The ex-expat: Dustin Luke

Dustin Luke.
Dustin Luke.
From: Atlanta, Georgia
Age: 29
Profession: Entrepreneur, marketing and social media manager
Education: Degree in Business at Georgia State University
Just read: The E-Myth Revisted
Last film seen: The Shawshank Redemption
Gadget: iPhone

This is not the usual tale of a foreigner being uprooted, voluntarily or sent for professional reasons, to set up a new and very different existence in Argentina.

This, in fact, is the story of an ex-expat who resided in his Buenos Aires querido for four years, then moved back to his native US, his business sold and that living-abroad cycle completed.

This tale is about the ex-expat Dustin Walsh, who became an overnight celebrity sensation after moving home — with fame not touching him so much in his native US as in his adopted land of Argentina — and his first visit back since leaving in 2011.

A celebrity sensation? How on earth did that happen? Well, by the powers of interweb and YouTube, Dustin Walsh became Dustin Luke, the North American who spoke like an Argentine, a porteño more specifically. He started making videos in perfect Spanish, charmingly and funnily tapping into the local psyche with monologues. And now, in little more than a year, Dustin’s short clips “Things Argentines Say” have been seen 6.5 million times and, while he makes some money out of these, it’s not so much that he lives off it, he says.

On his first trip back in two years, even stepping on to the plane was a sign of what was to come. Recognized by fellow passengers on that flight, Dustin has been mobbed, posed for photos with fans who instantly cottoned onto who he was thanks to his big blue eyes and spiky hair, has signed autographs and been hugged and kissed as if it were midnight on December 25.

But going back a few years, this is how Dustin reached Argentina. “It was 2004 and I left the US for the first time to go to Spain on my year-abroad programme. I went a week early and stayed in a hostel, which was run by Argentines. I met some really cool people and they convinced us to visit Buenos Aires. After one visit, I then moved here in August 2007 with the intention of starting the pub crawl, then I moved back to the US in 2011 after selling my stake in that company.

“At that time, there were some economic issues, the elections were about to take place so I thought things might get a little difficult, plus my business partner and I weren’t getting along, so it was time to get out. I thought it would be ‘farewell Argentina, I don’t know when I’ll see you again, you’ve been a huge part of my life.’ I didn’t know what else I could do here, so I decided to return to the US to start a social media management company. And I did that, but shortly after I got distracted by my YouTube project.”

Admitting to always having been obsessed with YouTubers and how they operate, Dustin realized that the site could be an outlet for his creativity. He began by making a few short videos in English and that quickly developed into “making videos in Spanish. I speak the language and there are some funny stories I could tell.” And so the first one was based upon the conversation he had every time he met an Argentine. Posting it on his Facebook page, it got a good response from his friends, who, in turn, shared it. He says: “That video got around 10,000 views in about a month, which I thought was amazing.”

That developed into “Things Argentines Say.” “I posted that on Friday, June 1, 2012. I left it, went out with some friends, got home then woke up to thousands of notifications from friends saying my video had gone viral. It was wild to sit back in my tiny little room in the States, watching this happen.

“Then an ex-ex girlfriend messaged me to say ‘Dustin, they’re showing you on national TV in Argentina right now. I can’t believe it. I’m out to lunch with my dad and you’re on the TV.’ It was almost instantaneous, and my phone started to buzz, buzz, buzz, receiving notifications like crazy. I obviously obsessed about this for the next week, looking at all the comments. And I thought it could be life-changing in a way. The idea now is to make this full-time.”

With plenty of online savvy, Dustin has seen that the Spanish-speaking market is not nearly as saturated as the English-speaking one. By tapping into that, he says that in five years it will be close to what it is in the US, an exciting prospect for the YouTuber who is becoming more popular by the day, especially given his physical presence for five weeks in the silver land.

But besides simply wanting to entertain people with his videos, there is another, albeit inadvertent, side to what Dustin is doing: education. Not only do supporters send him messages saying that he has inspired them to learn English, or any other language, like he has managed to conquer Spanish, but he is also a point of reference in the classroom.

“I can’t tell you the amount of messages I got from Spanish teachers, not only in Buenos Aires but around the world, who say: ‘I’ll have you know, that today, we are going to go point by point through your video and that will be our class.’ That gave me chills, hearing that, because students were also telling their teachers: “I want to speak like him’,” he says.

“My videos are also used as a goal in the Study Abroad orientations to new US students — ‘guys, you need to speak like this by the end of the programme’. Other messages have said I’ve inspired them to dig deep and really try to learn English, or another language.

Other supportive messages have come from Argentines, but are more unexpected. Given that a US citizen is being so positive about their country, they are now seeing themselves, and their nation, in a different light.
Dustin adds: “I’ve been asked so many times why I like Argentina, when so many Argentines are trying to get to the US. So I made a video to address that — and it couldn’t have had a better response, such as ‘after watching this video, you’ve made me realize how amazing my country is. I’m also focusing on the bad things but you’ve refreshed my mind and given me hope that this country is an amazing place.” So connecting these two worlds, that this American is actually interested in their culture, has created a lot of appeal.”

After a two-year hiatus, Dustin has returned to Buenos Aires, but with a very different identity to the one he left with — an identity which is instantly recognizable.
He says: “I’d been making videos with Mike the Asian and Nihil, and in April this year I said to them: ‘Let’s start brainstorming some ideas to see if we can take this YouTube idea to another level.’ And everything has fallen into place. We had a vision and wanted to come and meet some fans and throw a party.

“It all began on the flight, with people recognizing the three of us. Just getting into Buenos Aires, at the airport alone, people were taking photos, getting nervous and treating us like stars. That was a real eye-opener, because if they were noticing us and treating us like that at the airport, what would it be like in the city? But everyone has been really excited to meet us and shown us really good vibes.

“When we got to the party venue there was an entire family waiting for us, who spotted us before we even got out of the cab. They were taking pictures, the dad was filming and they drove 100km to see us before we went into the club. Then from 11.30 at night until six in the morning it was non-stop picture taking and hanging out.

“In fact the fans had thought we’d just sit in a VIP area all night but that’s not the point. These people have been really supportive and the internet is very powerful as we’ve reached the size of audience we have. And so we wanted to give something back, plus we raised money to donate to the Adoptá una carta project.”

Besides the levels of attention he has been attracting, Dustin has also noticed a few changes in these past 24 months. “I’ve gone back to a lot of old places that just aren’t there. It’s sad. That’s been shocking for me, that some of those places, even in Plaza Serrano, have gone or changed ownership.

“But one thing I’m really excited about is the bike movement, which is awesome and I love the fact that you can cycle around the entire city. And downtown is slowly becoming more pedestrianized, and I love that movement too — get all the buses out of the area because it’s a cool place to be in. I’m really glad to see that has progressed a little bit. The Metrobus has also made things a bit more organized, and it seems cleaner and classier — that’s a step in the right direction.

“And on the bad side, well, everything is so much more expensive than it was! But with the dollar blue , it makes a difference. But for everyone living here, well, taxis just went up again. It’s getting harder. But despite that, I’m really happy to be here for five weeks, because this is my second home.”

Buenos Aires Herald, October 26, 2013
Ph: Diego Kovacic

If you’ve enjoyed this interview, meet psychoanalyst Susan

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