In recent years, I’ve found myself in a position that sometimes seems to transcend class and yet is so much an explicit embodiment of it.
In Jordan, I had the experience of being assumed to be rich. This makes sense, because how would you get to Jordan (and how would you choose to come) if you didn’t have the money to spend on the plane ticket at least? Also, I worked at a boarding school that enrolled royal princes from both Jordan and elsewhere. What was interesting to me was that the normal signifiers of class status that I was familiar with from the US- the size of houses, the type of clothing, the accent, the car, etc.- were invisible here; the people I was meeting had no idea what my background was other than what I presented. They couldn’t see my house or my car or my parents or my neighborhood. They could make guesses based on my accent and my clothes, but they didn’t seem to need to- I was a foreigner (and an American) in Jordan, and that meant high class. Maybe this was due to the golden glow working at a prestigious boarding school founded by the king gave me, but I saw it more as just a function of being American. “Oh, you’re American,” they seemed to say, “you must have three cars and a house and a pool and six golden retrievers and three TVs.” (Actually, my dad’s life is somewhat like this, minus the golden retrievers….Hmmm.) I felt disingenuous sometimes, like when parents assumed I would be familiar with the names and reputations of all the colleges their son wanted to apply to, or when I was invited to swanky embassy events. I still have a hard time navigating my relationship to some of my ex-colleagues and ex-students from that school.
And what about now, now that I’m in Argentina? I still don’t understand the signifiers here. My colleagues and friends who are local can instantly do so– name an neighborhood, and they’ll tell you a connotation; describe an accent or a speech pattern (as if I could) and they can name a reference. Of course, we do the same at home. Here I, as a foreigner, can only accurately perceive the most obvious and blatant markers- someone asking for money in the subway versus someone whose parents are paying 40 grand a year to attend a private school. Besides noting who lives in a house in the suburbs and who lives in an apartment downtown, I don’t have much knowledge about class variances amongst Argentines. And what about the other way? How do people in Argentina perceive my class status? How does class work in an international context?
My thinking now is that although I take great pride in deciding to travel abroad, having come from parents who have never left the country (except to Canada) and a town where many stayed close by, I don’t think that my experience is really about class, but that it’s more about opportunity and education and interest. I am also not that interested anymore in how I am perceived by the locals- what they think of my self-cut hair, my foreign-looking outfit and the fact that I’m reading the New Yorker on the train to work. I know that the fact that I’m here is a sign of privilege. They know that too. We may think we’ve transcended signifiers of class: no one can see the house I grew up in, no one bullies me for wearing the wrong brand of sneakers, people don’t judge me for where I went to college. When I first meet an Argentine they don’t immediately ask where I live or what I do. But the very fact of our expat existence, and the fact that most of us can choose where to go next (back home, continuing abroad, or whatever) means that our class is one of privilege. Our access to local culture will always be through that lens.