Crossing Cultures by Brendan Mahoney

I have been making a very conscious effort to observe the differences in lifestyle and attitude in Buenos Aires. Some of the characteristics I have noticed are positive, and I am doing my best to adapt, and other characteristics are best left as observations, often making me more thankful for my upbringing in the United States.

The overall mentality of the porteño is immediately noticeable in Buenos Aires. Especially relevant to the current U.S. tendency to be politically correct, the typical porteño would be perceived by any progressive American as blatantly racist and insensitive. Whereas it may be offensive in some places in the world to refer to a black friend as “negrito” or to an Asian-owned corner store as a “chino”, this is completely standard and almost endearing among argentines. The porteños see it as honest to call someone by their defining features, rather than it being stereotypical or rude. In a less endearing sense, the porteños also perceive themselves to be the only truly civilized population in South America, taking great pride in their historically European population and looking down on their indigenous, Uruguayan, Bolivian, and Chilean neighbors.

A more personal cultural difference to which I am struggling to adapt is the pace of life. Having spent most of my life in New York, I’ve become aware of this difference in nearly every other city I’ve encountered in my life. I have been raised in a culture that remains in my subconscious no matter how much I want to change it. For most New Yorkers, the purpose of walking is getting from point A to point B, and this should be done at a brisk pace. Restaurants should take your order immediately, prepare it in a timely manner, clear the dishes when they are finished and bring the check after a few minutes of post-meal small talk. In general, everything should be executed efficiently, and any system that could potentially be improved will be replaced by a more efficient system. New Orleans was a difficult adaptation in this sense. Restaurants take their sweet time, people stroll casually in the streets, and the streetcar crawls at a speed barely faster than the average New Yorker’s walk.

This content with inefficiency is taken to an extreme in Buenos Aires. The general population is firmly against any change, especially anything capitalistic, and hangs on desperately to their history of socialism and government involvement that has landed the nation in the economic crisis it faces today.

Because of this general mentality, I find classes cancelled on a weekly basis, with the desks from the university arranged in circles blocking off the street, to protest any proposals of change to streamline the educational system. Über, a generally accepted form of a more efficient transportation service than cabs, was launched and then immediately expelled from the country within weeks. This was due to push back from the cab unions, who worked together with the “colectivos” (public buses) by parking their vehicles to block off all major intersections. For situations such as these, the porteños have their own slang term “Kilombo”, a semi-curse word designated for these common situations of disorder and chaos.

Although, as I mentioned, some of the daily terminology used by the Argentines would be offensive in the United States, there is always something to be learned from experiencing a new culture. I admire their sense of being so content with the present state, rather than an incessant urge to make everything faster, better and more efficient. I hope that through my experiences here I can learn the culture to not only relate to the argentines, but to better understand myself and my upbringing as well.