for exchanging currency in Argentina (currently 15.7 pesos:1 USD, official rate: 9:1) was better value and a lot easier to use, I would not have spent an unsuccessful day travelling to a dangerous part of the city to find a Chase ATM. Additionally, my nonchalant attitude led me to not pay attention to my bag while sitting in an outdoor café. After lunch was over, I realized my bag containing my laptop was gone. After telling the story to many locals, I realized my cultural blunder and that you always have to be very cautious with your possessions here.
Some challenges were more unusual. Knowing how to use a match to light a manual water heater was not a skill I thought would be necessary, but it left me with freezing cold showers for two weeks. Furthermore, when choosing a place to eat, random cafes do not always provide the best quality food or service, and pizza is not a safe bet here. During one particularly bad experience, several homeless people approached my table indoors trying to sell me items and share my food. This is not to say that all of the surprises from adjusting to a new culture were bad. Many aspects of culture shock were also positive, like the importance people place here on family or the intimacy of family rituals like parrillas, which is the Argentinean equivalent of barbeque. Day by day I learned to embrace the challenges and thrive on the exhilaration of cultural immersion. Instead of seeing one giant obstacle, I assigned myself daily issues to confront. By changing my perspective and focusing on the achievement of step-by-step goals, I have overcome what seemed like a daunting challenge. I now look forward to my remaining time in Argentina.