Saturday, February 8, 2014

College Life - Week One: Culture Shock We Meet Again

On Friday January 31st, the Psychology Department at the National University of Cordoba (UNC) had a get-together for all the new 2014 enrollees. 

By now, most of you know that I suffer from social anxiety, which makes me behave awkward during social gatherings. In the past, it has downright crippled me to the point where I didn’t even want to leave the house. Fortunately, through medication and therapy, I’ve been able to manage this condition.
I knew I would feel some anxiety on my first day of college even with the medication. So I decided to go to this get-together to meet my fellow peers. I was hoping I’d make a friend or two, but it didn’t work out quite as I expected.

For starters, everyone was between the ages of 16 and 23. This made it difficult to relate since I’m 36 and an old soul. Teenagers and young adults are usually pretty innocent in Argentina. By innocent I don’t mean that they’re not prone to excessive alcohol consumption, drug use, or in some cases, crime. I just mean that they’re at that stage in life where they’re na├»ve and think that the world is like "Neverland" with little or no-worries. Oh how I envy the blindness of youth.
The other factor which made it difficult for me to relate to my peers was the fact that they were all Argentineans and they had experiences growing up here that I simply don’t understand because I wasn’t raised here. It was impossible to share what I went through without getting stares or in one instance, a smart aleck remark.

The third issue I encountered was the slang (modismo in Spanish/Castilian) commonly used by young adults here. I had a hard time understanding and following the conversations. Like in every other culture, Argentineans have their own jokes and stories and funny curse words that I’m not aware or accustomed to.
The final obstacle I encountered was the mentality of the students (and later the professors). I’ll give you an example. We’re all members of a facebook group for 2014 psychology enrollees. Apparently, one student had posted a photo of himself relaxing in front of the pool in his barefeet. At the get-together, another student brought this post to everyone’s attention and proceeded to call this other student a “son-of-a-bitch who likes to show off that he has a pool while the rest of us melt in this infernal heat”. It’s my observation that a lot of people here seem to be quite envious of others who have more than they do. I guess as human beings we’re all a prone to being a bit envious of our neighbors to some degree, but some Argentineans seem to take it to the extreme.

By the time that the get-together was done, some went their separate ways. Others went to a bar together. I didn’t feel I could relate to these particular peers so I went home.
Monday February 3rd was the first day of class and it was complete chaos! There were so many students waiting to get into class that they had to relocate everyone to a larger classroom.
Once we were all settled, a professor walked on stage and discussed what we could expect from the psychology career. Then a group of students from the CEP, which is like a student activities/advisor department ran by students only, came by to talk to us about their personal experiences at the university and some pushed their political agendas (which I’ll go into more detail in a moment).
Classes at the university are divided into two categories, Practico and Teorico.
Practico – are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and it consists of a classroom type setting where you have a group of 30 to 35 students and a professor, who goes over the textbook material and hands out assignments and homework. In here, we are placed in groups of 4 or 5 in order to interact better. Attendance for the Practico classes is mandatory. Unfortunately, my Practico class didn’t start until Wednesday February 5th
On Tuesday February 4th, we went to an auditorium known as “El Rectorado”. This is essentially where we attend classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  These classes are known as “Teorico”, which basically means it’s a lecture. In here, you just listen to the professor discuss the subject at hand for about two hours and then you go home. Attendance is not mandatory for the “Teorico” classes but it’s strongly encouraged since we only get two and a half weeks before the first mid-term exam, called “Parcial”. The Teoricos get packed with students but space is limited. So they encourage us to be at the auditorium about an hour before the doors open.
The textbook itself is over 400 pages long and encompasses the politics that lead to the history of the free, public, higher education system in Argentina, and the history of psychology. I have to admit that even with the study groups I find it really difficult to understand the content.
The fact is I’ve never read books in Spanish. I never had to. If you come to my house, every single book and magazine I have is in English. Though I can speak it well enough, I have some basic reading and writing knowledge of Spanish but that's it. Reading and understanding the textbook, which is in Castilian Spanish is a brain teaser. As I read through the chapters, word for word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, I felt like my mind was sinking in quicksand.   
By Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I pretty much had an idea of what I could expect for the next five years. During the “Teorico” classes, both the professor and the guest lecturers talked about the history and political struggles that formed the National University of Cordoba. However, they also repeatedly criticized how the current economic and political crises in Argentina are the result of the president’s regime.
Personally I hate politics! However, a lot of the points they make go against everything I believe in. For example, they seem quite determined to limit government regulations and sanctions from affecting the university. They encourage the student body to create these university-type governments in which students can vote. We’ve had representatives come and talk to us at the beginning of classes to sway us to their cause.
This isn’t like the student council in middle school, high school, or college back in the States, where it was all about organizing a pep rally in support of human rights or a bake sale. One student government faction representative attacked the Argentinean president’s methods of handling the economy, claiming that she cares more about the success of large corporations than small businesses and the Argentinean people.  She also attacked the international companies that have come to Argentina like Chevron and Monsanto (although Monsanto is responsible for environmental contamination that has left many sick in the region where their factories operate from, and that I DO understand).
Some of these views are undoubtedly the result of the xenophobia that plagues Argentina and the “unfounded” fear of colonization by the U.K. or the U.S.  
I fully support a government that ensures that success of large corporations because their success creates more jobs and it helps to industrialize this nation further. I’m also a strong proponent of international companies doing business in Argentina because they bring jobs, money, and more exposure to the nation. Most lecturers had the same complaint, the economic crisis in Argentina.
Well guess what? The entire world is suffering from an economic crisis, including the U.S. I think it’s selfish that these lecturers assume that this is happening exclusively in Argentina because of the current government regime. For a country that is in a supposed economic crisis, people do an awful lot of shopping in Cordoba and Buenos Aires (I’ve spent time in both of these provinces so I know).  
Again, this is where I become an odd ball because I don’t see things the way my peers do. There’s free healthcare, free higher education, plenty of food, peace and quiet (most of the time), no mandatory national taxes (they do have provincial and municipal, but they’re easy to handle with a job). There aren’t too many nations in the world that can claim to offer these things.
Insurgency just causes headaches but the university seems bent on encouraging anger and insurgency when they should be focusing solely on teaching.
I’ve been in Argentina for almost two years now and I thought I’d gotten the hang of the culture shock, but now in my first week as a psych student, I feel like I’m reliving it all over again.

I realize that my point of view may offend some Argentineans and I'd like to say that this wasn't my intention when I wrote this article. I am simply expressing my personal experience as an expat which is what this blog is for.

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