Set in Buenos Aires, from Son’s perspective
I am sitting outside of the school director’s office, one of these uncomfortable plastic chairs the students probably are used to. This British language institute isn’t one of the more famous ones. I found out about it from some ads I saw online, sent an email, and am now hopefully going to get my next job.
It is just my third day in Buenos Aires. A few days in Santiago and I thought, This city is too all over the place for me. I have to get out. A few days in the Southern Cone and I thought, This part of the world is just too cold for me. I flew all the way to the other side of Latin America because I wanted something different, but not in terms of temperature. A few days in Buenos Aires, and I’ve thought, Beautiful buildings everywhere, something that finally reminds me of what I bet the architecture of Spain or Italy would be like. The weather’s a little chilly, but not too bad, typical autumn fare. The wind picks up because there are tall and elegant buildings directing it to its lanes.
As for the people, they’re not always the nicest behaving. Most Argentinians are very white. I have the feeling that they see a person of colour and wonder if I’m out to steal something. Or maybe they are too busy to act nice. Buenos Aires seems like one of those cities in which life takes on the appearance of quickness. I say “the appearance” because even though everyone is running about, I also get the sense that they really don’t have that much going on at all. It’s like their empanadas—the steam runs out quick, but the flavour inside remains soggy for hours.
It’s been about fifteen minutes, past nine, the hour of our appointment. When is the director going to call me in for the interview?
Just as I’m thinking it, the rusty door creaks open and an olive-coloured face with glasses is waving me to come inside. I get off my chair and try to give the woman a handshake, but she avoids my hands even as her face gets closer. I think her lips are puckered, and I am confused.
Her lips go onto one cheek, and I remember that people greet this way in certain parts of the world. I lean in to kiss, but it’s too late. The woman hacks out a chortle.
‘You’re clearly not used to the way we do things,’ she says, in a somewhat forced but accomplished British style of an accent. It’s a little too perfected, if anything, and it makes her put-down that much more grating. I try to put on a smile. Obviously I don’t understand how to do these things. She’s the first local I’ve had to greet like this. In the backpacker hostels, everyone is from another country, and the youngsters who run it are so busy smoking up their cannabis that if they touch someone, it has a very different meaning.
Anyways, I’m thinking about what to say as I follow her into the room.
The woman takes her seat on the other side of her desk and slaps a file down, as if to signal that I should be sitting down on the other side of it. I take my seat and glance about. The room looks like it’s from the era of Eva Perón. There is a purple rug on the floor and posters of famous Argentinian intellectuals whom I can’t quite recognise. One is Borges, one looks like an actor, and some have the stare of politicians. There is a dusty smell to the room. I am glad I am wearing my mask, or I might be sneezing. Cabinets are open, files are laid out all over, and a half-drunk 1ate container is by her computer. She is even lighting a cigarette for herself as she opens up the file.
She is so different from the last boss I had in Mexico City.
I sit there awkwardly, not saying anything. She looks back alertly at me, as if she has remembered she was the one who called me in. She clears her throat and keeps the file in front of her eyes.
‘So, you are looking to teach English in Buenos Aires?’
She gives me a little snubbing look through her glasses.
‘You can speak to me in English.’
And I thought my Spanish pronunciation was improving. ‘Yes, yes,’ and I add in Spanish for good measure, ‘Claro que sí.’
She opens one of the files and looks at something. She goes on, ‘So, you haven’t done an official course.’
‘A CELTA or TEFL? No.’
‘And you don’t have much work experience?’
‘I’ve taught a bit in Mexico, but otherwise, no.’
The director swats a bit of the air with her cigarette.
‘Then, why do you think we should hire you?’
I swallow the air, because I’m feeling a very annoyed swirl of emotion in my chest. It would be very easy for me to say exactly what I’m thinking.
Well, why not hire me? I’m a native speaker. Isn’t that enough? I didn’t hear a single native speaker when I was coming up to your office. I bet I could teach these students a more natural English register than your put-on British affect.
But I don’t say that, because I know being a teacher has little to do with pronunciation. The truth is, I might not know grammar better than any of these Argentinians, who probably have decades of experience.
I tell her instead what I’m feeling.
‘Look, señora, I just got into Buenos Aires, and I’m loving it here. Really, your country is amazing. And after spending so many months in Mexico and hating every second of it, I’d really love to be in a place where I’m happy, you know what I mean?’
The director smiles politely, strangely, and then types at her computer.
‘There are a lot of schools here who would hear your perfect English and hire you. We’re not one of them.’
She puts the papers she was looking at back into the file, and I’m able to get a quick glance at them. Huh. It wasn’t actually my résumé she was looking at, just some internal tax returns that she was reviewing while talking to me.
So, I have my answer. I know how seriously she takes me. I stand up and thank her for her time. But in a bid to be just a little snarky, I also say, ‘I know there are many more schools willing to consider me. I’d be more than happy to be considered by them.’
The director smiles. I’m thinking she’s a little charmed by my temerity, but then she says, ‘I wouldn’t recommend you interview with them, either.’
I push the chair closer to her desk. A lot of emotion is coming out, and I don’t know why.
‘Because you think I’m not good enough for it?’
The director has finished her cigarette. She’s only been smoking it for a few minutes. I’m sure it has plenty more tobacco, and yet she’s snuffing it in her ashtray. And yet she’s looking at me, with the smoke fuming between us. I might have shown a bit too much of my insecurities.
