What should my fiancé know during his transition to life in the U.S.?
February 19, 2010 8:45 PM   Subscribe

How can I help my Argentine fiancé prepare for life in the U.S.?

In two weeks, my fiancé is moving from Buenos Aires to Portland, OR. He's been here three times and loves it. But from my experience in Argentina, I realize the difference being visiting a place and living there is often vast, and I'd love to help make his transition as easy as possible.

What pieces of U.S. daily miscellany do you think it'd especially help a newbie to know? (E.g., should he study the NFL so other men don't find him alien?) If you've ever switched countries/cultures, is there anything you wish you would have known beforehand to help you adjust? I know it's culturally dependent, but for example: people here often schedule themselves to the bone, and he shouldn't take it personally when someone can only meet for coffee for an hour; we eat quick lunches, everything is made in China, whatever.
posted by blazingunicorn to Society & Culture (49 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Portland men find non-NFL watchers alien?

I think what might make his transition easier at least until he's settled in, is to be able to do the things he's used to and enjoys, and to develop a social network of the sorts of people he relates to. I think a person from any large city could do this at least to some extent in almost any other large city in the world.

As far as miscellany, I think it might be most helpful to teach him things that will make his daily life easier. How to deal with the bureaucracy around here, how to get around on public transit, how people find jobs here, etc.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:52 PM on February 19, 2010

1) I don't know about Argentina, but from my experience (just moved to South Africa), a big one is this: If you arrange to meet at 1:00pm, in the US you should be there at 1:00pm... not 1:15 or 1:30.

2) You should consider having a World Cup party in June. It will let him be the star for a few hours, since he will know more about the game than anyone.

3) Big one: Don't overwhelm him with change. In my experience, people have a finite about of change they can handle at one time. I've seen people move from South America to the US because of their spouse and it almost break up the relationship. But, in these cases it was always because the spouse expected their SO to handle an infinite amount of change (new city, new country, new job market, new language, new car, new friends, new social customs, new laws, new prices, new food, new culture etc.. etc... etc.... They can't. Take it slow.
posted by Spurious at 9:19 PM on February 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

I can't find a cite, but I recall the Pacific Northwest being super pet friendly - the ratio of pets to people being really high. A lot of people like to talk about their dogs - so help him know rottweiler/doberman/beagle/terrier.

Also, the weather. Not that it'll cause him a hard time I don't think, but he should know what a 'sun break' is, and other things particular to the weather in the area. It's not as intuitive as one might think, with the chances of rain and what not and coming from Argentina.
posted by cashman at 9:30 PM on February 19, 2010

One more thing, and this is going to sound strange: Let him be the man. When you move to a new country you often feel embarrassed and helpless. This feeling is only heightened when the SO is from that country, so becomes the de facto "teacher". Over a long period of time, this can be emasculating. He is a man, but you know everything and everybody and he knows nothing and nobody.
posted by Spurious at 9:31 PM on February 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Thank you!! Please keep them coming!!!!

I know the NFL is a bad example, but I thought that having a working knowledge of the NFL might help a guy understand some cultural references--just as knowing about Diego Maradona and Peronism would help someone moving to Argentina. We all make these references without realizing it, and I know there are a lot of stereotypically masculine things that I'm just clueless about.
posted by blazingunicorn at 9:37 PM on February 19, 2010

I think you should base it off your fiancé and not introduce any kind of unnecessary gender weirdness. He knows he is the person who is new - I'll disagree with Spurious and say to not make yourself tiny to pump him up as part of the transition process.
posted by cashman at 9:37 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The big lesson that I learned when moving to the States is that everything is backwards here. Being polite to people makes them feel uncomfortable. Conversely, when you visit them in their home, they will try to make you feel comfortable by telling you to get your own refreshments out of the fridge.

The first is because being polite comes across as formal, like you expect them to know which is the salad fork at dinner. They don't know this, because mostly they eat in their cars. The second is because the appearance of dropping formality & distance is part of American social formalities. This has limits -- don't take this to mean you can check out their underwear drawer.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:38 PM on February 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

That he will be asked the question, "So where are you from?" by just about every stranger he meets for the rest of his life.
posted by 517 at 9:38 PM on February 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

- know that men usually can fend for themselves (cook, clean, laundry, etc) since it;s not as cheap to get those done as it is in South America.

- South America is very much a social class-based society and prejudice towards "inferior" (less income) classes tends to run wild. Explain to him how it's not the case here; i.e., just because someone is your server at a restaurant doesn't mean it's okay to treat them will less respect than you would, say, a neighbor. Of course that happens here too, but it's not nearly as socially acceptable.

- Explain how to properly tip servers.

- You can only ask for someone's phone number directly. You cannot ask one person to give you another person's phone number (or email, etc).

- Explain certain terms that may seem perfectly innocent to a non-English speaker but that he should avoid ("you people")

- Try to find shops that carry some Argentinian foods. Sometimes the simplest things can really help with the home-sickness.
posted by Neekee at 9:40 PM on February 19, 2010

Tell him to eat all the beef and choripan he can before he gets up here.
posted by Aizkolari at 9:54 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

1) Something west coast specific-- sometimes things like business openings and closings happen on East coast time, so to call banks or embassies you sometimes have to get up early or call at what seems like a ridiculously early time. Television news are also geared towards east coast deadlines, so things that happen before the close of business in Portland may not show up in the national news until the day after.
2) Americans smell ridiculously floral, but take offense at an excess of perfume. Striking a balance can be a difficult and humiliating process. This might be less of a problem in certain social circles in Portland, but he should be aware of people standing at a distance.
posted by pickypicky at 9:56 PM on February 19, 2010

Also, no matter where you end up living, no matter how many bus lines you live by, he must know how to drive a car.
posted by pickypicky at 10:02 PM on February 19, 2010

I can't find a cite, but I recall the Pacific Northwest being super pet friendly - the ratio of pets to people being really high. A lot of people like to talk about their dogs - so help him know rottweiler/doberman/beagle/terrier.

I've never visited any place in the world that was more dog-friendly than Buenos Aires. It was insane.

Porteños cannot handly spicy food- and I mean not the tiniest bit spicy. So when you take him to any of PDX's outstanding Vietnamese restos, take it easy on him.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:30 PM on February 19, 2010

Unless he is capable and willing to drop his accent, people will recognize him as "not from around here", so many people will understand when he doesn't get cultural references.

How good is his English? Aside from cultural language, is he going to be struggling with idioms and slang?

In Portland proper, he can get around without a car, but most people still drive in the metro area so he will probably need to learn to drive at some point or another. I don't personally know how different driving is or isn't in Argentina (do they drive on the other side of the road like the British? I honestly have no idea), but at the very least he'll need to learn Oregon's driving laws.

Since pickypicky brought up west-coast specific: if he watches much TV, he'll probably see something advertised as showing, for example, at 9/8 Central. It might be confusing.

Tipping. Not only how much, but when (fast food vs formal sit down vs something in between).

You may need to explain US- or Oregon-specific information that Americans/Oregonians know without thinking about it too hard. Where do I go to get my driver's license? What do I do if there's an emergency (911 vs _____ in Argentina)? Things like that.

I assume you two will be living together (yes? no?) so everyday things at home you can easily be able to point out or he can come to you. I really have no idea what everyday life in Argentina is like -- do they use different electrical voltage than the US, as in Europe? Are household appliances different enough to be confusing? Do you have a gas stove/oven and he's only used electric or vice versa? And have you covered any of this on his visits?
posted by asciident at 10:40 PM on February 19, 2010

I guess for the sake of simplicity, we can say that life in Buenos Aires is what you'd expect from a bustling metropolis in the developing world: people have and use less stuff, infrastructure sucks, it's more dangerous, not as much cultural diversity, and much harder to make ends meet.

You may need to explain US- or Oregon-specific information that Americans/Oregonians know without thinking about it too hard.

Exactly! I'm just drawing such a blank about what kinds of social norms he hasn't encountered or really needs to have drilled into his head... I am trying to think of how someone might explain 'Americans' in a Lonely Planet-style guidebook: These portly people come in a variety of colors, but have a strict sense of punctuality. They enjoy The Huffington Post for conversation filler and living out of their cars.

I've been unpleasantly surprised with how even friends of mine approach conversations with him: they might ask a few droll, slow questions, but then the group reverts to lightning-quick banter. But I guess languages are always a lifelong affair.
posted by blazingunicorn at 11:17 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been unpleasantly surprised with how even friends of mine approach conversations with him: they might ask a few droll, slow questions, but then the group reverts to lightning-quick banter. (blazingunicorn)

For what it's worth, this is what my Argentine roommate and her Spanish-speaking friends do with me. If the group is at all large (by which I mean more than you, your fiance, and one or two other people) this is guaranteed to happen.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:26 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh OH! When you tell someone you are from another country, most people around the world want to show you their country/city/family/etc. Americans don't do this, because they think it's showing off, and implies that the US is better than your country, and sometimes they'll take this opportunity to assure you that they definitely don't think the US is better. This is because they think you're blown away by being in America, and don't want you to feel bad about how your country must look in comparison.

This is often a segue for them to talk about their last or next vacation outside the US, that time their parents hosted a foreign exchange student when they were a kid, an unusual ethnic restaurant they visited recently or what foreign language they are trying to learn. This happens even though the country in question isn't remotely related to your home country.

