The buses whistle as they pass by each other. I’ve asked students for an explanation and most look at me quizzically before assuring me it must be the horn or the brakes. I hear these whistles everyday on the avenue below our institute’s windows. How do they not know what I am talking about? I persist with my description of the whistle that sounds much more like a two-toned catcall than a horn or wheezing brakes. I’ve gathered that the drivers whistle to playfully say hello and diversify an otherwise monotonous job.
What are the metaphorical bus whistles in my own culture that I have heard for years but have no idea WHY they happen? It is easy to be ignorant of the culture you call yours. After a proper googling, Bruno found out that the rapscallion bus drivers changed the standard horn for this more suggestive hoot.
I am able to tell you—more than anything— what my culture is not. In another country, it is as though I am completing a color-by-numbers until the silhouette of my own culture is revealed. Asking my students"why?" is my greatest joy in teaching English as a Foreign Language.
I ask them how they know when to graduate from “te quiero” to “te amo” in their romantic relationships when both mean “I love you.” I ask them why at 2am it’s common for old people to go out to a café and young children to be nowhere near their bedtime. I ask them why I hardly ever see someone eating and walking. I ask them why high schools don’t have sports teams. I ask them why a plastic bottle on top of a car means it's for sale and why the buses whistle.
I do not ask because I find these realities difficult to understand, abnormal, or incorrect, I ask because I know that if I was living in the United States I would hope a foreign visitor would accompany me in examining the unexamined.
My favorite thing about language and teaching it is we are always slipping behind the curtain and talking about culture— a place Google Translate will never reach. In this liminal space, we move from family vocabulary to why in Argentina your boyfriend’s mother is simply your suegra but in English you would never call her your “mother-in-law” until marriage. We move from debating if Halloween is just another holiday “copied” from the United States, to wondering if perhaps all culture is “copied.”
Relentless is the question, “You are from the United States, why are you here?”
My quick and crowd-pleasing answer is “Because in the United States there’s no time for mate!” They laugh but push back and give evidence for the fast pace life they experience here in the capital.
Recently, my answer has become more complicated--as it must. If my anthropology amiga Ansley is reading this she must have a word doc accruing multiple theorists who find fault with my laziness in using the word “culture” as if it were something cohesive, defined, and unchanging. I remind my students and myself that the United States culture that I refer to is by and large what we can call affluent white culture. There are thousands of folks, US citizens, who live a culture much more similar to my students’ culture than to what I recognize as my culture. My boyfriend included.
To honor this complexity, I try to open a window of my life for my students so they can peer into and assess the conversations I have with myself and with Bruno. Now with the economic troubles here in Argentina, the 3.8% US unemployment rate is more than attractive. Bruno would add that drivers who somewhat respect traffic laws and a greater trust in the justice system sweeten the deal.
But what the currency conversion doesn’t equate is the feeling of stress in the US that Bruno spoke out loud last night. I tried to put words to it, “that feeling of keeping your head above water.” And he searched longer to identify it as not simply climbing a ladder but climbing the ladder because if you don’t climb, the ladder will just keep getting longer. It’s the student loans, mortgages, and whisper-yells of “not enough!” It is a privilege to go up on that ladder, but it comes at a cost.
Here, I find pleasure in walking to the grocery store, making meals from scratch, and the overstaying of visitors. Perhaps this contentedness wells up in me simply because the rhythm is different from what I know. I don't hear many Argentines wax poetic about their routine, just like I didn't about my drive to and from work in the US. I hope if anything, they have garnered something from hearing my fondness for their mundanity.
Hopefully with these conversations my students catch a glimpse of what their country and communities offer that is considered a scarcity in the "land of opportunity." My hope is that I have helped students learn English, but more than that, I hope that I have offered them a foreign conversation partner who even with the ever-mercurial inflation rate finds great wealth in their country and their culture.
Home is in North Carolina. But, I take seriously Wendell Berry's imperative, "Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction."