Sometimes when we travel we are unaware of how different some of our daily behaviors are seen in other countries. The natural ways in which we conduct ourselves are so embedded in our activities that we don’t stop to think twice that certain actions may not be as usual in other cultures as they are in our country of origin. Even if the place we visit has a similar background or even language, there are specific cultural differences that one will eventually have to learn, sometimes, through the most awkward moments, from the simplest moments.
A few days after our arrival in our second abroad assignment, I walked in at a fruit and vegetables store and as I am used to do, I went directly to grab what I needed. A pile of strawberry boxes caught my attention. They looked delicious. At exactly the same time that I extended my hand to grab one of the boxes, I got startled when I heard a loud voice saying “wait, watch out you are going to knock down the….” The attendant couldn’t even finish the phrase and like in a slow-motion picture, I saw his carefully arranged strawberry boxes fall one by one to the floor. One box opened up when hitting the floor and there were strawberries all over the place. I felt so bad. My cheeks turned red as all the other clients looked at me puzzled by my actions. I wanted to tell the man how sorry I was, that it was clearly an accident, and that I thought that I could get the fruit myself. I tried to help picking up the boxes but he asked me to stand to the side. I apologized, but he continued saying “You have to wait for someone to grab the fruit for you, clients do not touch the merchandise”. Lesson learned: when you go to a fruit or vegetable store you wait until someone pick up the fruit for you. You do not touch any merchandise. After that experience I decided to observe how the locals behave when buying groceries and do as they do.
The day came when I had to buy my daughter’s uniforms for school. The attendant asked what I needed and I said that I had to buy a t-shirt, a skirt, and a jacket. When I finished talking the attendant was looking at me like I was speaking another language other than Spanish. A few awkward seconds went by and then she left and came back with several items, among them, some pictures of the different uniform items. I pointed to what I needed and she put aside a t-shirt, a skirt, and a jacket, but when she put them on top of the counter she identified them with completely different names. Lesson learned: It doesn’t matter whether the country you are visiting has the same language as yours, you have to try to learn the names of clothing items because sometimes they are called differently from country to country. This will avoid a lot of confusions.
Ordering coffee is also an adventure. There are so many options that it took me a while to learn them all. Now I know my coffees and I am happy to order exactly what I want.
So, we have lived in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina for a little over two years. There is so much to this city, it’s beautiful. It is so Buenos Aires, and you can only experience it if you live it. It has been a great journey, we have adapted pretty well. I can tell how now there is a little of Buenos Aires in me.
I’m sure a lot of us in the military community have experienced some of these expat moments. Feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below.