This is because Americans want to feel like they know about The World and Its Peoples, and this consists of everywhere that most people they know don't go very often--so Mexico and Canada don't really count. You need to give them a pat on the head, or they'll be unhappy.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:51 PM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am trying to think of how someone might explain 'Americans' in a Lonely Planet-style guidebook: These portly people come in a variety of colors, but have a strict sense of punctuality. They enjoy The Huffington Post for conversation filler and living out of their cars.

This brought to mind a not-entirely-tongue-in-cheek idea, since he is after all coming to Portland: Read Stuff White People Like for insight into much of the culture here.
posted by treblemaker at 12:10 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm a immigrant who arrived in Portland relatively recently-- with the big difference that I'm a native English speaker (and actually English).

Tipping was one of the big specifics to learn, how much when etc It was definitely a little intimidating at first. Also how social life/bars/eating out works. I don't know how it is in Argentina but the emphasis on food and socializing, particularly always eating in Bars took a little getting used to, it impacts how much you think you are going to spend as well.

Not to drag out cliches or rag on Americans or anything but people here are accused of being somewhat ignorant of other cultures ad/or having a distorted and there is some truth to this. But there is also something more specific. Coming from outside the US you can't help but have an awareness of it or its culture (even if it is a distorted view shaped by local sensibilities) there really isn't any reciprocation for this and there is no real awareness of it either. Worse what awareness there is can be kind of messed up at times. (Conversations that basically go "Oh you're not from America, we are all so ignorant, you must really hate Americans. Er, no? Also I've learnt to answer 'because I married an American' when people ask me why I'm here, rather than trying to explain we chose to come here because I wanted to experience living in a different culture, for example).

I've been unpleasantly surprised with how even friends of mine approach conversations with him: they might ask a few droll, slow questions, but then the group reverts to lightning-quick banter.

There is no language barrier with me, but I have certainly experienced something similar with people falling back to cultural idioms quickly. I don't really expect (or want) anything else but one thing that definitely did throw me was losing a cultural substrate I wasn't really fully conscious of. This leads you in to situations where you can understand the essential meaning but none of the details. I remember sitting round with some friends early on drinking some beers and somebody started to tell a funny/embarrassing story. I can tell this was the case, and even why but what I got was: We went to [some place of heard of, but don't have any real picture of] and we went to a sideshow and I won a prize and the guy is asking me to chose the prize and he shows a poster of [minor TV character I've never heard of ] and a poster of [minor TV character I've never heard of ] and says which one do you want son, winking at me, and I'm total shock because I never expected to win anything and I panic and I think I liked [TV show I've never heard of] and I point to the poster of [minor TV character I've never heard of ] (Everyone starts laughing).

Also I have an Argentinian friend and one thing I've noticed is people wanting to use her to practice their Spanish on even though they don't speak it, so you might want to warn him.
posted by tallus at 12:59 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might manage to think of a few things (and points to you for trying to ease the transition), but you might have more luck planning to cope with all the things you won't have thought of. For example, Spurious' advice about trying not to change everything at once. Having lived in another country myself, I think that's great advice, but how would you not change everything at once?

Some ideas off the top of my head; you've probably thought of these already, but it's all I have to offer:

- He should expect to encounter differences, but he doesn't need to become American to get by. Certainly not in Portland. He might get tired of being different, but most people will enjoy the fact that he's not just like everyone else, and he shouldn't presume that there's pressure to conform in all ways. Only in some ways that we won't tell him about. ;-)

- You two might agree explicitly that your home doesn't need to be American, and that decisions about how to do things at home won't just default to whatever people do here.

- He will probably need a little extra down time. Coping with unfamiliarity is exhausting.

- Think of things you both enjoy that don't have to be very different from what he's used to. For example, if he likes hiking, he could go for a hike without worrying about doing it like everyone else does.

- If you can find an Argentinian ex-pat nearby, that person will have better advice. Also, spending time with a fellow countryman can be very relaxing.

Personally, I've never been in tune with pop culture (music, celebrities, TV shows, sports) and I don't really get flack for it. If he encounters something novel and is curious about it, enthusiasts will be excited to tell him everything.

Have fun! It will be an exciting time.
posted by aigeek at 1:21 AM on February 20, 2010

Agree with small day to day stuff. Brazilian-living-in-the-US here, but I guess it's close enough :)

Some more examples:

West coasters (maybe Seattleites) are somewhat friendly (sometimes more out of protocol than friendliness). The server asks how your day is going, the cashier at the supermarket smiles and makes smalltalk, etc. Back in Brazil, the social protocol is much more terse - some people will be friendly, make smalltalk, etc, but it's perfectly acceptable to just grunt and push the stuff towards the cashier (not necessarily a social class thing, more of a "New York"-style hurry/mindyourownbusiness). This goes both ways - when I got here, sometimes I'd grunt and people would think I'm an asshole, sometimes people would be a bit friendlier and I'd think they're flirting. Takes a while to get used to all the friendliness.

