Story and photo by Tiffany Han
As I exited through the doors of Ezeiza International Airport, after traveling for over 24 hours with layovers at four different airports, I was relieved to finally arrive in Buenos Aires, Argentina with all of my belongings and most of my sanity. It was the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere and the rigid August wind enveloped my body, permeating my skin through the thin sweater I had put on the day before when boarding my flight in Portland, Oregon. As my eyes widened, taking in the setting of my home for the coming month, a man ushered me towards a taxi and placed my bags in the trunk without saying a word. He reached his hand out, signaling for a tip. In the best Spanish accent I could emulate, I told him I only had American money.
“Lo siento, pero no tengo pesos,” I said.
“It’s okay, I take dollars too,” he replied in near-perfect English.
I found myself in South America on a whim after taking a bunch of sleepy summer classes at the University of Oregon and spending long hours at my retail job. Itching for a change of pace from my usual routine, I utilized the frequent flyer miles I had been saving to book a two-way ticket to Argentina. My intent was to see and understand Buenos Aires, and I planned on doing so without participating in a study abroad program, internship, or any other traditional platform.
I was simply drawn to the idea of spending a month immersed in another country’s lifestyle and culture on my own terms. I had traveled alone before. When I was seventeen, flying to Paris in the middle of a snowstorm in Western Europe seemed like a good idea. This time around, the clear skies of Buenos Aires cheerfully greeted me.
As Ruben, my amicable taxi driver from the Argentine province of Entre Ríos, weaved furiously in and out of congested traffic filled with reckless drivers, I tried to distract my thoughts of an early death by testing my ability to speak Spanish. I asked Ruben about his life and the city. In return, Ruben asked about my life, and we ended up talking for the full 45-minute ride into San Telmo, the oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires. There, I would be staying in an apartment with a few friends I had met at the University of Oregon. Though I acquired a basic fluency of Spanish after taking seven years of classes and completing my minor just days before arriving in Buenos Aires, I had never shared a conversation in Spanish with anyone that lasted as long as it did with Ruben.
As we drove towards the city, I began noticing graffiti sprawled across walls, freeway overpasses, and sides of buildings. This was a particularly unique type of graffiti, according to Ruben. The porteños, or natives of the capital, know it as a form of political propaganda. Phrases painted in blue and white block lettering demanding liberty, fair wages, and lower taxes are common throughout the city to address prevalent issues in Argentinian society. They encourage change and challenge governmental corruption. While Argentina is suffering from a financial crisis similar to the United States, the current economic situation in Buenos Aires shows gradual improvement, with the unemployment rate declining from 7.9 percent to 7.2 percent.
For many Americans, working in Buenos Aires as an expatriate is a career option more viable than seeking employment in the United States. Nearly 8.8 percent of recent college graduates in the United States are currently unemployed and of those who are employed, 36.7 percent have jobs that don’t require a degree. With the unfavorable actuality of “real life” staring college students directly in the face, there is an alternative to unemployment, leading graduates to seek work in foreign countries, often outside their area of study.
Alex Freeman, 25, graduated from Santa Clara University with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy. Nearing the end of his time in school, he decided to take a chance and study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country due to his interest in learning the language and becoming bilingual. He spent a semester in Buenos Aires studying, traveling, and taking a beginners tango class where he fortuitously met the woman he now calls his vida, or the love of his life, wife, and mother to his one-year-old son León.
Eventually, Freeman’s program ended and he had to return to the United States, but not for long and not alone. He and his wife Paola stayed together in Portland, Oregon for the three months their marriage visa allowed. Due to the complicated naturalization process in the United States, the considerable amount of paperwork, and endless waiting that it entails, he was forced to reconsider their next steps together as a family.
After assessing the benefits and drawbacks of living in his hometown, Portland, or Paola’s Buenos Aires, they concluded the best option for their family was to move back to Argentina. Freeman says that particularly, he was drawn to Argentina because it offers its citizens a system of universal health care and free access to public education, something that was important to him and his family.
“It was a great opportunity for me to continue learning about Spanish, to get a new perspective on philosophy from a different culture, and hopefully to work in what I studied,” says Freeman. “My degree is in philosophy. There aren’t exactly a lot of people knocking at your door to offer you a bunch of positions in the States. But, there is a lot of opportunity for work for me in Buenos Aires as an English teacher.”
Currently, Freeman is in his second year of living and working in Buenos Aires, where he is able to put his education into practice and teach English through three different avenues. The first is through a consulting agency, where he takes offers teaching to small groups of employees at a multinational who communicates with others in English-speaking countries. Freeman says it has provided him with steady work, as well as good experience teaching classes.
The second avenue is through an institute located in a suburb to the south of Buenos Aires, where he is preparing a group of young adults for an upcoming international English exam organized by Cambridge University. Additionally, Freeman organizes his own classes once a week, having his students practice conversational skills by employing a variety of techniques such as acting, playing Pictionary, listening to songs, and public speaking. He bases his classes on subjects that his students will be interested in and will not only help them gain fluidity and comprehension of the English language, but also help them educate themselves in general. Freeman says this is the influence of his undergraduate degree in philosophy.
The third avenue is one that allows Freeman to teach using a more experimental approach. Through independent tutoring, he is trying to introduce a teaching method that imitates the process of learning one’s mother tongue. It’s important to Freeman that in all three of these areas, he is able to organize his schedule in a way that is flexible for him and his family.
A Different Path
Looking out the window, my last day in Buenos Aires is rainy and grey. The sky is covered with a blanket of cumulonimbus clouds and the rain shows no sign of letting up. The weather is reminiscent of winters in Oregon, but the taxi I’m riding in is taking me back to Ezeiza.
My college graduation date is steadily approaching in the spring of 2014, I am no different than the thousands of students hoping they will not become a part of the unemployment statistic. Rather than competing for a job within my field of study among other college graduates in the United States, I am looking to other, more unconventional options of working in a different country.
I am hopeful that I will return to Buenos Aires, or another Spanish-speaking country, seeking bilingual opportunities in journalism, or go down a path similar to Freeman’s. I am not holding my breath in hopes of meeting the love of my life in a dance class, but instead the potential for work in a foreign country motivates me to challenge myself in ways I would not have otherwise considered.
We drive farther away from the city. It is not as intimidating as it seemed only a month ago, but I start to get nervous about the weather affecting my first of five connecting flights home—the price I pay for free tickets. I ask my taxi driver if he thinks flights will be cancelled and he reassures me that this rain is nothing compared to past storms. As I settle back into my seat, he asks if I enjoyed my brief stay in Buenos Aires. I tell him with confidence that I will be back soon.