Today was sort of a busy day, rushing around and getting as much work done as possible before taking off for the weekend tomorrow afternoon. I had a meeting set up at a new hotel that is touted as being one of the best new boutique hotels in Buenos Aires, Algodon Mansion, at 11 am. However, when I woke up it was pouring and all I could think about was picking the right clothes for the weather, and I settled on a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. As soon as I was out in the rain I passed by a store and thought, “Hey, that’s right around the corner from Algodon Mansion…oh crap.”
The decision was made to rush home before the meeting and change into formal clothes, but luckily it wouldn’t be too difficult because the hotel is just a few blocks away from my apartment. The sun had also come out by the time I left the office, and I arrived just on time for the meeting. Once my site inspection was over I hailed a cab and went back to the office.
Immediately the taxi driver asked me if I was Russian, and when I said no he explained that we were right near the Russian Embassy, and I clearly wasn’t from here. We got to talking and I told the usual spiel, that I’m from the United States but my mom was born here, so I got citizenship and came here to live and work for a couple of years. His response was standard, “That’s nice, but you’re crazy.” We had a nice conversation but he basically outlined why I should be in the U.S. rather than Argentina. I’ve heard the story before but I have my reasons for being here, so I don’t usually think about it too much.
But later in the afternoon I went out on lunch with my friends Vero and Leo to buy a shirt and walk around a bit. After Leo was looking for some running shoes I pointed out that I used to work at the Reebok factory for the summer between graduating college and moving to Ecuador. I explained how mundane the job was, how I would look for the pairs of shoes on a rack, put them in a box and stamp a label on them, over and over for 8 hours a day. I actually started to develop repetitive stress in my wrist from the weight of the boxes. Thankfully I only worked there three months.
The guys got a kick out of hearing that I used to work in a factory, and then as a passing thought I said that I made more working in a factory than I do now, leading to a string of other thoughts. I had a job where you didn’t even need a high school degree or any particular brain power, which not only came with discounts on Reebok apparel but options for health care and benefits, even as a temporary employee. I had just graduated college with a degree in two fields and went straight to working in a factory, and just a few months later I was a professor at an esteemed university in South America. It was kind of an odd transition period. In Buenos Aires, I have an office job which requires a great deal of education, dedication and professionalism, yet I and the majority of Argentinians make less than those working a minimum wage job in the U.S.
And this made me think of how much sense it must make to immigrants who come to the United States looking for more opportunities. You could work hard and study at a university for years, finish your thesis and look for a job, but in a bad economy or system with corrupt officials, you might never advance very far or struggle your whole life. By taking the chance and moving to the U.S., even a lousy, low-paying job could get you more than it would back home. It will also get you enough to send money back home to family members.
I think we’ve all heard the cliche about someone who was a doctor back in the old country but came to the States and is now a janitor, or something along those lines. Whether or not these cases are sad examples of how qualifications don’t translate internationally or not, it shows that maybe someone is willing to work below their level of ability simply to make more money. I think it can also go both ways. There are plenty of people, myself included, who choose to work a job not simply because of the money but because of the value behind what they do. It doesn’t help my desire to stay in Buenos Aires when I think of what else I could do and how much else I could in other parts of the world, but I feel that there’s value behind what I’m doing. To each his own.