Speaking of servers and cashiers - Their pre-canned phrases. They speak those canned phrases really fast, and, as I said, the protocol is different - there's no exchange of "hello's" to flag that a conversation is beginning, you look at the person, and they dump a "wcomtobigboxsupmarktmynamskrystlhowmayihelpyoutday" on you. In some cases there's a question at the end "doyouwantasaladwiththatwehaveranchthousandislandbluecheesesomehtingsomethingvinegarette". It helps if you know some usual pre-canned phrases so you can at least try to parse them. Also, how to order eggs - at least his preferred varieties - the first time someone asked me how I wanted my eggs cooked, I had no idea such thing as how to cook an egg even existed, and just froze until the server proposed something and I agreed.

Tipping etiquette: not just restaurants, but where to tip or not (cable guy? barber? barista?). Are you supposed to wait for the waiter to get your tip?

Small "infraction" stuff - With a few exception, people simply don't jaywalk in Seattle. People jaywalk in Boston. People go 20mph over the speed limit in California roads. People don't run reds, even if it's 3am and there's absolutely no traffic. Pot has varied degrees of acceptance. In Brazil legislation is more "democratic", there's laws that people decide to follow, and there's laws that simply "don't stick". I find that Seattle people tend to be much more "lawful" compared to the average Brazilian. Anyway, it's useful to know which laws people follow, and which ones they ignore.

person-corporation relations: Brazilians are much more "class-warfare" in this regard. In Brazil there's no return policy, and customer service is mostly a joke (corporations are even more soulless than in the US). Returning a non-defective product simply doesn't happen. On the other hand, people (not everyone, but many) also tend to view corporations as "The Man", and take advantage of any existing loophole (for example, a return policy like REI's or Nordstrom's would simply not work over there). It takes a while to start taking into account that you can return that stuff that you didn't really like, or doesn't fit, etc. In general, Americans have a much more friendlier relation to corporations, in both directions.

If he used to be middle class or above in Argentina, I wouldn't worry about pop-culture. Broadcast and cable stations syndicate a lot of American content. He'll probably be roughly on par with the average American on the subject of TV series or movies. Otherwise, get a box set of Seinfeld, Friends and The Simpsons, and you'll cover about 80% of pop-culture references.

How Americans do day-to-day home stuff. Brazilians wash clothes with powdered detergent, liquid softener, and line dry. Americans mostly use liquid detergent, dryer sheets, and tumble dry. Brazilians use gas stoves, Americans use electric. Brazilians don't generally have hot water plumbing, in here I'll sometimes still find a new kind of tap to figure out. It was 3 years before I finally learned from a friend why I had a timed laundry room exhaust and those funny slits on the windows. Brazilian bathrooms just have windows, my apartment's bathroom has an exhaust that took me a while to find out I should turn on to avoid mold. Brazilians use spray/aerosol deodorant, Americans use mostly roll-on. Brazilians use almost exclusively tighty-white briefs, Americans use mostly boxers/boxer-briefs. Etc, etc, etc.
posted by qvantamon at 4:00 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

AlsoMike, I'm sorry to hear that your experience in America has been so contemptible. I think you are actually trying to be helpful and there's probably some kernel of truth in what you're saying, but I'm not sure this is the place for shitty mocking generalizations about Americans.

Back on topic, Americans are likely to be oversensitive about implications that they are provincial and unsophisticated, so beware!
posted by GodricVT at 6:31 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

The discussion of timeliness expectations for appointments reminded me of zompist's American culture test, though it's a bit dated now.
posted by serathen at 6:37 AM on February 20, 2010

I think that a slow transition into the US is necessary. As other posters have said, try to find him things that remind him of Argentina in Portland (food (restaurants, supermarkets), cultural events, groups, television, movies, etc) and have them in your back pocket in case he feels overwhelmed.

Also, there are many books for expats as a general concept and also specifically in moving to the US- see if they can offer some advice.

See if he can find some Argentine friends in your area. That will also help ease the transition and boredom, especially if he doesn't have a job or school to go to yet.

Good luck
posted by JiffyQ at 6:52 AM on February 20, 2010

It's also good to remember about what *not* to do from your end of things. You'll have to strike the right balance between being helpful and offering explanations or tips, and over-explaining everything too much. Some of it will just take time and exposure and experience, and having someone try to run interference with it all can be exhausting in its own way.

Also, don't be that person in a group that begins with, "In Argentina, we do foo instead of bar." or "In Argentina, the foo there is soooo much better." Once in a while those reminders are interesting, but the constant verbal comparison is socially annoying and wears thin after the 3rd or 4th time. Even if you're experiencing something as a comparison (whether favorable or unfavorable) - just experience it and roll with it; don't make that comparison a soundtrack to life.

