Learning from the Third World

Francesca - Charlestown, Massachusetts
Entered on March 10, 2009

I believe in gaining foreign experience.

When I told my parents I was moving to Argentina to teach English, my father looked horrified and told me I was heading to a “fascist” country. In fact, people continued to warn me that I was venturing into a “third world” nation, and that I should consider going somewhere nicer like Europe.

At first, I truly was shocked by the “third world” features of Buenos Aires. I was not accustomed to seeing children begging in the streets, or wearing a backpack on my chest in order to deter pick pockets.

But then I met my English students. These Argentines helped open my eyes to the beauty of their country. For example, they introduced me to the lovely practice of drinking mate, a traditional, herbal tea. When Argentines regularly gather together with friends or family, they always prepare mate and pass it from person to person. Mate represents how Argentines value sharing and spending time with loved ones.

My students also made me realize how little I knew about the world around me. They demonstrated such a wide knowledge and understanding of international affairs, while I hardly kept track of news in the United States. In fact, before I moved to Buenos Aires, I would have been hard pressed to identify Argentina on a map. Now, after traveling to Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina, I realize that the South American continent possesses a vast array of cultures and customs that are each remarkable and unique.

My most important realization came after I had been living in Buenos Aires for six months. One day, I walked into a kiosk to buy a bottle of water and found two American tourists yelling at the young cashier. “How much is this?” they said repeatedly, pointing to the cookies they were about to buy. The cashier was looking at them timidly, clearly unable to understand English. I stepped in, translated the word “quince,” and the matter was resolved. It was there in that kiosk, though, that I discovered why Americans have a poor reputation in Argentina. I tried to imagine an Argentine walking into an American convenience store and demanding a soda in Spanish.

It is true, Argentina is a third world country. What I came to understand while living there, though, was the true definition of the Third World. The label was given to Argentina because it is a country that has suffered through a fearsome dictatorship and a severe economic depression in just the last thirty years. Argentines are survivors who know how to subsist on what would be unacceptable for the average American– and yet, they still manage to stop and smell the roses. They are simply working and waiting for a better future.

I believe in gaining foreign experience in order to open our minds to new cultures and ideas, and to better understand our role in the world. As Americans, we are very lucky to have what we do, and with these resources, should carry ourselves in a way that is respected by our international neighbors. Besides, if we give it a chance, the “third world” might even be able to teach us a thing or two.