Other Side of the Fence makes it to TEDxTalk


After first saying no because ‘what could I possibly talk about’; then after some cajoling by veteran presenters and gung-ho family members and deciding that perhaps I am just too chicken shit and should make it a personal goal; then after writing over 3000 words in Spanish, amounting to a rambling 26 minutes, which I then had to edit down to 1200 words; after wandering the streets of Buenos Aires listening to 6 different versions of my recorded self on my headphones, forcing friends and family to listen and give me feedback way too many times; after worrying that I would surely have an allergy attack on the day of the event, or trip or bungle the Spanish… I finally got on stage and did a TEDxTalk. Now it’s out there. With English subtitles.

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11 comments on “Other Side of the Fence makes it to TEDxTalk

  1. Angela Maeda says:

    You go, girl!!!!!!! That’s excellent!!

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  2. Pablito Clavo Un Clavito says:

    Hi, I’ve been enjoying reading your blogs about individualism versus group dynamics in Argentina, a topic that doesn’t seem to be addressed much at all on the web, or anywhere else for that matter! It’s always exasperated me that I seem to be the sole Argentine on this planet who finds the pack mentality of Argentine culture intolerable. Oh, the irony, a loner who wants someone to agree with him! Some will meet me half way, but you can only go so far before there’s a disconnect: the core fundamental aspects of the Argentine Way are ultimately untouchable. For a moment I thought you were going to take a more critical route in your talk — in an Argentine venue, no less! that would have been classic (if you survived) 🙂 — but then you put a positive spin on it, which is fair, since the Argentine Way has its upsides. I tend to forget about the upsides, because my view of it is so negative.

    Can I be your case study for fifteen minutes? I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I was born in Buenos Aires and spent the first part of my childhood there, until age eight, when due to my mother’s job I moved to Europe for four years. When I returned to Argentina at age twelve I experienced my first dose at the pack mentality you noticed. I had been the new kid at school several times already, but never quite like this. Kids scrutinized my clothing in ways I had never experienced — it was pathological. Anything I wore that was mildly out the ordinary (which was pretty much anything other than two variations of the uniform that was in fashion at the time) was mocked routinely. Kids made ample fun of the music I listened to for two years — until by coincidence it became fashionable in Argentina and overnight *all* kids (no exceptions!) were into it. I tried to adapt (and eventually did so, successfully) but I found it all quite terrifying. At an early age, kids had already learned well to conform to the mob and to subconsciouly punish anyone who didn’t. Kids do this to some extent everywhere, but not to this degree, not in allegedly cosmopolitan cities, and not with such a limited menu of options. But B.A. is a small-minded village in the guise of a metropolis. None of this changed much as I grew up; it was just slightly transformed: having the right brand of clothes continued to be of utmost importance, as did vacationing in the right spots, having the right tastes in music, and of course knowing the right people. Rebelling was cool so long as you rebelled in the same way everyone else did (it’s funny how when certain critical-thinking ideologies are accepted in Argentina, they appear to quickly be turned into dogma – the previously unthinkable becomes a football chant). There wasn’t much point in trying to study at school: you’d be subject to mockery (some of it coming from me), plus it was obvious that success in life was determined by who you know and who you could cheat. Everybody knew that. Plus most of the curriculum involved learning by rote (knowing a slew of simplified facts helps manufacture a sophisticated, well-spoken persona). Not taking school seriously suited my teenage mind just great. At secondary school (ILSE in the mid eighties, right as it was becoming mixed sex), I focused on sliding by without getting expelled, creating as much chaos as possible and getting lots of laughs from my schoolmates.

