Every month, Fulbridge interviews an ETA from around the world to get a glimpse of life in different placements. This month, Fulbridge editor, Samantha Steiner, and Morgan Harden, a 2018 ETA in Argentina, talked with Charelle Brown, a 2017 ETA in Argentina.
- Why Argentina?
First off, when choosing where to apply, I knew I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country. Secondly, considering that this experience was my first time traveling outside of the United States and being away from my family for a long time, I looked at the grant periods for different countries and found that Argentina was one of only a few that had school years running from March to November, which would allow me to be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Also, I’d learned about Argentina and some of its culture in a high school Spanish Civilization and Culture class. During that unit, my teacher brought in mate and taught about the Argentine Dirty War, providing me with information that proved useful during my stay in the country.
- How is Formosa different from the U.S.?
Formosa is extremely different from the United States! Although the capital city covers an expansive amount of land and has a population comparable to a small US city, I think a distinguishing factor is Formosa’s level of “modernization.” For example, I didn’t have many conveniences, such as strong Wi-Fi signal inside my place(s) of residence, large-chain fast food restaurants for a quick bite or microwaves, all of which I took for granted at home. More general differences included dogs freely roaming the streets, almost none of the schools providing Wi-Fi, roads away from the downtown area being unpaved, many traffic intersections being controlled by nothing more than large speed bumps, and a difference in emphasis on certain rules, meaning some rules that would be strongly enforced in an American city went relatively unmonitored in Formosa, and vice versa.
On a social level, however, I was grateful to be in a smaller city where the level of openness, friendliness, and generosity exceeded anything I would’ve expected to find in an American city. Seeing the closeness of certain friend-groups and how they openly interacted with each other really influenced me. In the US, I believe we tend to be more closed and guarded, so, although I missed some amenities from home, I definitely admired, took comfort in, and learned from the people that surrounded me.
- Could you describe your experience navigating issues of race, gender, or sexuality in Formosa?
As an African-American female, I had anticipated navigating the issue of race would be a part of my experience. However, I hadn’t realized that in many cases what would be considered racially insensitive comments are usually made due to a lack of experience or exposure. Apart from seasonal players in Formosa’s basketball league recruited from the US and street vendors who may have, according to what I’ve heard, come from Haiti, native Formoseños probably haven’t had the opportunity to interact with many black people, especially from the U.S.A. Consequently, an older woman randomly asking me if I sold jewelry or a man innocently making a wiping gesture on his arm and saying “authentic” when recounting his experience with African-Americans during a trip to Minnesota, may simply come with the territory, without roots in ill-will or malice.
I also found that I had days when my unshared characteristics made me feel isolated and targeted, whereas at other times my singularity made me feel unique and empowered. People would be enamored with my curly hair and twists. It felt good to be able to showcase the beauty of natural hair, which in my own country has historically been publicized as “nappy” and unkempt-looking. I made me feel good to be able to tell one curly-haired and slightly darker-skinned Argentine teenager, who I imagine may sometimes feel “different,” that her hair was suited for some of the hairstyles I wore. It was nice to be able to put my hair texture on a pedestal in Formosa, something that seems to be taking place only recently in the US.
- What does a typical weekday look like for you?
A typical weekday for me included going to bed late and sleeping late as well, eating lunch at home, going to Café Martinez to use the Wi-Fi and order a really expensive chocolate cappuccino (mostly to use the Wi-Fi though); and then heading to the English Teaching Institute around 6pm to provide support in English language subjects and to hold study groups for students. I usually stayed at the Institute until around 9:30pm or so, and then rode with my assigned mentor back home to eat dinner, call my family, and use the Wi-Fi to download Netflix and podcasts to enjoy later in my room.
- How do you connect with your community outside of your formal responsibilities?
Outside of my formal responsibilities I volunteered in the community, offering free, basic English classes to children participating in what would be comparable to an American afterschool program. When that program was dismantled, I began volunteering in a friend’s English academy, working with students of varying ages. In addition to volunteering, I got connected with a local church congregation, attending their Sunday worship services and youth group events. Finally, I experienced another part of the culture by taking tango lessons at a dance studio in Formosa.
- What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as an ETA?
As is to be expected of any great opportunity, being an ETA in Formosa was not without some difficulties. One challenge I had to face was being in an area where Wi-Fi, while quite widespread now, was still not guaranteed in every part of the city. For example, in the apartment I rented for a little over the first half of my stay, the Wi-Fi was sometimes too weak to use consistently. In the family house I stayed in for the last few months of my grant, there was no Wi-Fi at all inside the house. Instead, I had to go outside in the patio or in front of the house to catch a signal. Now, I do realize not having a solid internet connection sounds like a “first-world” problem, but when I was away from home, what was once merely a convenience turned into one of the only ways I could keep in contact with my family. Hunting good Wi-Fi signals became like a sport to me while in the city.
Another difficulty I encountered was rooted in the fact that the Fulbright ETA program is relatively new in the area. I was only the second assistant to be placed in Formosa, resulting in unique hurdles. For one, although I asked lots of questions and do feel I was relatively prepared, perusing housing options was not feasible before I got there because most of the more economical options did not have online listings. Additionally, I think some of the teachers were still learning what to do with a language assistant. Without having a previously established balance, I sometimes felt I was not helping as much as I had the potential to help.
Finally, other challenges included adjusting to the cultural norms, traveling to and from a smaller city and simply learning how to navigate all these new experiences on my own. While the difficulties I faced were frustrating at the time, my experience would not have been what it was without them. Additionally, seeing how grateful the Formosan teachers of English were made me so glad the Ministry of Education partnered with Fulbright in the province, and I hope the program continues to grow stronger. Building something new can be a process, but no sturdy structure is built without breaking new ground, learning and moving forward.
