The way foreign relationships often work makes me a little uncomfortable. When I was younger, around 14 or 15, I participated in a school-sponsored trip to Mexico, where I stayed with a host mother and four other girlfriends. I barely knew how to put on makeup, but we would get dressed up and “go out” in a way we never had at home. As we awkwardly put our salsa lessons to use, men would come up and engage us in conversation or invite us to dance. It was completely terrifying, but oh so exciting. I felt that I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, say no. Now that I look back on it I realize just how innocent we were, how we played with fire and can thank our lucky stars that we didn’t get burned. Once in Acapulco we met a group of guys on the street who started chatting with us. We all spoke Spanish well, the language wasn’t a problem, but we had no idea how to behave, so we were perhaps over-friendly. They paid for us to get into a club, where we astutely watched one another’s drinks, but when they tried to take us to a private VIP room we hesitated and decided to leave. We had trouble finding the exit, though, and ended up alone with some men in a dark alley behind a locked gate, outside the club and far from the street. It turned out ok – they were just showing us out – but the incident sobered us.
The story normally goes like this. Young white girls seeking adventure, passion, and a certain type of “education” travel to Latin America. They are surprised by the forwardness of the men they meet, flattered by their willingness to tell them how beautiful they are, and seduced by their dark good looks and sultry dance moves. Latin men, on the other hand, find that their pickup lines are incredibly effective on foreign girls, who often embody something related to the Hollywood ideal of beauty exported en masse for about a century now. Maybe they think they’re wealthy, or a status symbol. Both parties seem to mix desire for the exotic with other, deeper psychological desires. In a way, they’re both using each other, both benefiting in different ways. I talk about Latin men and American/European women here, although obviously it could go the other way around, because I actually think this happens more often, and with a totally different dynamic than the other (it’s something I want to discuss later). Anyway, these brief relationships, whether they happen during a tourist visit, a month of volunteer work, or a study-abroad sojourn, rarely amount to a serious and lasting relationship. And when they do go in that direction, they often end in broken hearts. My mama warned me about this, and in some ways she was right. But in others, she was terribly wrong.
When it comes to Argentine men in particular, everybody has a horror story. An American friend of mine hooked up one night with a guy she met in BA, who later called and texted her incessantly about how much he cared for her and wanted them to be together. He continued doing so even after she found out that he didn’t even live in Buenos Aires and had a girlfriend living in L.A., seemingly unfazed. An acquaintance had gotten very serious with her Argentine boyfriend after a couple of years together, and they began discussing marriage. She had been wanting to move back to the U.S. for a while, and they planned for him to join her there, but after she left he pulled out and virtually disappeared. Another friend took a trip to the countryside with a guy she’d been dating and some other friends. One night she got sick and stayed home while the others went out; her man came back with another girl and proceeded to hook up with her in the adjacent room. I could go on, but you get the gist of it. Two points I want to make: first, this is not a morality tale. I don’t claim that the women here were any less to blame than the men for what happened. One of the friends later had sex with a guy she knew to be the boyfriend of another American chick; in my view, they both messed up. But aside from human error, I really think that often it’s the misreading of signals, markers, and cultural norms that leads to these sticky situations. Not always, but sometimes.
My second point is that for every horror story, there’s a successful one. Maybe we just hear less about them because happy people aren’t as vocal. I know of several Argentine-American couples that are happily married with children. Every relationship has its specificities – it would be silly to claim that cultural and national origin matter more than individual personality or upbringing, which are infinitely diverse. But they do matter. To what extent, and how those issues are negotiated, is different for everyone. I have been with my Argentine boyfriend for over a year now, and we are very much in love. But the trust, respect, and openness we have built between us is the result of each of our particularities as people. Does that mean I don’t sometimes worry, in the back of my mind, that our fate will go sour like so many others? Of course I do. But as he often reminds me, I “have a good man by my side”. Relationships are hard, and even more so across cultures. But I’m young and in love, and I accept the challenge with relish.