    Unexpectedly, at age fifteen (this was the late 80’s), I moved to the U.S.A. due to my mother’s work. I left B.A. in the middle of high school and did the second half in the U.S. The shock was huge. Your observations of the differences are spot-on. Teachers asked me my opinion about things! They referred to me by first name! My personal goals seemed to matter! Causing chaos seemed less fun because we weren’t a prison-like environment, plus you wouldn’t have any accomplices. But it all seemed terrible to me since I had just recently fully adapted to the B.A. way and now had to throw that away and start over. I hated it — meeting people was really hard, and instead of being mocked as the new kid, I was ignored outright. It was lonely. But as time went by I made friends I grew to like it … and I never returned. None of my friends are Argentinians; in fact, they are the number one group of people I avoid 🙂

    I’m convinced that behind a lot of the good-natured teasing and needling in B.A. culture there lurks a dark form of oppression and pressure to conform (which, coincidence! is how the whole country operates — want to get anywhere in society? who are you buddies with? we’ll move you to the front of the line). Behind every “no seas boludo”. Behind the “pechito frio” they yell at their most famous athlete (what, are you too good for us?). Oh, I know most of it is “all in good fun” — and thereby critiques should be dismissed instantly, boludo — but it’s there.

    You’d think from the way I talk that I was some sort of antisocial creature or perhaps irreparably unattractive (both sins in Argentina), but that wasn’t the case: I was one of the most popular boys at school and was (ahem) pretty good lookin’, leaning towards the pretty side, which they like around those parts. I was (am) also a funny guy, a valued trait back at home. I just could not *stand* playing by the rules of that society: the mandatory standardized charm expected of people, the codes of behavior required of both men and women, the disdain for anyone who takes anything seriously, the distrust of anyone who wants to rise above the group, the automatic, instinctive dismissal of anything outside the standard … I found it suffocating and still do whenever I visit. In retrospect, the skills I learned there (which, oversimplified, amount mostly to social skills) are quite useful here in the U.S. — but I’d rather exercise them here, where I’m allowed to be not-charming without the suggestion that I’m a weirdo (“raro”), where I’m allowed to express *all* manner of thoughts without being instantly dismissed as an idiot (“pelotudo”), and where those things are not only tolerated but often embraced.

    Anyway, I could go on forever about this — now I’m hijacking your blog! I was really happy to see someone else observing these things and writing about them. Thank you for your insights! I’ll be back and hope to read more from you.

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    • otherfence65 says:

      Wow, first of all, thanks for reading my blog and being inspired to write such a heartfelt response. My short answer is: I agree with you, but only from my limited view as an outsider, not having grown up here. I can only observe what I see in how my own kids have maneuvered the social waters here–they would be much better suited to respond to you and I will surely pass this on to them! Funny enough, they are both about to graduate from ILSE! Which has been a mixed bag, but all in all, has come out on the positive side. Like you, they have grown up between cultures, living first in the US, then 4 years in Spain, then here since they were 8 (they’re twins).
      As for being more critical in the TED talk, as you say, I could have gone that route, but to a 100% Argentine audience–it would have been a death wish! And frankly, I believe what I said, especially with regard with what has happened in US education in the past 20 years or so. I would not trade what they’ve gotten here for that kind of pressure and competitiveness. And they are hyper aware of the differences without being judgmental–something I myself struggle with constantly. That’s why I write about these things, because it helps me to find the flip-side and reflect on why I feel so annoyed sometimes, where that comes from. Like I said though, I would really like to know what they think about what you’ve said here, so I’ll encourage them to respond.
      Thanks again for your comments–
      Sarah

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      • Pablito Clavo Un Clavito says:

        Hello! It’s funny that your kids are in ILSE; I wonder how different it is. When I was there, it was changing from an all boys school to mixed — girls were being admitted beginning with the 1st year, which was a comical scene in many ways, mostly because the culture between the sexes was 1950’s-ish (though it was actually the 1980’s).

        There definitely are big positives to the high school experience in Argentina versus the U.S. Being a teenager in most of the U.S. sucks, especially before driving age, since most places require a car. There also aren’t venues for teenagers to have parties the way they do in B.A., so kids end up often getting wasted in parking lots. The U.S. is too segregated by age, whereas in Argentina there’s a much healthier overlap and kids aren’t treated like dangerous outcasts.