- What are some of the highlights?
Some of the biggest highlights of this experience came from the culture and people in Formosa. So many people received me with open arms, welcomed me into their homes; shared their families, food, and customs with me; and really helped shape my time in the province. I found myself with genuine friends willing to do what they could to help me, without receiving any tangible form of recompense. Moreover, despite me having to ask them to constantly repeat themselves or me being lost in conversations, those that surrounded me were patient and allowed me to practice and to grow. I was sent to Formosa as an English Teaching Assistant, but I also got to be a student, learning and sharing in experiences with the people there. I am grateful for the connections I had the opportunity to make.
In addition to the citizens of Formosa, another highlight for me involved getting to interact with other language assistants in Argentina. I shared the first six months of my grant period with another assistant sent to the province by the British Council. Being in similar situations and facing some of the same challenges really bonded us and gave us the opportunity to explore each other’s cultures. For instance, before this experience, I had no idea how different British and American English were. The British Council member and I often compared and contrasted our countries and norms. Although our commonalities allowed us to easily communicate, we also explored how different our lives were. I was grateful for the chance to learn. It was almost like getting two new cultures for the “price” of one. Additionally, I thoroughly enjoyed traveling with and meeting the other Fulbright assistants in Argentina. We could understand each other and experiences in a way that even our closest family members could not. It was an honor to be a part of such a bright and supportive team that helped make this assistantship easier and more special.
- Why should prospective grantees apply to work in Formosa?
Prospective grantees should apply to work in Formosa because the province provides another aspect of what it means to be Argentine, apart from the commercialization of the country. Most of what is well known about Argentina comes from Buenos Aires or other big cities and doesn’t necessarily represent the reality of the millions of others living in the country’s interior. Going to a smaller province allows one to experience the more popularized parts, but also uncover more of the culture’s nuances. I learned there is so much variety in terms of landscape, common words used, accents, and so much more. Living in a smaller city and visiting the more known ones can provide a more well-rounded experience.
Secondly, on a more practical level, Formosa is a nice option, since it doesn’t possess many security risks. I could walk down most streets, still being cautious in certain neighborhoods or at certain times, without clutching my bag or worrying too much. In bigger cities, this is not always the case.
Next, because the northern province sits right along the Argentine-Paraguayan border, the two countries’ cultures mix in Formosa, and one can experience a piece of Paraguay, while still being in Argentina. For example, I met people who were fully fluent in Guaraní, although it didn’t take me long to realize the language was too complicated for me to grasp.
Finally, prospective assistants should consider Formosa because therein live many kind and loving people, who are excited to learn about our culture and to share theirs with us. While one may feel swallowed up in large cities, in smaller ones it can be easier to make friends and feel included. I left in November feeling Formoseña and hope to carry the city with me, even though I am no longer there.
- How have your experiences in Formosa changed you?
I absolutely believe my experience in Formosa has changed me. Before pursuing the Fulbright, I had never left the United States. Furthermore, it was the first time I had to plan major trips by myself, without much help from my parents or family. As one could imagine, I had a lot to learn. However, being thrust into independence allowed me to discover new things about myself and to grow in new ways. I come from a very close-knit family and didn’t know if I could survive without having them close to me. These eight months taught me I could be more independent and more on my own, while having their love and support from a distance.
Next, living in Formosa has made me more open. I consider myself more reserved, but Argentine culture calls for barriers to be broken down from the first moment one meets another person. After all, greeting others with a kiss or two on the cheek, as is the custom in Formosa, immediately breaks down walls. I found this refreshing. I actually came back more critical of my own culture and how distanced I feel we are from each other. It seems to me that Americans sometimes put up so many guards that we delay getting to know one another. I also wanted to take away the kindness I experienced in my province. When I would share dinner with certain people, they would constantly ask if they could get me anything or if I wanted more. They were willing to give “just because.” It taught me about having a servant’s heart and, as a Christian, such lessons are ones I need to learn.
Finally, my experience as a Fulbright ETA gave me a glimpse into what I imagine it must be like to learn English as a second language and also to be an immigrant. I got to see how difficult learning my native language can be and gained a new respect for those who have done it. Moreover, migrating to a new place and having to adapt to the culture and language can be a daunting task, especially in a country where citizenship is a costly, lengthy, and difficult process. Having a taste of such challenges during my comparably short time in Argentina gave me more empathy for an experience that I had previously been unfamiliar with.
I may not be able to pinpoint a list of ways I have changed, but I hope I remember the lessons I’ve learned and that I continue to allow them to help make me a better person. Even if I haven’t changed completely, I think I have been introduced to more of the world outside of my immediate surroundings and have become more open to new and different experiences. Almost everything about my Fulbright opportunity was new to me, and I’ve learned I can put my foot in the door, so maybe I can step through even more in the future. I hope so.
10. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I can add just how grateful I am to have gone to Argentina and lived in Formosa. Being a Fulbright ETA is unique in both its difficulty and its great rewards. I think such a program is quite essential in this moment for our country. In Formosa, many of the citizens had never met anyone from the United States, apart from previous Fulbrighters, and may have formed opinions of the US based on what they had seen on Facebook or certain media outlets. Having a U.S. citizen explain certain phenomena, sift through facts or simply give another point of view is useful. It was an honor to be able to represent my country, my family, my faith, and my culture in such a unique and important way. I hope others continue to have the same opportunity, along with the chance to grow with and in it.