selling smoke

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

I’ve now been in Buenos Aires for three weeks. That’s about 7.5% of my grant, but who’s counting?

I definitely was. My first few days here were full of doubt and second-guesses. I felt like I made a mistake in coming here and Fulbright made a mistake in letting me. After the red-eye from Toronto, I stepped up to the customs counter and confidently told them I was here as a student for a “boca.” Unfortunately this means mouth, not scholarship (“beca”), like I intended. A metaphor for what was to come? It certainly felt like it. I then joined a group of nine other US Students (those here for specific research projects) and twenty-four English Teaching Assistants (those here to teach the English language) for two days of orientation at the Fulbright office. As we went around the room and introduce ourselves, it felt like I was the only one who had failed to major in Spanish in college and/or live in a Spanish-speaking country. This Argentine Castellano was incomprehensible both in annunciation and tempo to me.

We eventually split off between Students and ETAs and my feeling of being out of place intensified. I realized that everyone here was incredibly cool, for lack of a more proper term. Everyone runs, paints, and makes their own bread - and they probably dance better than you too. And they were all interested in “real” research projects, asking questions about the institutional review board for publications and discussing allocation of lab resources. I was the only one here for an “Arts” grant, where my output is measured in performances. It certainly didn’t seem like I was worthy of being a part of these conversations.

Fulbright has provided us Students with “Argentine Buddies,” people here who are working in our field and can act as a point of contact. In our introductory meeting, one of mine told me quite frankly that tango is dying out and maybe is not the strong art form I thought it was. I started having lessons, but still my doubts stayed. What good really was learning about this particular musical style? Couldn’t I have gotten a similar experience in the States? Is doing this a distraction from what I should really be focusing on? I worried I had fantasized myself 6,000 miles away from home.

I recognized that I was here now, though, and there was no changing that, so I reached out to as many people as I could. I was able to meet with professors at the local universities and former Fulbrighters now living in Buenos Aires. They spoke with me about the states of Argentina and Buenos Aires and the reputation that poteños tend to have. One phrase in particular stuck with me; there is the idiom that people from Buenos Aires “sell smoke.” There is a lot of excitement around the packaging of an idea, but when you open the box, there’s nothing there. Was that what I had done? Did I sell Fulbright smoke and sneak my way into this program?

One week from my arrival, I found myself on a stage auditioning for what I was told was another tango orchestra. I quickly found out that the group was in fact the Orquestra Escuela de Emilio Balcarce, an ensemble that proclaims themselves to be the authority on learning authentic tango playing. I also discovered that the orchestra is a two year program and was asked if I could commit to staying in Buenos Aires for the full time.

I thought about my apartment. At that point in time, I still hadn’t figured out how to use the stove, I had discovered that my shower was actually just a hose attached to the wall, and I couldn’t get my fridge to stop smelling like ham. I thought about my neighborhood and how the US Embassy warned us that Argentina is listed as “critical” for crime. I thought about the inflation that I was seeing happen in real time throughout the city. The thought of staying even longer here seemed laughable.

They gave me a week to consider it. In that time, I began relationships with other professors. I am now doing weekly lessons in arranging, violin, the political history of the genre, and improvisation. I began to click more with the music, and as a result, the city. I also decided it was time to start getting help. I’ve been working with depression since I was a junior in high school and started taking medication my junior year of college. But I was just treading water. Fulbright has an angel program, ASSIST, that provides counseling for all of the grantees. So I started talking to someone. I joined the gym down the street, started going to dance classes, and I reached out to people my age at church. (And fortunately, for Emilio Balcarce, I was able to explain that I am here on a student visa, and that my commitment was contingent on my grant, so I will join the orchestra for as long as I am able.)

There are definitely aspects of Buenos Aires I enjoy and know I will miss when I go home. I live around the corner from the San Telmo Market, which is full of artisans who are patient enough to practice Spanish with me. The influence of Italian immigrants is especially strong in the gelato-like ice cream that makes me miss Blank Slate a little less. I still need to go find the coast and explore some of the more touristic aspects of the city, but I’m just happy that I can get certain places without having to look up directions now. And with the new information I have now, I am working on refocusing my grant to better reflect the culture.

I think I have never quite felt like I fit in perfectly anywhere. Growing up, I saw that I wasn’t as Asian as my friends who went to Chinese school, but I certainly wasn’t “just white” either. At Sunday School, I knew that I went to the same church as everyone else there, but my Dad wasn’t a member like theirs was. In Ann Arbor, I wasn’t “just” a classical violinist, but I certainly didn’t feel like an authentic jazz player either. As a result, I’ve spent some time thinking about what it means to belong to multiple communities and how sometimes it makes you feel like you belong to none. But there is a lot of beauty in an outside perspective, and I am hoping to build on that good fortune here.

So here I am, week 3 and moving forward. Rehearsals for both orchestras are picking up and I’ve signed up for a folk music improvisation course that begins in May. When it rains, my windows let it a fair amount of water, but I also found a place nearby that sells empanadas for 12 pesos. Back in Ann Arbor, my cat is gaining weight, for which I am quite thankful. I have only 37 weeks left here and I plan to make the most of them. I’ll keep you posted on if there was anything in that box besides smoke after all.

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