Getting shocked by cultural shock while studying abroad in Buenos Aires

As soon as I stepped off of the international Delta flight with my legs that were slowly regaining consciousness, it still had not set in that I was in a foreign country. However, as soon as I began to notice that almost every sign was in Spanish, that realization started to settle in a little more. The first thing that awaited me once I landed in Buenos Aires was the wonderfully long and chaotic line at Customs, where I would get a temporary visa to stay in the country for the purpose of studying. I am sure that I looked like a scared child, not knowing where to go, what to do, or where I was.

I barely made it through Customs because, unbeknownst to me, I had to have proof with me that I was staying with a family here by providing their last name or their address. When I went to baggage claim, I looked for people who I thought looked like they spoke English which was highly unsuccessful and naïve of me to think. What does someone who speaks English even look like? I would soon find out that people who I thought looked like they were American were not and responded to me in quick Castellano (what they call their Spanish).

Some may be surprised to know, like I was, that in Argentina there is no “typical” look. Some may say it is “morocho,” which means someone with dark hair and dark eyes, but this is a very incorrect assumption since the majority of Argentina’s population is immigrants or has ancestry from Europe, including Italy, Germany, France, and Spain. According to the United States Central Intelligence Agency, Argentina welcomed their first wave of European immigrants in the 19th century after gaining their independence as a country, with a majority of them being Spaniards and Italians. In the years during the dictatorship here, immigration declined since the government tightened immigration rules and European economies were better off, but today Argentina has remained a popular choice for immigrants to live from around the world.

Looking back on my first few days (and even weeks) in Argentina, my culture shock was not as bad as I thought it would be but it definitely existed. Even though I have been here for two months there are still things that come as a “shock” to me because they are different than what I am used to in the United States.

For example, there are a lot of people everywhere, and I mean A LOT. Buenos Aires is a city of 3.5 million people, which translates into a lot of waiting and the absolute need for patience when it comes to restaurants, public transportation, grocery stores, or trying to walk down a sidewalk. The significant amount of people everywhere was a definite change from St. Paul, Minnesota with a population of almost 300,000 people.

Another shock for me since being in Argentina has been the level of poverty within the city, which only has been worsened with the struggling economy as of late. I have experienced it first hand whenever I go to restaurants or cafes on main streets and children as young as five years old pass by each table leaving candy, pens, or coloring book on your table in hopes that you will buy the tokens for a few pesos. When I first witnessed this, I was out with friends for lunch and I had no idea what was happening or what I was supposed to do. I felt so uncomfortable and selfish while I was eating a meal that cost 60 pesos, and I couldn’t spare a few pesos for what they were selling.

In addition, people will give speeches on crowded buses or subways about the struggles they are going through in hopes of getting whatever people are willing to give. On almost every subway ride I have taken, someone has been trying to sell Kleenex packs, gum, other food, or subway card holders. I have seen people buy them occasionally, but the majority of the time I do not. I cannot say that someone has ever tried to sell something to me on a Metro Transit city bus or the Light-rail in Minnesota.

“What shocked me the most here was that no one really cares about having a schedule. I am a serious planner when it comes to my daily activities, so coming here and having to deal with subways and buses that do not always come on time, making me late to class, was difficult. I have had to loosen up more and become more flexible here, but I know that it is a positive thing,” said Devin Malone, a junior at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, who is also on my study abroad program.

Another obvious culture shock was the language, which I had the most difficulty with in the first few weeks, especially when it came to trying to figure out and understand what people were saying and what the slang was. I learned quickly that there were a lot of things that my Spanish teachers in elementary school, high school, and college had not taught me because the only way to really learn them would be in real-life situations.

The style in this city was also something I was very taken aback by because it is very different from what is considered fashionable in the United States. The women here wear chunky, platform high heels, which are pretty practical since the sidewalks here are uneven, missing chunks of pavement, and downright dangerous to walk on sometimes. I had never seen a pair of shoes like those in the U.S. and could not help but stare at every girl that passed me wearing them.

I have to confess that I now own two pairs of these fashionable shoes, and that they are surprisingly very comfortable.

Lastly, the piropos or “compliments about one’s outward appearance,” were something I was caught off guard about since they aren’t nearly as common back home. If one leaves one’s house looking good, or are blonde with light colored eyes (a typical “yanqui” they call them, someone from the U.S.), once can expect to get a handful of comments while walking down the street. The comments can range from nice to funny, but sometimes they can be just vulgar, which can be a little scary if out alone at night. Usually they are pretty harmless, but the key is to ignore them. Most of the time, I have no clue what is being said to me, which, when I come to think about it, is probably for the best.

Some things in this beautiful country have caught me off guard, but I appreciate the steep learning curve and the new perspective I am developing since coming here. Although what happens here in Argentina is different in comparison to the U.S., that does not mean they are better or worse, they are just different. I have learned to open my mind to these differences, embrace them and step out of my comfort zone while I am here, rather than dwelling.

Regardless of the country you may choose to travel to for your study abroad experience, know that you will see and experience things completely different than in your local neighborhood, city, state and country. Always keep in mind that you will be okay and that the differences—both big and small—all contribute to the life-changing experience you will have begun with studying abroad.

Elizabeth can be reached at

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