Thursday, June 21, 2012

How To Survive The Culture Shock in Argentina

I knew I was going to experience some culture shock when I arrived in Argentina. After all, I'd never been here before. Well, that's not technically true. I had been here, but I was 5 when I left, so I had virtually no memory, except for a few rare moments with my maternal grandmother, uncle, and a near fatal encounter with a truck when I crossed the street. 

But from the moment I arrived in Argentina, I was already experiencing a preview of the culture shock that awaited me in the years to come. So here are some of the things that I encountered that threw me for a loop. I'm hoping that my personal experience, and some of the tips I provide will make your transition a little smoother. 

So let's start with some tips on what to avoid doing when you're in Argentina.
Don’t do the "Okay" hand gesture. It's like sticking your middle finger at someone. Now in some places, like Buenos Aires, it might not be seen this way because of the massive foreign influence. 

Avoid giving someone the finger. They know what it stands for. In fact, the gesture is used quite often. Argentines have likely learned the gesture from watching American films and television, or meeting expats from the States. 

Avoid talking about the dispute with the Falkland Islands (aka Islas Malvinas). This is a very touchy subject for Argentines. If you happen to speak about the islands, refer to them as "Las Malvinas". My advice is to avoid the subject completely. Otherwise, you'll be locked in an endless argument you can't get out of. Trust me on this one. I learned that the hard way. 

Here's what you should know before you buy electronics, Blu-Ray, DVDs and more in Argentina. 
Electronic items such as Televisions, Playstations, X-Box, cell phones, tablets and computers are highly expensive. 

When buying video games, and movies, you should know that most of these items are totally pirated. In fact, piracy as a huge thing here in Argentina, especially since access to legit movies and games are tough to bring into the country. 

Fortunately, movies aren't impossible to find. You just have to scavenge around town to find the real McCoy. In Cordoba, there's a store called Musimundo, which only sells non-pirated movies and games, but their selection is limited. Other places like Yenny, which is a bookstore similar to Waldenbooks, and El Ateneo, which is like Borders, do carry a generous selection of movies and TV Series box sets. 

Avoid buying the bootleg version, especially if you've brought over a Blu-Ray player from the States like I did. Otherwise, you'll find that your movies won't play. However, if you invest in a DVD player from Argentina, the bootleg copies will work. 

Video Games and Game Consoles Most Playstation 2, 3 (and future incarnations), and Nintendo Wii games that are sold or available for rent in Argentina are bootlegs. They will work only with systems in Argentina. Trust me. I tried buying a Playstation 2 game that I thought was super cheap. When I opened the box it looked like a blank DVD rewritable you buy at a computer store. I stuck the game in anyway and tried it on my Playstation 2 console (which is from the States) and it wouldn't play. The next day, I took it back and it played fine on the Argentine console. I was informed that this is because all Argentine game consoles have been reconfigured to accept bootlegged versions of these games. 

Bootleg/Piracy Aside from DVD movies and popular video games, computer software here is mostly pirated. A lot of government agencies use Windows programs that are bootleg. Even some of the pre-loaded software on computers and laptops are bootleg. I know this because I learned it the hard way when I bought a laptop from an alleged reputable store. When I tried to perform a Windows update, Windows informed me that my copy of Windows 7 wasn't legit. 

U.S. Restaurants, Fast Food Joints, and Coffee Shops in Argentina Burger King and McDonalds can be found in Argentina, but you won't find Taco Bell, IHOP, Chili's, Bennigans, or Denny's. You will find Wendy's and KFC in Buenos Aires though, which is a relief, and worth traveling to. There are two Starbucks in Cordoba, and I assume, other provinces must have them as well. According to my research, there are TGIF restaurants in Buenos Aires, but no other provinces seem to have them. 

Films Released In Movie Theaters Movies that premiere in the United States will usually premiere in Argentina in standard and 3D format within four weeks. You can watch them in English with Castillian subtitles, or dubbed in Castillian. Now, I say Castillian and not Spanish, because Argentines are sticklers for considering themselves different from other Latin American cultures, particularly, their type of Spanish, which they call Castillian or Castellano. 

Toys There are no Toys R’ Us stores anywhere in Argentina. The toy stores here have limited items and they are usually really expensive. An action figure can be 200 pesos which is about 42 U.S. dollars or more as of this post. 

Walmart There are Walmarts in Argentina, but their DVD, music and toy sections are a joke. Essentially, it's got the aesthetic look of a Walmart from home, but all the items are Argentine. They rarely have the taste of home, with the exception of maybe one or two items. They also claim to have the lowest prices, like in the States, but they're actually just as expensive, if not more so than the local supermarkets. 

Brand Name U.S. Products You will find brand names at the supermarket like Coca Cola, Sprite, Pepsi, Lay’s Potato Chips, Doritos, Hellmann’s Mayo, but there are plenty of other knock off brands that are unique to Argentina. 

Adjusting to the cost of things in Argentina Don’t be startled by the high prices. 50 pesos in Argentina is not like 50 U.S. dollars. The average person spends about 400 pesos in groceries a week, which is the equivalent of 83 U.S. dollars. But at first, this can feel a little confusing. Trust me, I'm still getting the hang of it. 

Argentines love to touch each other Friends and strangers will greet you by kissing you on the cheeks, regardless of whether or not you're of the same sex. Men also tend to hug women when they meet them and when they say goodbye, even if they've only met them for the first time. Although this might seem like an odd way of greeting, I advise that you try not to pull away or appear squeamish as this might hurt their feelings. 

On the other hand, the concept of a personal bubble seems to be alien to them, especially when you're standing in line at a supermarket. I had a guy stand so close to me while I was at the register that I almost jokingly asked him to buy me dinner first. 

To drink or not to drink... the Mate! 
You might strike up a conversation with a neighbor on the street and they might surprisingly invite you in for coffee, tea, a drink, or a meal. Some Argentines even share their Mate (a form of tea that's quite popular here) with others. If you turn their offer away it may be deemed as disrespectful. Then again, you have to share a straw with them, and unless you want to risk contracting HPV, you might want to risk it and just say no. 

How do Argentines dress? 
Argentine fashion is really no different than what most people in the States wear. In the summer, they wear flip-flops, shorts, and T-shirts, and in the winter they bundle up pretty much the way everyone else does. 

An Argentine's Physical Appearance Physically, Argentine skin tones vary from white to tan. The same can be said about eye color and hair. There are people with green, blue and brown eyes. There are natural blondes, redheads, brown hair, and black-haired Argentines. The variety of ethnic features are due to the European origins that populated this country. 

Multi-Cultural Races in Argentina Argentina consists of people from Europe, the Middle East, and of course, Aborigines. In recent years, there has been a small migration of Orientals, Peruvians and Bolivians. Similar to Australia, black people make less than 1 percent of the population in Argentina. Argentines do sometimes refer to people by their origins rather than by their names. Here is a list of ethnic references you might hear:

  • Tano refers to someone of Italian descent 
  • Gallego refers to someone of Spanish descent (as in Spain, not Latin America) 
  • Yankee refers to someone from North American 
  • Judio refers to someone from Israel or of the Jewish faith 
  • Turco means Turk and refers to someone of Middle Eastern descent. It is also used to identify Armenians, despite the fact that Armenians suffered greatly at the hands of the Turks during the Armenian holocaust. 
  • Indio refers to someone from India. It is also used to refer to certain people from Central and South America, but it's usually meant in a derogatory way. 
  • Negro refers to someone of dark or black skin, but in a few cases, they can call you "negro" or "negra" in an affectionate way, regardless of your skin tone.  

The seasons in Argentina are polar opposites of those in the States. Spring starts in September. Then Summer begins in December and lasts until March. Fall begins in April, followed by winter in May that lasts until the end of August. That's going to be a tough one to deal with, especially around the holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year, which require lots of cooking. But whether my spouse and I want to bake in the kitchen all day in that hot and muggy Argentine summer remains to be seen. 

You might be familiar speaking with or listening to other Hispanics talk. But these are terms Argentines NEVER use:

  • Oye - used to catch someone's attention. Argentines use the term "Che", which means "hey!" 
  • Andale - meaning to hurry up is commonly heard in Mexico, but never in Argentina 
  • Orale - meaning to hurry up or get on with it is also commonly heard in Mexico 
  • Arriba! Arriba! - Speedy Gonzalez used this term, which I assume implies to hurry up or go. This is a Mexican term. Don't say this unless you're Speedy Gonzalez visiting Argentina! Arriba means "up". The only thing you'll get Argentines to do if you shout this is to get them to look up at the sky or the ceiling. 

