So we're at the parents' house for what turned out to be a Catholic holiday weekend. We got in pretty late, so we just had a delicious dinner of Italian food last night and then some quiet time before bed, enjoying the fancy cable with a ton of English channels. As with our last trip, Alexandre's mom was nice and chatty and welcoming, complimenting me on all the weight I've lost, and asking me questions about my jobs and stuff. His father, whose English is limited to concrete nouns like "food" and "suitcase" and simple phrases like "hello" and "thank you," was again quiet during the evening. Even when I tried to speak to him in Portuguese, his responses were curt, revealing that perhaps the stoicism was more personality and less of a language barrier.
This morning, Alexandre told me that he had to go get some new dress shirts to wear at the hospital, and that we could go with his mom to the store. Then his dad, who is an ophthalmologist, asked if he could give me an eye exam at his office and offer me some contact lenses. He had mentioned the idea like, 3 times during the last trip here, and Alexandre had explained to me that it was very important to his father to do the exam for me. I agreed and thanked him, and made plans to go to his office after our trip to the store.
On our way to the mall, Alexandre's mom announced that she and her husband wanted to treat me to some new clothes, too, and to please tell her if I saw anything that I liked. I did my best to be gracious and not shy. The mall we went to was made up of the types of stores that are really small and that only display one example of each piece and where the two salespeople offer you cookies and coffee and stuff. Alexandre got his sexy white doctor shirts and jokingly tried on the bowler hats that the business attire store was also selling. As we continued on our way and passed the feminine boutiques, Alexandre's mom kept pointing out this shirt-overcoat style with big buttons, telling me how nice it'd look on my frame and how it's so in fashion right now. It wasn't something I'd typically be drawn to, but seeing as she was so enthusiastic about it, I tried one of them on.
In the dressing room, I was able to muse over how we decide what's in fashion and what's not, and how we decide whether or not we look good in a given outfit. I thought about how, for me, the overcoat thing was cute, but something I hadn't given any value to before. However, a 16-year-old Brazilian girl would probably be so excited to be in my place at that moment, and she would feel so pretty trying on an outfit like that in a store like that, especially after seeing it around town so much. At that moment, I remembered when I worked as a tutor for the Ethiopian family in Oakland. On my last day, Zalalem, the mother, tearfully offered me a gift. It was a hand-made traditional Ethiopian gown-- the white one with the red, yellow, and green stripes. She was serious and solemn when she gave it to me, and asked me to try it on. I could tell it was super important to her, and while I felt uncomfortable in the gown's foreignness, I smiled for her pictures and hugged everyone a lot. It meant a lot to me because it meant a lot to her. It was her way of showing me that I was important, and it was my responsibility to recognize it and appreciate it.
Which brings me back to the overcoat and the dressing room. When I put it on, I liked it. Not necessarily because I knew it was expensive and in fashion and it therefore made me more fashionable. It is really cute, and I kind of look like Madeline. But that isn't why I liked it so much, either. Alexandre's mom fawned over it-- or, more specifically, over me in it-- and eagerly announced to the saleswoman that she wanted to get a gift for her nora, and then turned to me to translate: "my daughter-in-law!" And there were bashful smiles all around.
After many "muita obrigada"s and a return back to the house, Alexandre and I went with his father to his office. He introduced me to the secretary and took us upstairs. I expected him to sit me in the chair and rush through the procedure casually, since I wasn't a real patient and all, but it was very different. He walked us through the whole procedure, even having us sit at his desk to fill out the info form so he could put me in the computer. During every part of the exam, he would explain to Alexandre what he was doing, and allow him to try out his own ophthalmology skills. In his office, Alexandre's father was definitely in his element-- comfortable, talkative, and pleased to teach and give. He gave me a battery of tests, and trained Alexandre how to use each machine and instrument. He was eager to show his son how he spends his days, and eager to show me that I'm important in the best way he knows how. (It was my first time reading the eye chart alphabet in a different language, which was a fun experience.) At the end of the exam, I got a free pair of contacts and a ton of cleaning solution, and again commenced with the humble thank-yous.
So, yes. culture is endlessly fascinating, but it's only because people are endlessly fascinating in their way of doing the same thing using a million different strategies.
(I'd like to end on one last point: Alexandre's mom is a gynecologist, which makes me very relieved that she and her husband have different ways of expressing themselves. ;)