- tipping
- any gender norms that you think he might need to know
- good questions to ask new friends
- questions he will likely get - where are you from, how did you meet, what are you doing here, how do you like it, are you adjusting ok. All requiring short but friendly answers.
- where to find some foods from home. There will be a latino supermarket SOMEWHERE and they'll have a ton of products from home - or order online. It's really nice to have some comfort foods.

Figure out a good balance early on in the transition - he can be responsible for some things in the house, and you for others. Don't feel like you have to do everything forever - think of the transition a bit like "how can we set up our new life here together" and not just "how can I get him settled" -- because you'll run yourself thin too.

Get Skype set up ahead of time - maybe have him get a microphone headset for his family (if they're still there) so he can do weekly or biweekly chats with them.

If he has a favourite piece of art, it's worth it to bring it up - adds a little personality to your new home.

Can you find a meet-up group for other Argentinians in the area? Or an informal place where folks gather to watch games on satellite?

Good luck and congrats! Sounds like a fun time in your lives - enjoy the new time together.
posted by barnone at 6:54 AM on February 20, 2010

Also, does he like to dance? Like Tango or another dance? There are lots of social clubs for that - and I know it's something many of my South American friends love to do once in awhile. There seem to be some good tango clubs in Portland.
posted by barnone at 7:03 AM on February 20, 2010

Yes, it strikes me that AlsoMike either really dislikes America or is meeting some odd Americans.

But he, and a couple of other posts, remind me that America is a BIG place and it IS culturally diverse. Qvantamon mentions Americans using electric ranges; where I live, everyone uses gas. (But where I went to law school, they were all electric, and I hated it!)

A couple of pitfalls from friends of mine from elsewhere who've moved to the US:

*Be aware of his idiomatic English a little bit when he starts picking it up. A good friend of mine managed to learn a bunch of Americanisms from some rural construction workers her husband was supervising; I reacted in horror when she used them in a setting with a bunch of professionals because there are things you Do Not Say, and she thought this was perfectly fine slang, like "cool" or "yuck." (It was racial slurs. She had no idea.)

*In the same vein, there are ways race is discussed in the U.S. and ways it is not discussed. These vary by region, but the norms are unspoken and breaking them makes people uncomfortable.

*I don't know much about South American law enforcement norms, but my European friends always have trouble getting used to the fact that even traffic cops carry guns and nobody is bothered by this. (Conversely, when I took my husband abroad for the first time, he was absolutely shocked that British cops didn't have guns, and refused to believe they could do effective policing without them!)

*Generally, politeness in the U.S. is friendliness. People use a veneer of friendliness even in formal interactions. (I read a while ago that a lot of this norm developed from the frontier, where you lived far from neighbors and might even go months without seeing other human beings, so Americans developed the habit of behaving in a friendly fashion towards everyone, because otherwise it's hard to survive living so far away from other people, unless EVERY person you meet is friendly. Conversely, the book suggested, the British have historically lived so close together that there is a reserve expected in everyday interactions or you get no psychic space because other people are on top of you all the time. I found this an interesting theory.) How this polite-friendliness manifests itself varies in different regions, but it's all the same idea.

*People mostly accept my friends' lack of interest in American sports. (Heck, my US-born husband doesn't give a crap about baseball, to my eternal sorrow.) But during the Olympics everyone expects them (male or female) to have opinions and share thoughts on their national teams. They also do get asked about soccer a lot. Many of your friends will probably start cheering for Argentina in international soccer and in Olympic events; it's a way to take an interest in your fiance and show affection. He should let them know he appreciates it when they do.

*Americans do look for commonalities, especially on first meeting. I know it sort-of stands out to someone from another country -- "Oh, you're from Argentina? My sister once visited Argentina/I knew a guy from there once/I've cheered for your soccer team for years ..." "Um ... yay?" -- but Americans do it to each other too, all the time: "You went to Stanford? My cousin's wife went to Stanford, graduated in 96? I think she's at IBM now ..." Because America is a large, diverse country, this game of, "Look! We have something in common!" is a way of being welcoming and friendly and finding safe ground to start a conversation and show someone you accept and welcome them. (Reading Kurt Vonnegut on the "false karass" always makes me laugh about this practice, but I still do it myself, all the same.) It's best to take it as its meant -- generously -- and understand people are trying to build a connection with you.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:23 AM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm with AlsoMike on his assessment of Americans. I live in the suburbs of a progressive, left-leaning city full of immigrants. Still, when I moved in to our neighbourhood, my neighbours welcomed us with "Oh, you're Canadian? That's great, we love foreigners here." It's those tiny little slights that grate on you after a while.

