So my 1-year anniversary in Brazil is fast approaching, and because I am one to dwell on dates and anniversaries (sometimes to a fault), I've already begun thinking about the ways in which I've changed and the things I've learned after living here for a year.
At first, I hesitated to prepare (preparing?) this post, because I was worried it would end up being a laundry list of overgeneralized pet peeves about life without Target and clothes dryers. But as I really started to compile my list, I discovered that many more good things than bad have come out of my time here. I'll describe all the things, good and bad, below, in no particular order-- just the order that I can get them out of the shorthand in my polka-dot notebook that I keep in my purse and into the blog template.
1. In Brazil, I've learned the value of eating well and making time to eat well. Without the convenience of pre-made meals from Trader Joe's and cheap and delicious fast food, I was sort of forced into healthier eating habits. But it's been more than by default-- Brazilian scheduling makes time for meals at home. It is completely acceptable to refuse to work between 11:00am and 1:00pm. In fact, many places are closed for this time period (except for churrascarias, of course). Alexandre almost always gets a 2-hour break for lunch, which gives us the extra gift of having a homemade lunch at home together almost every day. In this 1 year, I've learned more about cooking, food prep in general, and how to choose meat and vegetables than I did in the 5 years I lived on my own in the US. These are habits and skills that I feel really lucky to have learned, and they're going to stay with me forever, no matter where we end up settling. (Also, you can't forget bombas!)
2. I've Taught Myself a Language. As a linguist, throwing myself into a new country with almost no knowledge of the language was like a free, year-long field study class. It's been a real treat. I've solidified my understanding of language change after spending endless hours comparing the changes between Spanish and Portuguese, and trying to imagine the way the language was before it divided into two. (I never tire of doing this.) One of these days, I'll write up what I've figured out... maybe I can use it for that Master's degree I never finished, though I'm sure someone's already done it. Either way, I feel lucky to have had the background in Linguistics because it really facilitated my Portuguese learning process.
Also, all of this has made me a better teacher-- not only the educational background (Yay! Student loans weren't a complete wash after all), but also being forced into situations without enough command of the language. I always try to tell my students my little stories of supermarket struggles and important misunderstandings (poop vs. coconut and penis vs. bread), to remind them that the learning process goes both ways, and that I feel their pain. (I'm also secretly trying to trick them into building metalinguistic awareness-- I love the lightbulbs that come on when they realize that, yeah, "pau" and "pão" DO kind of sound the same, especially for someone learning Portuguese, the same way "them" and "then" can sound the same for a Portuguese speaker learning English.)
3. I'm still learning how not to think about places in extremes. I learned a big lesson back in my first years of college when I convinced myself that Orange County, California was the worst place to live in the world and that San Francisco was the best place to live in the world, and I switched schools. After 4 months in Oakland with a schizophrenic roommate and a lifetime's worth of encounters with crazy people on buses, I began to appreciate the good that can come from things like gated communities and "urban planning." This seems like such a basic thing to learn, but for me, it has taken some time, and I still haven't mastered it. I still have days when I can convince myself that America is a lovely utopia and Brazil is a lawless land of savages. (These are usually days when I learn that my old boss cheated me out of half of my translation payments or when the water turns off in the apartment building for 2 days with no explanation and there's no one I can call to fix either of those things.) This blog entry is one of the ways that I'm working on remembering that there's good and bad to every place.
4. I'm Okay with Being an American Now. I know this sounds ridiculous, but fellow Berkeley alumni reading this may understand better than others. I spent most of my college experience feeling totally guilty for being American, and not even knowing what that word meant for me, anyway. These feelings came from living in the Bay Area's extreme liberal culture during an era with a republican president. The feelings also came from Berkeley students' obsession with heritage-- being asked all the time what I "was" (the person asking expected a race or nationality as an answer, with "American" or "white" being insufficient). Also, I had issues with feeling...something between and understanding of and identification with Mexican-American culture after growing up so close to the border, but being totally marginalized from Mexican-Americans in college.... you know, because I didn't understand "their struggle," because it wasn't "allowed to"also be my struggle in many ways. It was such a stupid and unnecessary mess. College kids need to be more understanding of each other instead of doing stupid things like having frats and religious groups divided by race.
When I went home for Christmas and went into Mexico with Mary, I realized how I had absolutely lost all of these qualms and all of that guilt about needing to define myself in one way or another, about what I have and don't have in life. I don't need to apologize for or explain anything. I'm just me. Somehow-- I'm not exactly how yet-- I've learned all that in Brazil.