But she’s looking like she’s feeling really sorry for me.
‘No, mi amor. Look at the state of this country you claim to have fallen in love with. We’re having some of the worst inflation in the world. Most of our population is going homeless. Even the teachers we already have, we are considering firing. There’s no space for anyone to come into this country and teach. That’s not just at this school, but any school.’
No, that can’t be true, is my first gut reaction. I’ve hopped all around Central America. I’ve spent hundreds of US dollars to get here all the way from Mexico. I’ve wasted money going up and down this country and Chile and god knows where else it’ll have to be if I don’t get a job here.
There’s no reason to say any of this to her face. She clearly has a busy day ahead of her. I tell her goodbye and take my leave. She doesn’t kiss me again on the cheeks, just shows me to the door, a fresh cigarette in her wrinkled fingers. I take the stairs three storeys down and out of the building.
This director was nice enough, but also not really, and it’d be a little bit of a cliché if I ended up working for some British school all the way in Argentina. I’m better than that.
I’m better than this, is all.
I get out of the school and am immediately greeted by the August chill. It’s a cold breeze that puts me back into the moment. People all around me are wearing sweaters or jackets. I’m probably the only one not well covered up. My hostel is just on the other side of some of these buildings, in a small lane next to a huge avenue, on the other side of one of the city’s major theatres. I’m not in the mood to head there yet. There’s a side of the city that’s on the port. I feel like going in that direction.
The director is right. There are a lot of homeless people about. The person cleaning the rooms at the hostel explained it away to me a few days ago, that all of it is recent, from the inflation and COVID. I was glad to hear it, but I knew she was telling it to me to make me less concerned about how poor Argentina looks. And that worked for a while. I stopped thinking about how discomforting or not it was to see so many people on the streets.
I never put that into the context of what it would mean if I were to try to work here, and in terms of the future of this city and country as a whole. It doesn’t matter how much the colours on these buildings gleam if the people under them are starving.
And that contrast is getting worse. The closer one gets to the port, the taller and more ostentatious the buildings get. It feels like you’re in the thick of New York or Chicago, with skyscrapers all around you. Not that I’ve been to either, but again, that’s just the foreigner’s feeling I am getting. But then at each side end of the boulevard is a person coming up to me and asking for pesos. I say no once, I say no twice, and by the third time I’m aggravated.
Why do I want to take work opportunities from people here, when all I have to do to have a good standard of living is go back home?
It’s been fifteen minutes of walking. I want to go to the port, but I’m also getting tired. I think I’ll have breakfast—some empanadas will be good. I find a place that has a clear queue of hungry people and decide to stand in it. This must mean the place is good.
I get to where I can order and see the sweat on the cashier’s face, and I think, Is it crowded because everyone likes the empanadas, or is it the only thing people nowadays can afford?
I try to order in my bad Spanish. The cashier gets impatient and says something firm with me. I don’t understand because I don’t know Spanish, and she makes a very angered face, passionately swatting the air with her hands and shouting on in her language. A person pulls me aside. I think they’re going to help, but they push me away. Others in the line move forward. One by one they get their empanadas and leave. I’m thinking someone, just anyone, who speaks English will soon come up and help me order, but no one does.
I feel so angry and humiliated that I force myself to go.
This is nothing like Mexico. There, at least, they would have made an effort to help. The people I met liked getting to know foreigners. And if someone didn’t understand me, they might not have liked it, but they were at least polite.
Maybe I shouldn’t have left. It was getting boring, but every place gets boring. I made a huge gamble in coming here, and I just have to accept that it’s most likely not going to pay off. I can hop to Brazil, I can go up north towards Bolivia, but that doesn’t mean that any of it is going to work out.
A calmer voice in my head is trying to tell myself, If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. Let it go.
In reality, there’s nothing but tension running up and down my throat.
“Fuck Buenos Aires,” I shout.
I didn’t want to say that out loud, and now people are staring.
“Fuck Buenos Aires,” I say again.
This time some young guys are looking at me with a smile, nodding to themselves.
“Fuck Buenos Aires,” I say, this time laughing at myself.
I like this city. I really do. People are a little too blunt, people show frustration more than what I’m used to, but I’m still at peace at the end of the day, standing here, with the flow of traffic all about me, with the cedars and the buildings. If I’m not able to find teaching work once classes start, and prices are indeed going up, well, that’s no good news at all. But if I like it here, then I like it here. That is it. I have to give it a shot. There’s nothing wrong with trying a few other interviews here or there. I have the rest of the day—no, I have the rest of the month. I can try to scrounge something up.
I have to have faith in the possibility of being successful in what I want. We need that faith to go anywhere, literally anywhere in life. Otherwise there’s not a chance at all that I will pull through. I’ll go give myself that faith, even if no one else has it in me.
The only one who can give myself space to be in this world is myself.
We are all in our own ways trying to survive—and that includes me.
(KIRAN BHATi is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. I think since I was a teenager I was interested in global themes. Around seventeen, I re-member wanting to tell people I wanted to write a collection of stories for each country in the world, telling a myriad of tales of things happening there. For more details about his journey to over 100 countries in the world, please visit: Kiran Bhat – A a playspace for one person who pretends to be seven billion people at once. (kiranbhatweldgeist.com)