Keep in mind also that there are bits of xenophobia are baked into the system in this country. You mark yourself as a "resident alien" on your tax forms. You get photographed and fingerprinted over and over again by the government as you fill in billions of forms for your visa or green card. In some places they mark your immigrant status on your driver's license. They make it hard as hell to get here and when you're finally here, you realize that some shit about this country isn't all it's cracked up to be and you can get very, very homesick.

What he needs is not miscellany but a community of people that will accept him and help him feel like he's at home. He needs a job. Help him network with open-minded and get a job. Once he has a job and some friends he can then start climbing the mountain of America. Introduce him to open-minded people and help him write his resume (they're very different in America). If he doesn't have status to work don't be surprised if he wants to go back to Argentina until he can, my husband had a very difficult time staying here without status because able-bodied men work here or else they are shiftless bums.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:51 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, AlsoMike's assessment really isn't abnormal. I frequently get a version of, "Oh you're from x country? I went to z country last year, we had some good wine." HUH? That's my cue to see that they're well-travelled and somewhat knowledgeable about the world outside of the US borders. But it's bizarre.
posted by barnone at 9:09 AM on February 20, 2010

Whilst I appreciate that you want to make things as easy for him as possible you might be overthinking this a little bit. As his fiancee you will be with him most of the time, and as you seem to have spent some time in Argentina you can tell him about the differences that are obvious to you as and when they occur.

I'm not from the US but have spent a lot of time in Argentina and South America and for me discovering things as you go is part of the enjoyment of being in a new environment. He's going to get his own feel for people and customs as he goes along.

Meeting other Argentinans, or at least native Spanish speakers would be a good thing though - being able to speak your own language for a while after days of English would be invaluable to him.
posted by jontyjago at 9:17 AM on February 20, 2010

He should be prepared for non-Argentinian dialects of Spanish. If people just start speaking Spanish at him, it's most likely going to be Mexican or other Central American dialects. I'm sure he already knows how different they are, and hopefully he won't be offended at some well-meaning person trying to practice their Spanish with him, whenthey don't say "me llamo" the same way he says "me llamo."
posted by slow graffiti at 9:28 AM on February 20, 2010

Generally, politeness in the U.S. is friendliness. People use a veneer of friendliness even in formal interactions. I read a while ago that a lot of this norm developed from the frontier, where you lived far from neighbors and might even go months without seeing other human beings...

I also read one theory that this is because Americans move around a lot compared to many other cultures - it's novel when someone above a certain age has lived in a town their whole life, unless that place is somewhere like NYC. Not to mention the size of the country, it's not unusual for someone to have been born very far from where they currently are.

So it makes sense to be friendlier with acquaintances and others from the get go, because you don't always have time to build up a huge social circle of people you've known all your life.

Adding this because I find that knowing the reasons behind a culture's oddities helps me to better understand them and might help your fiancé too. Even if they're just-so explanations. If someone says "waiters here ignore you in restaurants. you need to get their attention" that makes way less sense to me than if they added "... it's their way of being polite and not bothering you while you eat."
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:29 AM on February 20, 2010

Yeah, AlsoMike's assessment really isn't abnormal. I frequently get a version of, "Oh you're from x country? I went to z country last year, we had some good wine." HUH? That's my cue to see that they're well-travelled and somewhat knowledgeable about the world outside of the US borders. But it's bizarre.

You're somewhat misunderstanding this. It's an attempt to find something in common. Americans will do this with anyone.

"Oh, you're from Cleveland? I saw the rock and roll hall of fame once."

That's actually your cue to go, "Oh yeah? Did you like it?" It's a conversation starter, not an attempt to show off.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:32 AM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

(aka if they don't actually have anything in common with x country people will talk about traveling in general, or maybe out of ignrance talk about something they think it similar. some people do they "you're from Ohio? I've been to Chicago!" thing to me, too.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:34 AM on February 20, 2010

You can put the tip on a credit card in the U.S.
posted by smackfu at 9:34 AM on February 20, 2010

I'm from Buenos Aires. My family emigrated to the US in the 80s when I was 8 years old, and I live here in Portland. I also have an apartment in Barrio Norte and I try to go back every year or two.

Emigration is indeed about the 10,000 little things; English is an easy language to learn, but understanding the memes that bind a generation together takes time. I like the Simpsons suggestion. I would also suggest choosing among some of the DVD sets of the best quality cable shows from the last few years (i.e., The Wire, The Office (US), Mad Men, Dexter, Firefly, The Sopranos, Deadwood, etc.) as an interesting way to take in some of the undercurrents.

That being said, coming to live in Portland isn't exactly the same as coming to live in the US in general. There are a lot of strange and unique things about this city, where the epicenter is a bookstore, everyone seems to work at a non-profit, and the most successful businesses are the strip clubs and tattoo parlors.

