My parents were missionaries and took our family to live in Argentina for a time when I was young. We lived there for eight years during my late childhood. Next month, my parents, sister, wife and I will be traveling to Buenos Aires for a visit. This will be my first time back since I left after high school on June 24th, 1994 - almost 16 years to the day - andI find myself evaluating what growing up in Argentina meant for me, and how returning as an adult might affect me.
Unlike some of my missionary cousins (friends whose parents were also missionaries), we got to Argentina when I was fairly old. I was ten when we arrived in April of 1986; my sister was about to turn five. Since I spent my early years in the United States, I don’t call Argentina my original home. In college I would say Buenos Aires was my hometown more for the sake of starting a conversation than because of any sense that it was my place of origin. I was born in North Dakota and when I was a child we lived in Texas, so I’ve always had a bit of a hard time identifying where I’m really “from.” I learned Spanish fluently but don’t speak it quite as effortlessly as some of my friends. I don’t get many opportunities to speak it now and sometimes feel as if it’s slowly leaking from my brain. I didn’t develop the standard Argentine’s unbridled passion for soccer. My friends were mostly other American kids, or any of a broad selection of international kids who attended my high school. I certainly had friends who were Argentine and there are some I still communicate with today, but it would be disingenuous to claim that I could ever identify myself as Argentine.
All that being said, I still believe that the eight years we lived in Buenos Aires has had a subtle but still significant effect on my worldview. As a teenager growing up in a foreign country and attending high school with people from (literally) all over the planet, it’s hard to believe my perspective is the same as it would’ve been had my parents kept us in the Houston area. And I would hardly argue that my perspective is unique or more relevant for having lived in a farflung corner of the world, but it’s been interesting to look at how that time has defined my view of the world. I also wonder what it will be like to go back as a middle-aged, relatively well-off, pampered American adult with two kids.
More than anything, growing up in Argentina taught me that not everyone has it as easy as we have it here. That’s not to say that Buenos Aires is poor - far from it. But people there just don’t have the “stuff” that people here do. I remember coming back to the United States after having been gone for four years. I was thirteen. Everything here seemed so clean and the malls just had so much STUFF. The streets in the US are nice, the electricity is on all the time, and everything here is air-conditioned. Again, it’s hard to say what exactly I’m talking about here: everyone I knew in Argentina had a television, a car, plenty of food. But it just seems to me like we have a lot MORE of that stuff here in the US.
Notice I said that people here have it easier, not better. I’m not going to get on a soapbox and claim that people who live in simpler cultures are inherently happier than Americans - that’s really not my point at all. But I do strongly resist the notion that Americans somehow have it better due to our Americanism, that we are particularly blessed by God by simply being Americans and everyone else would be better off if they just tried harder to be like us. The processes that we have in place here in the US may work well for us, but it’s foolish for us to think they would be easily copied to any other culture. What I saw in Argentina was people who are just as happy and well-adjusted as Americans are. They love their culture and their country and their families as deeply and strongly as we do.
Finally, I was greatly affected by being a true minority. For the first two years we lived there, when I was in fourth and sixth grades (yes, I skipped fifth - long story), I was the only white kid in my school. Anyone who thinks that racial struggles are unique to Americans is very misguided. The fact of the matter is that I was treated differently, in both positive and often negative ways, because I looked and spoke differently. In sixth grade, my nickname was Leche (“milk”) because I was a LOT whiter than any other kid around me. I won’t claim that I was victimized or scarred because of the way I was treated, but I will claim that it has given me a different perspective on race relations.
Enough for now - this has dragged on long enough. Over the next couple of weeks, before we leave for Buenos Aires, I’ll discuss some other thoughts I’ve had about returning. Don’t let me forget to mention the food…