Friday, January 25, 2008

Buenos Aires Field Notes: Cultural Isolation

A lot of Argentines are proud about the legacy of their country being a “melting pot” similar to the U.S. in that the people in this city are largely descendants of immigrants- from Spain, Germany, Italy, Ireland, etc. But as Rob pointed out, it seems to be a melting pot that has long since congealed in a culture that is uniquely Porteño.

We were having dinner one night with a couple of guys from D.C. and Toronto who were vacationing here for a couple of weeks. We were at a Porteño restaurant ordering a variety of empanadas to share between us, when our friend from D.C. starts objecting loudly and intently, “No jamón y queso! Anything but jamón y queso! I am sick and tired of the f**king jamón and queso on everything!”

I know what he means. Ham and cheese comes on and in practically everything- the empanadas, pizza, rolled chicken breasts, breaded veal, you name it. The hundreds of local cafes have menus that are virtually identical, with ham and cheese centrally prominent. I suppose I have felt the same sense of frustration driving across the U.S., stopping at diners along the way, growing weary of hamburgers, milkshakes, and pigs in a blanket. But you wouldn’t expect it in the eighth largest city in the world.

I must admit, you can get more creative food here that borders on ethnic (it’s usually some version of “fusion”), if you spend more than twenty pesos per plate. But the popular culture, the local culture, exhibits a homogeneousness I wouldn’t have expected. And it doesn’t end at the lack of ethnic cuisine. There is a definite pressure to conform- most people under 40 all wear the same jeans, the same shoes, and cut their hair the same.

A friend I met from England who is ethnically Lebanese has exotic curly black locks that perfectly compliment her strikingly GORGEOUS face. At an asado (a family barbecue), the porteña women advised her about chemically straightening her hair. It seems that straight hair is in, whether it’s appropriate for you or not.

Buenos Aires may be a big city, but it definitely has become culturally isolated from the rest of the world. Maybe I’m spoiled from Living in Los Angeles and being able to get Ethiopian food if I want. But in California I’ve never been pressured to change my hair to fit the current style, or been stared at for the brand of shoes I wear. Perhaps it has something to do with the lack of products available from overseas due to the policy of high tariffs. Perhaps it’s because BsAs is Geographically isolated as well, and most people here (except the rich) have not traveled much.

Whatever the reason, it’s a unique blend of both the metropolitan and provincial.

No comments: