East meets West, with an Argentine twist

More Argentines are embracing Chinese language and culture as trade ties increase.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Like many in Latin America's most Eurocentric country, 26-year-old Emanuela Gavazza has long fancied the West. Her grandparents hail from northern Italy, which she has visited almost yearly. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Ms. Gavazza's last name.]

During the '90s, when the economy here was booming with the Argentine peso pegged to the dollar, she started traveling to the United States. She even studied at the University of Richmond in Virginia for six months, perfecting her English.

This year though, Ms. Gavazza is looking East. She began studying Mandarin with a private tutor. She now relishes sopa de wan-ton in Buenos Aires's two-block long Barrio Chino.

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She is not alone. As China rapidly increases its economic presence in the region, more Argentines are seeing their country's relationship with China as important to their own future. The number of people studying Mandarin in Argentina this year has tripled since last year, according to the Chinese Embassy here. The number of Argentines traveling to China this year has more than doubled since 2003. In the capital these days, all things Chinese are "in" or re fashion as they say here. Women sport Mao collars. Books on Taoism are in demand.

This is a marked change for a country traditionally preoccupied with appearing Western. That interest in the East has reached a culture so profoundly Western in its outlook and tastes shows how attractive trade with China can be. But when Argentines and Chinese have to work or live together, cultural differences loom.

The Mandarin program at the University of Buenos Aires's Center of Languages (UBA), which just started its second year, expects to enroll 1,200 students, "an unprecedented growth rate," according to Gonzalo Villaruel, director of academic affairs. This would virtually tie it with Portuguese for the third most-taught language at the school. Portuguese is spoken by neighboring Brazil, Argentina's largest trading partner.

Student Maria Carolina Tena explains that, "Learning Mandarin will give me better work opportunities. In Argentina we are tired of depending on the United States." Unemployed for four years, after starting Mandarin she found a job with a firm that imports watches from China.

The 2001 financial collapse here humbled many. Most still blame the crisis on fiscal policies prescribed by the West. So looking to the East seems natural.

Yet, Ms. Tena's own class sometimes reveals a cultural divide between Argentines and Chinese. Recently, students were celebrating Argentina's national soccer team's shellacking of rival Brazil to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Tomas Lukin asked Professor Maria Chao, "Como se dice Argentina es mejor que Brasil? (How do you say Argentina is better than Brazil?)"

Ms. Chao indulged Lukin but also pointed out that Brazil had qualified for every World Cup dating back to 1930. Reaching it was a mere formality for the five-time world champions. Chao joked that, "Brazil played without effort, probably saving itself for the real World Cup." The students scowled in protest. Claudio Franco, unimpressed with Chao's deliberative thought process, complained, "But you are thinking like a Chinese person."

Argentine businesses are increasingly thinking about China. The export market here has boomed following the 2002 devaluation, and China has become Argentina's fourth-largest trading partner, up from 14th in 1990.

Soya was the country's top export in 2004. Argentina was the third leading provider of soy beans to China in 2004 and its top exporter of soy oil. China has even begun importing Argentina's yerba mate tea.

Yet, while Argentines have historically warmly welcomed European immigrants, most have had relatively little exposure to Asian cultures. UBA student Maria Laura Morales says that after having studied Mandarin for one year, "the only contact I have ever had with a Chinese person is with my professor."

Still, local newspapers routinely feature stories about the increasing number of Chinese-owned discount grocery stores, describing them as unsanitary and unwilling to hire Argentines. "The Chinese community here is closed. They have little confidence in us," laments Ms. Morales.

Chao, having lived in Argentina since she was five years old, is no stranger to such stereotypes. She says that, "Many Argentines think we all came here to open a supermarket. They often ask me if I own one."

Agustin Gonzalez Garrido has been living in Beijing the past year and a half. Returning to his native Buenos Aires last week, he told his family and friends that he has a Chinese girlfriend. "They could not understand," he says, why he would want to date someone who is not of European descent. "They think I am crazy." Argentine women, due to their European extraction, are often viewed here as being the most beautiful in Latin America.

Mr. Garrido says that some of the stereotypes he had were revised once he went to China. "Argentines will find a much more developed country than they expect," he said, "with many Mercedes Benz."

People like Garrido, though, may have a long way to go to transcend some of their compatriots' prejudices.

But Professor Chao is optimistic, saying that, "young Argentines are much more open-minded. Three of my Chinese friends have Argentine boyfriends."

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