Arriving in a new country is nothing short of overwhelming — something you learn when you take the wrong bus to a seedy area of town and realize that nobody speaks English. I woke up after spending my first night in Buenos Aires with over 15 mosquito bites on my body — while news of the zika virus flooded the internet — sweating through my bed sheets and hungrier than I’ve been in a long time. Being a celiac in a country that prides itself in its empanadas, pasta, and bread, is just as difficult as it sounds. I found relief in the fact that another foreign exchange student who was also staying at my homestay spoke English, even though he was from Amsterdam. I went out with him and his friends on my second night, all of whom met each other while taking a Spanish class at a local university.
Here’s what’s funny about my first lesson learned in Argentina: it had nothing to do with this new country but everything to do with mine back home. After sitting down at a bar with my Dutch host brother and his friends, who were from Switzerland, Sweden and Buenos Aires, I quickly realized how much nationalities factored into their perception of themselves and their new friends. “You pay, you’re Swiss,” “I have no manners, I’m Dutch,” “I’m just a Swede trying to make everyone happy,” were typical lines thrown around the table. I was unable to contribute to the harmless and prideful self-stereotyping — finding gluttony and reverence for football to be the only widely-known American attributes I could think of. I couldn’t help but think — was I, in some way, uncultured?
I grew up in a multicultural household, with a Serbo-Croatian mother and a stereotypical Italian-American father. I traveled through Europe before I could even read, yet I’d be lying if I said I identified as anything other than an American. The people I’ve met in Buenos Aires thus far seem to take pride in their nation’s stereotypes, finding joy in their international stigmas. I began to feel embarrassed about the lack of assumptions they had about me, other than the vague and casually snarky, “You’re SUCH an American.” The only thing we could agree on was that Americans are keen on the art of indulgence, which came up after I complained that the sandwich I ordered for lunch was too small.
The height of my shame came as we sat at a cafe one evening, with the excitement of Carnival permeating all talks of our plans for the weekend. I interrupted to mention that the Super Bowl was also happening over the weekend, but was met with laughter. My new friends found great humor in the American tradition — putting high amounts of fatty food and beer into our bodies during parties to celebrate a sport that nobody else in the world cared about. They teased me, insisting that the Super Bowl was incomparable to the history and culture weaved within Carnival, a national holiday that is the grandiose South American cousin of Mardis Gras.
I’d never felt so uninteresting in my entire life. I thought about it for days, and wasn’t sure I’d find any sort of positive spin on my experience. But alas, suffocating in the 85 percent humidity in my bedroom, eating a stale granola bar my mom sent me because my host mother made pasta for dinner again, I had come to a settling, if not uplifting, conclusion: I cannot be defined. We, Americans, cannot be defined. We’ve taken the idea of culture and respectfully tossed it into our melting pot, taking on the attributes of all the cultures by which we’ve been touched.
My mom is the bravest in her friend group because she came to the United States to escape a civil war; my dad talks the loudest at the dinner table because his upbringing in a first-generation nine-person Italian household taught him that was acceptable; I’m the next generation, berating my friends’ news feeds with political memes and news stories from all over the globe.
My culture is defiant to the flaws of past cultures’ strict rules and traditions which had left millions of people unable to pray to a certain god, look a certain way, or just be confidently different. We’re all American — me, my parents, my fellow classmates who are just as lost in this crazy city as I am — and it took me coming to a different country to realize what that really means.