        I can’t help being judgemental about these things :), but I recognize the pros and cons on each side and have chosen this one. The pressure and competitiveness at school was extreme when I was a kid but I never really bought into it. In the end the answer’s always a middle ground, and it’s a (mixed?) blessing to have been able to experience both ends.

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  3. otherfence65 says:

    My understanding is that ILSE very different than it used to be. Many people don’t even consider it for their kids because it’s too academically demanding, too strict. My feeling going through primary school (which often felt like just years of kindergarten) was that there was a strong post-dictatorship backlash among parents, who just wanted their kids to be happy and not subject to any kind of authority. We got a lot of grief for choosing ILSE after that, as if it were some kind of military school. But it’s really only that way in trying to maintain a consistent focus on academics above all. My kids (and 60 others) chose to go a philosophy debate this past saturday instead of watching the Copa America final. That pretty much says it all 😉 And I now feel like they did get something positive out of all that “contención y convivencia” in primary school: they are much more democratic about everything when it comes to inclusiveness, decision-making, cooperating on class projects, etc.; and the lightweight approach in the early years has been offset by an over-all rigorous academic setting at ILSE. It is harrowing at the end of every year, though, not knowing if they’re going to make it to the next. And I have a terrible time trying to explain it all to my own family in the US. I will definitely be glad when it’s finally over!

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    • otherfence65 says:

      And one more thing: you are absolutely right about the middle ground. The world would be a much better place if everyone could see the extremes and aim for the middle.

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  4. Pablito Clavo Un Clavito says:

    Thanks for the dialogue! I do find the philosophy-debate-instead-of-copa-america shocking! Sounds like you have some enlightened kids 🙂 When I was in ILSE, the curriculum (if you were to actually really follow it properly, which no one did) was, how can I put it, completely insane. And the environment was somewhat like a dysfunctional prison-military camp. BTW you can’t imagine the joy that it was to make trouble in such a strict environment.

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  5. Pablito Clavo Un Clavito says:

    In their defense, I did learn a thing or two there, maybe by osmosis. In particular Latin was fascinating to me, and useful in a weird way. I also liked the way in Spanish class you had to dissect sentences in a pretty advanced way. Geography and History were abominations (pure rote memorization).

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  6. otherfence65 says:

    I think geography is often still that way, depending on the teacher. They often complain. But even so, right now they’re organizing a debate for geography class in which they have to represent (by lottery) big food (McDonalds’, KFC) and Ag (Monsanto, etc) against NGOs, ecologists, health authorities. They do it all themselves, with no teacher guidance, really. It is pretty fascinating and they love having to argue the side the don’t believe in: one got Monsanto, the other KFC. Last night my daughter read me statistics from the CDC, the FDA and then showed me horrible chicken farming videos. They hated Latin with a passion, but are big fans of history. I am still holding on to the hope that 4 years of Latin will, down the road, be useful in some weird way, as you said!

    Here’s my email: ssmith.bsas@gmail.com

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  7. Pablito Clavo Un Clavito says:

    What you describe sounds quite different from what I experienced – the fact that they’re organizing it themselves is impressive!

    By the way, this “essay” (really a quora answer, but reads like an academic paper) about Argentina (the answer by Nicolas Antunes) has a couple of very well phrased points: http://www.quora.com/Where-did-Argentina-go-wrong . I think you’d find it interesting, especially the part in the middle after “Explaining why we don’t like germans”. It also has some irritating bits (the gratuitous attack on women in one sentence is sad).

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  8. otherfence65 says:

    Thanks, I’ll save this for later today–looks interesting. I’ve enjoyed the dialog and happy to continue, but must get some work done now 😉 Would also be glad to meet you if you ever come to Bs.As. to visit–we can have an ILSE then-and-now discussion!

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