5. Along the same vein... America is a Damn Good Country, and, yeah, Brazil can learn a lot of things from us. As much good as I've gleaned from Brazil this past year, there are still some things that make me really irate, and I refuse to learn them or adapt to them. I've said this before: in many ways, Brazil has an every-man-for-himself culture. "Who cares if my neighbor is poor? At least it's not me." I'm not saying you can't find this in America, too, but ya know what? It's worse here, and that's not just me being patriotic. One student asked me if it was true that, in the US, people put change into a newspaper machine in order to open it and take their paper. They have the physical option of stealing all the newspapers, but they just take one. She couldn't believe it. Another student-- a Desperate Housewives fan-- asked me about a scene in which a man's wife died and all the neighbors brought him food and money, even the ones who didn't really know him. He wanted to know if people really did things like that in the US.
In the US, when something is a law (like stopping on red or not selling alcohol to minors), that means something. These ideas of community and mutual respect and empathy make America strong. Maybe even stronger. And people can leave all the nasty, judgmental comments they want, but I'm not gonna feel bad about thinking these things.
6. On a pro-Brazil note... My Life is Better, Being Away from Consumerist Culture. It's amazing how much we SHOP in the US. The pressure to buy more and buy something newer is so strong and hard to trace. I have never heard a Brazilian say the asinine things that I've heard from fellow Americans-- things like, "oh, I needed to go buy those new clothes because I was having a bad day" or "I lost my job, so, to feel better, I went shopping." Americans totally justify wasting money by saying they deserve whatever it is they're buying, even if they can't afford it. I was also guilty of living beyond my means sometimes while I was living there. Again, Brazilians aren't completely innocent of splurging or unnecessary credit card debt, but it's nowhere near as extreme here. It's bizarre. How do we get a lid on that in the US?
7. I Really Value my Friendships and Miss the Way Americans Make Friends so Easily. I've complained before that it's been really, really difficult to make friends here in Brazil. After a year here, there are only 2 people (Alexandre excluded, of course) that I feel comfortable calling up on a Friday night to invite out, but I still don't know if I could tell either of them really personal things or if I could call either of them late at night to cry or rant or just ask for company. After much consideration of why making friends has been so hard for me, I have come to 2 conclusions:
1. I live in a small hick town. I'm often the first or only foreigner people have met. People remember me as being different, and don't see that as intriguing beyond the superficial "está gostando do Brasil?" questions, and don't see me as someone they could actually be friends with. My students have insisted that my experience would be very different in a bigger city in which people are both more open to new friends and more accepting of people who are different. This would be no different for a Brazilian moving to a small hick town in the US.
2. I don't relate well to girls here, and that's no one's fault. I'm already really independent for an American girl my age, so compared to many Brazilian girls, I'm a weird and confusing hybrid of youth and self-reliance. One student (she was a friend of Alexandre's from school) couldn't believe that I knew how to wash clothes and cook, but that I also had a college degree (do you see what she was getting at?). A student who I tried to make friends with once made the comment, "I can't believe your family allowed you to move here." (She's 26, and her dad still drives her the 1 mile to her job every day because "it's not good for women to walk alone... especially in heels!") Girls here are really kept sheltered (a reader-internet-friend Molly used the perfect word: "coddled"), and in return, are expected to be good and obedient wives once they leave their parents' house to move in with their husbands. The following are various pieces of advice I have personally received from Brazilians (both men and women), some from sources a little closer to home than others (not Alexandre!), on what kind of woman I should be:
* You shouldn't work so much.
* Don't ask your boyfriend to clean. Brazilian men don't clean.
* You shouldn't be cleaning so much, either. That's poor women's work.
* Don't argue with your boyfriend because it is stressful for him.
* Don't talk too much when your boyfriend gets home from work, the way women tend to do.
* Your boyfriend shouldn't let you go to bars alone, even on a night out with your girl friends.
* You and your boyfriend should be wearing promise rings if you are really in a serious relationship.
* You should dress more femininely (is that a word?).
* Why don't you wear heels more often?
* Do you have fake boobs? Really? You don't? (Okay, that one wasn't advice, but it was equally asinine and within the same topic.)
8. I have a wonderful boyfriend, and we've had a great year together. I know I generally keep boyfriend stuff out of the blog-- It's not really the point of the blog for me, and besides, what would I email my girlfriends about? -- but Alexandre was obviously the reason I moved to Brazil in the first place, and is the reason I'm still here. Of course we have our share of spats and issues, like any couple, but overall, it's fabulous. I still can't believe I found someone who's so great to begin with, and who ALSO thinks I'm great and who understands me and my craziness. We make each other better, which is the best thing anyone can really ask for in a relationship. April 11th is our Brazilian Anniversary (not to be confused with our American Anniversary), and celebrations have yet to be decided on (though will likely involve sushi). He's the best person I could ever have a "we" with.
Well, this post has become a bit excessive. Enfim, there are days here when I feel so happy and lucky to be here, and days here where I beat my head against the wall and use all my willpower not to put a ticket home on my credit card. I think that that's healthy. All I can do is try to learn as much as I can from the experience and try to make myself better any chance I get. So when we eventually make it back to the US, we can continue this Brazil-American hybrid life we've created and try to enjoy the best of both worlds.