Folks in Portland are very friendly and curious about foreigners. The only downside is that you will need to have an answer to that immediate, inevitable question: "so, do you dance the tango?" There is a BIG tango scene in this town, which is a mixed blessing. Many people are in love with an idea of Argentina, which is true as far as it goes, but it is also a caricature.

Here are some useful things to know, off the top of my head:

- The concept of time is different here, especially in public places. In Buenos Aires it is expected that if you go get coffee or dinner with a friend, it's the whole sobremesa thing and you will sit and talk for many hours. Here this is somewhat rare; coffee often comes in a to-go cup, and the waiter will bring you your check the moment you put down your fork. It's considered somewhat rude to stay too long at a restaurant, in particular if it's busy, because you're depriving them of the chance to serve someone else at the same table.

- In general, people in Portland are much more likely to entertain in their homes, rather than going out to get together with their friends. It's generally good to bring wine, and Argentine wines are well received. Surprisingly, Fred Meyer on Hawthorne now has an excellent selection of the kinds of wines you see in the domestic market in Argentina (Terrazas, Bianchi, Nieto Sinetiner, etc.)

- On that topic, last time I checked, you can get kilos of yerba mate and jars of real dulce de leche at the International Market next to Ya'Halla on 76th and SE Stark.

There are other South Americans scattered here and there throughout Portland. It will be a fine adventure. Don't hesitate to contact me if you like.
posted by dacoit at 9:55 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh and yes, what Aizkolari says is true, a real choripan is unavailable here at any price, so if I were he, I would eat as many as I could before I got on that plane.
posted by dacoit at 9:59 AM on February 20, 2010

I think the important thing is to make it a dialogue, where he's prepared to talk about the kind of cultural translation he's doing in his head in real time. There's likely to be an initial curiosity over random and seemingly mundane things. Then there's going to be homesickness, again often related to random and seemingly mundane things. Because of that randomness, it's hard to offer specific guidance, other than the obvious stuff about dealing with bureaucracy.

Think conversation, not guidebook -- and when homesickness kicks in, there doesn't necessarily need to be an expat community in the area for him to draw upon, but it can be nice to dip into little bits of home, whether it's Argentinian football on the television, or sweets in the cupboard.
posted by holgate at 10:04 AM on February 20, 2010

No - I entirely understand that it's about trying to connect. But it's a particularly American form of connection, which is why it's pertinent to this thread. That exchange doesn't really happen anywhere else (maybe Canada, but even then, it's usually phrased more like a question back at the foreigner than a comparative statement that, on the surface, doesn't have anything to do with the response.)

So in many non-US countries, that exchange might be like:

A: Where are you from?
B: the Netherlands!
A: Oh wow, from Amsterdam or some other place? I've been to Brussels but never to the Netherlands proper.
B: No a small town up north, but it's a small country so I've been to Amsterdam lots. Oh what brought you to Brussels, did you have a good trip?

And in the US that exchange tends to go more like:

A: Where you from?
B: the Netherlands!
A: Oh wow, I've been to Brussels.
B: [thought process: What?? Do they know Brussels isn't in the Netherlands? Oh no, they're just trying to connect based on travel, they're saying they've been out of the US. OK go with that then.] So then, did you have a good trip?

See the difference? Unless you're prepared for it, it's a bit of an awkward exchange the first 30 times it happens. And yes, that means many of us do misunderstand that exchange. It's not our fault tho - it's a bit of a non-sequitor!
posted by barnone at 10:14 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

How close does he think is a sociable conversation distance? I've never met an Argentine, but I know a few Chileans who don't mind stepping right up to you.

Also, second the "you people". I still don't understand it myself, but it seems to mean much more than a plural second person.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:39 AM on February 20, 2010

I'm not sure this is the place for shitty mocking generalizations about Americans.

Of course I know that Americans are sensitive about how they are perceived by foreigners, but that's why I bring up these issues, even at the risk of offending some. Many immigrants have difficult experiences with Americans, like for example, you might realize they think your country is inferior or backwards. But it's impolite to react to this, you have to pretend everything is fine. This is one of the most isolating things for someone who is already feeling very isolated and out of place, especially when they immigrate alone, without family or an immigrant community.

I fully accept that what I'm saying is rude and you have good reason to be offended. I know I am breaking a taboo and this is normally censored information. Nonetheless, the intention is to help an immigrant have an easier time integrating into society, so I maintain that this breach of etiquette is a good thing to do even if it happens to ruffle some feathers. In a perverse kind of way, the very fact that you would find this offensive is what makes it necessary to say so that this man can make better sense of his experience.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:23 PM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

The heart of this is that there is an information imbalance due to American cultural products being so spread around the world, for better or worse. The average immigrant knows far more about America than Americans know about their country. It's not right or wrong, it's just a fact.