An Average Work Day and the Siesta  Most businesses open in the morning for about 3 or 4 hours. Then they shut down for the "siesta", which can last anywhere from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Then businesses resume from 6 p.m. until about 9 p.m. This varies by business and province. Supermarkets do not take a siesta. But banks have a short business day, which ends around 1 p.m. On the weekend, businesses remain open for a few short hours in the morning on Saturday, and remain completely closed on Sunday. Personally, this makes shopping on the weekend difficult, and it must really harm the Argentine economy, given that lots of people tend to shop more when they're not at work. 

The Argentine work ethic can be a difficult concept to grasp too Argentines are very laid back. This doesn't mean that they aren't hard workers. They simply don't stress out as much about schedules or time crunches or deadlines. If you call for a plumber or take your car to a mechanic, don't expect things to get done fast. I wouldn't recommend asking them to hurry it up or rush over to your house to fix something either. They will get there when they get there. It's just the way things work, which makes for a mostly stress-free lifestyle. The best advice I can give is that you get onboard as well. It will save you a lot of stress too.  

Banks seem to have a hate-hate relationship with their clients. 
While my U.S. bank account still has some money, those funds won't last forever. So, I considered opening a bank account in Argentina. Unfortunately, when I tried two different banks, I was treated horribly. 

In the States, banks treat customers and potential customers like royalty. Some even offer complimentary coffee. In Argentina, I was told I couldn't open an account without a legitimate job (meaning one that doesn't pay under the table). They also asked me a series of questions that made me feel like I was being interrogated. A lot of the questions seemed to stem from their fear that foreigners will open accounts in Argentina to launder money. They practically threw me out the bank, and that was the end of it... for now.  

Barbecues are the norm in Argentina, but don't expect burgers and hot dogs on their grill. Argentines enjoy barbecues that consist of a variety of steaks, sausages, kidneys, cow brains, and entrails. An Argentine will eat all types of meat (cow, goat, horse, duck, rabbit, chicken). 

Pastries are also very popular. You’ll find an assortment of them. Many include fillings of Argentina’s favorite spread, called Dulce De Leche. 

Empanadas (meat pies) come in two styles. The empanada criolla consists of ground beef, olives and eggs. The Arabian empanada (Empanada Arabe) is shaped like a triangle and consists of seasoned ground beef in the center. 

Pizzas? Prepare yourself! Most Large pizzas ordered in Argentina are the equivalent of a medium sized pizza in the United States. I usually have to order two to satisfy myself and my spouse, and for some insane reason, they have no idea what pepperonis are. 

Sandwiches de Miga (Crumb Sandwiches) are thin cut ham and cheese sandwiched by equally thin pieces of bread with the crusts cut off. The bread usually has mayo, which helps keep the sandwich moist. There are other varieties of this sandwich. Some include veggie style and egg salad. Ordering the ham version is usually more expensive. Most people order Panceta, which is a cheap version of ham for this sandwich. 

Pasta is second only to beef in Argentina. Lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli, cannelloni, and a wide variety of spaghettis are also commonly consumed at restaurants and Argentine homes. 

Milk has a longer shelf life. 
One thing that sticks out is the fact that Argentine products have a longer expiration date than in the United States. A great example is milk. In the states, a gallon or half gallon of milk will last you about two weeks at best. In Argentina the milk lasts for months. Another thing I'm still trying to get used to is the fact that they don't sell refrigerated milk by the gallon here. So, when you buy milk, it comes in a carton in a non-refrigerated area.  

Well, that's all I could think of for now. As soon as I learn more, I'll post it in a future entry. Until then, try to keep all these things in mind and you'll have a much smoother transition. 


  1. Hi there!
    What a finding your blog was!!. I am completely absorbed reading your experiences and I just wanted to say Hi...
    Our life stories has some parallelisms, I am a Spanish guy with an Argentinian boyfriend currently living in the UK and seriously considering moving to Argentina, although not in the short term.
    As you can imagine I relate to your fears, concerns and shocks. Because I am trying to read it chronologically I still don't know how the country has treated you well or fulfilled your expectations.
    Keep the good work, thanks for the blog and see you around!

  2. Hi! Thank you for your comment. You should write a blog about your experience. Living in the UK sounds very exciting. I'd love to hear about your experience living there with your boyfriend.