Yesterday marked the end of my first week in Argentina. I’ve spent these past few days familiarizing myself with new neighborhoods and people, going sightseeing with my exchange family, and trying out common delicacies and customs. Argentina has shown me the utmost kindness through the warmth and welcoming spirit of all the people that I have met. I am so glad that I chose to spend four weeks experiencing this culture.
Before stepping off the plane, I confronted my biggest challenge which would remain an obstacle for my entire exchange experience–the language barrier. I am grateful to have been learning Spanish for the past five years; however there are still little differences that have made my daily interactions with others a little difficult. Argentinians speak a form of Spanish called Castellano, where “ll” is pronounced as “sh” instead of “y” as I have often been taught. The combination of this pronunciation difference and a rapid manner of speaking have made it difficult to understand everything that was being said, and at times anything that was said at all. However, I am extremely thankful to my exchange family and the students at Belgrano. They have been considerate enough to speak with me in both English and Castellano, so that I can understand but also learn more Spanish.
Belgrano Day School and its students have definitely helped to shape my perspective on Argentina’s welcoming culture. I was very surprised to hear that Mayte, my exchange partner, had invited a few friends over so I would get to know people before I started school. They came over for tea, a small meal held about 2 hours before dinner, where we had a variety of sweets such as medialunas, and dulce de leche. They all introduced themselves and told me a lot more about their school, classes they liked and didn’t like, and tried their best to make sure I was part of the conversation. I still felt left out, even when everyone tried to include me, because I felt that I couldn’t contribute to the conversation. After eight days of interacting with May’s friends and other students, I have found that it is okay to feel that way. I have just entered an entirely different community, so it would be hard for me to feel blend in right from the start. Blending in has also proven to be a big challenge for me, an obstacle with an outcome that will always be the same.
There is not one day when there aren’t people staring at me from the moment I leave the house. Argentina has a very small black population, therefore it’s not very common to see black people in this area of Buenos Aires. Everywhere I go, I am usually met with many stares, either confused, amazed, or sometimes nervous. There were times when I was even glared at. At first, this change was quite difficult to get used to because I was very easily singled out, but I believe these circumstances have allowed for me to educate others instead of being ashamed of myself.
I’m hoping that these next three weeks offer some amazing moments, and allow me to connect with others. I also hope that I can completely open myself to this new culture and take it in as it is. I know that there will still be many obstacles for me to overcome and that it won’t be easy, but I plan to make the most of these challenges for the sake of my experience.
Jennifer Salako heads home from Argentina
It has been a week since I stepped off the plane that took me away from a place I now call home. It seems surreal that I am now back in the Bay Area, back where I started. I spent these last four weeks adapting myself to this new culture and I feel like I have finally adjusted. Now it seems almost wrong for me to leave. I am, and will forever be, grateful to my exchange family as well as the many friends I made on this trip. My daily experiences and interactions have brought me closer to the heart of Argentinian culture and my own. I hope these same relationships and experiences follow me in the journeys ahead.
Last week I gave a presentation about Athenian to the entire secondary school and two grades in primary. Discussing and researching about my school allowed for me to reflect on more differences I had seen between Belgrano Day and Athenian. Additionally, I found a new sense of appreciation for where I come from and the community I’m involved in. It was quite interesting to see the multiple reactions I received after my presentation. I remember being told, “Your school is so beautiful!” and “You guys can choose your own classes?!” Hearing these responses made me realize what I had taken for granted and allowed me to be thankful for the opportunity I have to attend Athenian and go on exchange to the beautiful city of Buenos Aires.
Although I was still met with many stares even in my last few days, they became common greetings instead of hostile gestures. After writing my first blog post, I had the chance to discuss with my exchange family the meaning behind these long stares. I was told that staring is a way of acknowledging a person. Unlike how people tend to avoid staring at others in the U.S. because it is deemed rude, Argentinians use staring as an unspoken way of saying hello to someone they don’t know. After hearing this explanation, I felt a gradual change in my daily interactions. Each time I walked out of the house, I felt myself become less overwhelmed by racist perceptions. Even though I still carried that feeling of discomfort till the end, I have come to understand and respect it as a cultural difference.
Argentina has shown me its best and its worst, teaching me new lessons along the way. I am more than happy to be able to call Argentina my home. I look forward to welcoming May to San Francisco and showing her where I come from. Argentina, its culture, and its people will forever be in my heart.