As an example, there are suggestions that he watch The Simpsons to learn more about American culture. Well, The Simpsons is already huge in Argentina.
posted by smackfu at 1:33 PM on February 20, 2010

"You mark yourself as a "resident alien" on your tax forms. You get photographed and fingerprinted over and over again by the government as you fill in billions of forms for your visa or green card."

Is this not the case when you're a "resident alien" in most countries?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:01 PM on February 20, 2010

Other countries don't use the term "alien", or its equivalent, for one.

A friend of mine who immigrated to the US from the Netherlands was struck by how the standard casual greeting in the US was "Hi, how are you?" or "how have you been?" He interpreted this as a deeper question, a request for a genuine and thorough answer, and a gesture of unexpected real friendship. So he would answer things like "wow, well, thanks for asking, I've been kind of down lately about Laura, and you know it's been tough looking for work." etc. Even once he knew that the "how are you?" was a ritualistic question, he found it hard to stop over-answering. This is related to the points above about how a certain kind of superficial friendliness is expected behavior in the US, apparently more so than in other countries.

Many universities offer guides to their international students that describe in very broad terms some cultural features of the US. I'm not sure how much real use these are, especially if he has you to help him, but what the heck - can't hurt to look them over.

Here are a few examples:
Yale international students' guide to "getting to know Americans"
Cornell's international students' guide to American values and cultural assumptions
University of Portland international students' guide to American values and cultural assumptions

Finally, he might be amused or interested by this essay about Argentinian food culture (with implicit comparison to US food culture): Argentina on two steaks a day.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:59 PM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

He'll need to learn the signs for leaving. In my experience, Americans tend to have short, not-spontaneous visits with friends and neighbors.
posted by k8t at 3:16 PM on February 20, 2010

See the difference? Unless you're prepared for it, it's a bit of an awkward exchange the first 30 times it happens. And yes, that means many of us do misunderstand that exchange. It's not our fault tho - it's a bit of a non-sequitor!

Oh, okay, yes, I totally agree. I simply wasn't sure if you thought it was just an attempt to show off.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:39 PM on February 20, 2010

I'm like tallus, and moved from England to marry an American just over a year ago. I think the best things you can do are try and look at where you live with outsider eyes - what's the etiquette (tipping, using public transport, what happens when you accidentally offend someone) and where are the resources (bank account, grocery stores, what food is available, what isn't) have been my issues. It's taken me this long to knuckle down a regular list of food I like eating so that I'm not thinking about it all the time. I didn't see that coming.

I do get anxiety a fair bit (how the hell did I emigrate? I do not know! Love! Sheer stubbornness!) so YMMV, but from visiting other expat forums, it definitely seems to be details that make the difference not the big picture.

Erm. What else. I occasionally find it difficult to maintain my own identity, especially language. It's no one's fault, America is just something that attempts to absorb you and chew off your edges. Don't let him feel like he has to conform to everything he sees, there are plenty of non-American ways of doing things that are completely valid (eg: not driving a car). Perhaps think about finding ways he can access his favorite (argh! favoUrite! SEE!) media from home, because there are bound to be "options" available. It's helped me feel human on more difficult days.

I don't think it's particularly helpful to generalise Americans, just because there are so many of them with a hundred and one different backgrounds. Some are immigrants, some are not. It's best to take this country as it comes - go on road trips, spend time just walking around, do normal things but have extra patience when it comes to the speed at which things will normalise for him. Except when it comes to driving. There, they're all equally as terrible.

Ugh, what a horribly written post. I hope this helps!
posted by saturnine at 11:17 PM on February 20, 2010

A bit late to the thread here, but a couple more things that I don't see mentioned:

- Smoking. I'm not sure how many people smoke in Buenos Aires, but there are many countries where smoking, and smoking in public, is more acceptable than in many parts of the US. In Portland and indeed most West Coast cities, smoking is very looked-down-upon and thought of as a nasty, disgusting, dirty habit. You can't smoke in almost all enclosed spaces, and most people won't let you smoke in their home.

- Vegetarianism and veganism - the "self-righteous vegan" is not as common as many assume, but your fiance comes from one of the beef capitals of the world, and in Portland, he may find himself going to a lot of "vegetarian potlucks" and so on. On the other hand, there's a lot of really delicious vegan food out there. The best thing is to take it in stride, "different strokes for different folks" and so on, and realize that there's a lot of people who just don't eat meat, or don't eat red meat, in Portland.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:45 AM on February 21, 2010

Thank you so much everyone!! There's a ton of great info here I never would have thought about or stumbled across on my own, and such thoughtful responses. Anyone, please feel free to MeMail me after/when/if this post closes, since this is the something I'll be interested in for years.
posted by blazingunicorn at 10:16 AM on February 22, 2010

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