So I go to Diego’s, my local Chino as we refer to the Chinese run supermarkets of the barrio, which stay open late and serve the local community with necessities including beer and credit. Diego is a star. I’ve spent a couple of months in Beijing and there a happy Chinaman was a rarity. Diego (I have no idea what his real name is but a supermarket name is a bit like a porn name – if your’s is recognised you are already famous) is an integral part of the barrio. He knows all his customers by name. He greets everyone who comes in. He is unfailingly cheerful until he gets completely exhausted when he becomes mildly grumpy. He provides a bar for people that can’t afford bars!
In England, kids drinking outside a supermarket would set off alarm bells. You would expect aggression. You would cross the road at least and normally with good reason. Here it is different. If you don’t have much cash you go to the Chino with your mates after work, buy a litre bottle of beer, drag out a few crates and share your beverage sitting in the street. And you talk. The beer is just the lubricant of the social event, not the raison d’etre. Normally I know half the kids sitting outside Diego’s. Two of them are my favourite butchers, the chicken and pork guys. Then there’s the guy who sells newspapers and talks English with a posher voice than I can achieve, gracias presumably to the BBC World Service. Occasionally a Cartonero will join. These are the guys who go through the bins separating out anything that has recycling value. They drag massive carts behind them, manually. It’s harsh work, and I was shocked by how educated and eloquent the guy who joined us the other night was.
But the story is the “new chino ” (all Asians are lazily referred to as chinos here as well). A cousin of Diego’s has recently arrived. How I’m not sure, he looked pretty beat up when he got here, covered in bandages. However, like Diego, he has “Buena Onda.” Happy and smiley. Always says hello and goodbye. Can’t say anything else because that is the limit of his current language skills. Doesn’t qualify for a new name yet but is desperate to learn Spanish. Argentina is not a country where failing to integrate is rewarded and I suspect that Diego has pointed this out.
The problem is that his self-elected teacher comes from Paraguay. Their Spanish is more classical than our Castellano. And mixed with Guarani! El pobre Chino isn’t going to understand anything. So I made the mistake of sitting on a crate, taking a swig of the communal beer and explaining the technicalities of Argentine pronunciation. From the point of view of an Englishman? Hell, at least I can do the RRRRs better than his LLLLs. And I think I have been elected the official “professor”. I went through 20 phrases with him. I’m now possibly an expert in supermarket speak.
But let’s face it, how difficult is this teaching gig? Why wouldn’t I want to try to teach a cheerful Chinaman a few basics while sitting on a box outside his family’s supermarket? I live in Argentina, the epitome of economic insecurity. In 5 years I may need a friend who owns a supermarket. And although I can’t understand anything he says, I can tell he’s a charming guy.
And, the Paraguayan butchers are good guys too. They are teaching me phrases to shock the sh*t out of my builders, in Guarani. And the cartonero guarantees to set up a “piquette”, outside any business that rips me off. I’m sitting on a box outside a supermarket, something I would never have considered doing in Fulham, discussing the veracity of the Foreign Office’s recent warning that anti-British sentiment is rising in Buenos Aires. But I’m not worried. The butchers assure me they have big knives.
So what is the point of this story? For me it’s about integration and liberation. It’s also about shared values that can be recognised across the classes. Yes, in my youth I occasionally sat debating with the odd Tuareg, or El Hadj, or some Niger army officer with no shoes but a big, shiny gun, in the middle of the Sahara but I never once assumed I had anything in common with them. Here I’m an immigrant too. I have aspirations. And quite frankly it is more important to “network” with my butcher than my banker, as it will have more impact on my quality of life. My girlfriend thinks it strange that I walk down the street, shouting my helloes to everyone, but she is from here. I would find it strange if she did the same thing in Fulham. So however, would the other people in Fulham!
Maybe it’s the difference between thinking of yourself as an immigrant rather than an expat. It creates an affinity more rapidly. Ideas of class, money or smartness drop away. You create a new network, some deep friendships but as importantly, lots of casual acquaintances. People who will do you favours, give you guidance, or share your insecurities. I’m not saying I have turned into a non-judgemental person who welcomes all new relationships with open arms. That’s never been my style (though I suspect I’m rather more forgiving than I used to be). But yes, I value the Uruguayan gipsies who will bid for me at antiques auctions, or my hairdresser that will record blues with me, and of course all my butchers and basically anyone whose overriding desire is to have a decent conversation and point the new boy in the right direction.
Argentina is a country of recent immigrants. Most weren’t “A-listers” when they arrived. They had no support network to fall back on other than the one the created.
I think that’s why I fit in? And given the company it’s not half bad!