November 12th, 2013

Breeching The Comfort Zone (And Thoughts On Working Abroad in Buenos Aires)

2 Comments

I’ve talked before about one of the reasons I love working with autism. Kids on the spectrum are constantly violating my assumptions and in order to be effective I have to continue re-evaluating my beliefs and discarding what doesn’t work.

This week I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina working with several families with special needs children. And I’m experiencing a whole new model for breaking down my assumptions. Growing up I was taught that it was useful to travel because it “expands horizons.” I never really questioned that that means. On this trip I’ve come to see why traveling can be extremely useful and how expanding horizons actually works. To make a long story short – it can be hard, but it is very worth doing.

Palermo in Buenos Aires (Photo: Xomiele)

Palermo en Buenos Aires (Photo: Xomiele)

First off, my work can be challenging. I am work with children who may bite or scream or both. (They are incredible, too.) But on this trip I’m also in a new city, speaking a non-native language, and practicing tango. The number of challenging factors has increased by several exponents! So let’s look at how exactly this is a good thing…

Where Do I Buy Groceries in Buenos Aires?!

I am rarely so aware of how many routines I have in my daily life in San Francisco as when I am another large city in a very different country. After several days in my apartment I still don’t know if the nearest grocery store is to the right or left outside my door! The number of decisions I have to make every day in Buenos Aires about seemingly trivial things is vastly more than I ever make in a day in San Francisco. Stepping out of my cozy routines requires that I attend even more to simple things in daily life.

Porteño Spanish

I spent several months studying in Costa Rica is high school and am therefore not unfamiliar with the Spanish language. While I’m not fluent in autistic-child-screaming-Spanish, I can hold down my end of a conversation on non-philosophical topics in the present tense. But Argentina has a totally new kind of Spanish called Porteño Spanish.

I was born on a street called Llano Road, where the “ll” pronounced like an English “y.” In Porteño Spanish that double L is pronounced “ja,” instead. Common words like the English
“I” which is spelled “yo” in Spanish – is pronounced “jo” instead of like in the English “yoyo.” Many of my fall-backs in Porteño Spanish are slightly different and required an additional step to translate.

Every single conversation I have – with clients, shop owners, taxi cab drivers, and my doorman, requires that I speak a new dialect of Spanish than I’m used to.

Argentine Tango

I learned to dance Blues by following men and women on the social dance floor. I prefer to follow first, to experience a dance, so that when I lead others I know how it feels. Argentine Tango, however, has a very, strong tradition – called the cabeceo – of men requesting dances of women non-verbally. So here again, I’m faced with several out-of-my-comfort-zone effects. First, I am leading every dance. Then, if I want to dance I have to ask for it. And finally, and most challengingly, I can’t even ask verbally without being ostracized. The cabeceo consists of meeting eyes with a potential partner from my assigned seat across the room. This feels exactly like staring intently at strangers – which is discouraged where I come from!

And Where This Leaves Us

Humans are habit forming creatures. This is good and useful because it allows us to automate the minutia and focus most of our energy on a few more specific things. Imagine if you were in charge of making your heart beat or had to consciously take every breathe. There’d be no room for anything else in your life. But I’ve found that stepping out of my daily patterns and putting myself in challenging situations has stretched me even further. Sure, I could be that gringo in Buenos Aires speaking only English and I certainly don’t have to practice tango while I’m here. But while my priority for this trip is the children that I am here to work with, expanding my capacity, challenging myself to make more decisions, hold down more responsibilities and reconsider some of my habits and assumptions stretches me and inevitably results in more fulfillment, creativity and usefulness in weeks and years to come.

So here’s a parting question: what’s something that would be outside of your comfort zone? What is one factor preventing you from trying that out?


2 thoughts on “Breeching The Comfort Zone (And Thoughts On Working Abroad in Buenos Aires)

  1. Bob Toleno says:

    I’ve come to believe that the *only* path to happiness is constant struggle. It almost doesn’t matter what you struggle for, just that your life is constant work to learn and evolve. To quote my favorite comedian, Tim Minchin: “Don’t seek happiness….We didn’t evolve to be constantly content. Contented homo erectus got eaten before passing on their genes.”

    Happiness can’t be sought as a goal. It is simply an emotion that arises as a byproduct of continuous effort with true risk of failure. Seek to do difficult things always, and to make others around you happy, and you will probably be happy as a consequence of that.

  2. Feel you on not wanting to enact patriarchal gender roles on the social dance floor. I find myself uncomfortable being an authority figure, I need to work on clearly establishing and maintaining rules.

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