How does one truly describe what culture is? You can go across the sea, visit museums, drink different wines and eat different foods, all in an attempt to get some culture. Listen to classical music, watch a foreign film, or see a play. Whatever it is that makes you think differently, well, that might just be on the right path. In my time overseas I’ve often had to explain that the United States doesn’t really have a culture of its own, partly because it’s such a young country and because it has borrowed from others because of the immigrants who settled there. Many Americans feel the same way. We are a “melting pot”, so they say. I haven’t really believed in the whole “melting pot” idea since high school, but I at least thought that we had an eclectic gathering. However, as of last night, my thoughts on this have changed.
I was fortunate enough to get free tickets to dinner and a tango show at El Viejo Almacén, the oldest tango club in the city, founded in 1969. It’s also considered one of the best tango clubs around. I’ve been sort of a naysayer about tango since I got here, seeing only the street performers, and viewing it as a show put on only for the tourists. Not many Argentinians actually dance it, taking away from the authenticity of it in my eyes. But on Sunday at the San Telmo fair I heard a street band perform, and I could actually hear the pain in the songs. I was intrigued. Then I saw the show last night.
I’ve converted now. I wouldn’t say I love tango, but I appreciate it as an art, and just watching the dancers spinning and flying through the air proves that it takes work and dedication. I still think it’s for the tourists, especially after the show when a singer said good night in 15 languages, but there’s a clear difference between street performers and club performers. They deserve the high prices that are charged on the tickets.
Anyway, there are three main things that come to my mind when I think of Argentinian culture: steak, wine, and tango. You can also throw in soccer, hand gestures, etc, but before coming down here while planning a trip with my friend Kristine, we agreed on those three things over and over. Tango is a big part of Argentinian culture, so last night during the show I started thinking. Why does Argentina have such a rich and obvious culture, while the United States doesn’t? Both countries were built up by immigrants, and Argentina is younger than the U.S. The U.S. doesn’t have “typical” food, perhaps, but Argentina has just as many pizza shops, Chinese restaurants, and other international food options as well.
I can no longer say that the U.S. has no definable culture because I think the truth is that we have one that is clear cut, but we simply do not like it and thus close our eyes to it. Some cultures involve late night dinners and all night dancing, others include famous dances or folk songs. Ours is a more plastic culture. We have fast food, malls, long work schedules, and reality TV. Our culture is one that creates contempt in people around the globe because it lacks any significant contribution to the world, and when we can’t understand why they don’t like our culture, we assume it must be that they are jealous of our successes.
We don’t limit ourselves to borrowing from other cultures, but we impose ours on others. On Avenida 9 de Julio in downtown Buenos Aires, right by Avenida Corrientes, there is a giant McDonald’s. Just down the street there is a big Burger King. And just a few doors down from that Burger King, is another McDonald’s. My only guess could be that the 2nd McDonald’s is a back up in case too many fat people try to leave the first at the same time and get lodged in the door frame. This is what foreigners see as our culture. Some like it, others don’t.
But if we are to expect that other cultures are founded on dances, songs, and lifestyles, then we must accept that ours is defined by the same characteristics. It might not be glamorous, but ours is a castle built on greasy food, hard work, and cheap television programming. And how long will those pillars hold?
Above: El Viejo Almacén