I wanted to write something upbeat on January 1 to usher in the new year and contemplate the many things I learned over the course of a challenging 2014. Instead, I woke up, made a feeble attempt to bid farewell to my last party-goers and spent the rest of the day musing at the irony that after a year of feeling like I had no voice, I would ring in the next in its literal absence. It was in this way that I also discovered that I had unknowingly made a tacit promise to myself to never blog when I was upset. On the other hand, it’s also possible that when I was in Sao Paulo, I viewed everything as an exciting and “novel” experience that I could blog about, allowing me to view even the most frustrating of encounters in a positive light.
Here in NC, that’s a little more difficult. Of course, it was easy to come back and re-adjust to the luxury of having my water glass constantly refilled at every bar and restaurant. It also wasn’t that exciting to once again have access to my full wardrobe—it turns out I only wear about three different outfits anyway. And I immediately took it for granted that I had a car to take out at 11pm and buy as many groceries as I wanted at the 24/7 Harris Teeter. These were the simple things, and they seamlessly integrated themselves back into my life.
Other things have been harder. I bump into someone on the street and instinctively, murmur, “ah! desculpa!” Similarly, sometimes when mentally formulating an e-mail, I get several lines in before realizing that I am writing an American and can (well, probably should) write in English. Before, I never understood it when my Brazilian friends would tell me that they missed speaking English. “How can you miss having even the simplest tasks being made more difficult?!” I would marvel. When I came home from studying abroad in Sevilla many years ago, I remember feeling as if a shroud was being removed and the sites and sounds around me were finally coming back into focus. There were certainly no feelings of saudades that time when I ordered my first meal back in English.
This time though, I chatted in Portuguese with the Brazilian woman who had been sitting next to me on the plane up until our inevitable parting at customs. I spent a little extra time on my customs declaration form, secretly hoping I would be able to help someone who couldn’t speak English. In what I had envisioned would be a magnanimous and thoughtful gesture, I offered a couple my $6 luggage cart (they had been free in Sao Paulo!) in Portuguese before they politely informed me in perfect English that they were actually from Colombia. It dawned on me that I had become one of those insufferable, “I spent five minutes in another country, and now I don’t remember how to speak English” people.
As most people assume, some of this attitude certainly stems from pride. Just like any other skill, it takes time and effort to learn a new language, and it’s natural to want recognition for any accomplishment. Upon reflection though, I think it’s actually less arrogance than a desperate attempt to cling to a unique experience that in some ways is gone forever. For me, returning from Brazil has given me the sense that I am leading two parallel lives. On the one hand, I felt so lucky to return and immediately pick up where I left off with such great friends. Much to the amusement of my soccer buddies, my soccer game had weakened immensely during my time in Brazil, but they unquestioningly welcomed me back into the fold. In some ways, being away has motivated me to explore new parts (for me) of Durham culture, like finally going to pop-up chorus with Melvin.
I still whatsapp with Maisa and Bruna and others, but sometimes it’s hard to know that life is rapidly coursing forward, and I’m not there to be a part of it. Bruna moved in with Caio over Christmas (which, Sam had told me, some Brazilians refer to as getting married), and Maisa’s 2015 plans have her moving to Australia in just a few months. And as much as I don’t miss the schedule, I even feel a tinge of nostalgia reading my schools’ group whatsapp messages, picturing Michele ragging on Joao for his European Portuguese. Of course my friends are moving forward with their lives, in Sao Paulo as in Durham, and I’m happy for them. I just need to find my own way forward, hopefully by building on this experience.
I can’t say if living in Sao Paulo, short time that it was, “changed” me. Sure there are little things. I remember, after throwing my bag on the floor the first time I went to Stela’s, she quickly moved it to a stool, explaining that a Brazilian woman would never leave her purse on the floor. I realized the other day as I set my purse on a chair, that now I automatically seek an elevated place for my bag. And of course, if the Starbucks across the street wanted to start making my favorite calorie bomb, pão na chapa com requeijão, I would be pretty ok with that. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the superstition that if a visitor physically lets themselves out of your house, they will never return. On my last day, post-cookie party, Fernanda and I sat staring at the door handle to “my” apartment for a few moments before she finally exclaimed, “Cat! I want to be able to come back!” And I have no idea if it’s related or it’s simply out of extreme politeness, but my students would also never leave the classroom until I opened the door for them.
What I really owe to Sao Paulo though, are the seeds (or maybe just half a seed) of a greater global awareness. It is just a small step, but talking to students about the Brazilian presidential election and their frustration with the country’s lack of infrastructure forced me to question my US-centered partisanship and wonder if perhaps my core political “values” were more relative or at least US-specific than I had once thought. Instead of watching a sitcom on a recent flight, I watched the world news because suddenly that world didn’t seem so irrelevant or far away. The newscaster was discussing the fact that despite the recent meltdown of the Russian economy, Putin has retained an astounding 80%+ approval rating. He argued that, as with leaders in many emerging markets, Putin is particularly popular with young people because of his nationalism. I immediately thought of Irina, who had moved back to Russia, and wondered how she was doing (she reassured me that she was fine and advised me against believing anything they say in the American media). Although paulistanos would tell you the reasons are obvious, I also cogitated, given that Brazil has been considered an emerging market for quite some time, why Dilma doesn’t enjoy anywhere near the same popularity.
Not that pondering international popularity contests is going to help anyone, and I am no political scientist, but I am now staunchly on team pro-study abroad (take that, Kamen!). Many people have told me that no matter where you go in the world, everyone is the same. And of course, on a fundamental level, that’s true; people everywhere have the same needs and desires and should be treated with respect and humanity. That’s an excellent starting point. However, I don’t think stopping with this over-simplification is productive. Instead, we need to also try to remove ourselves from our US-centered viewpoint, perhaps geographically, and be sensitive to cultural differences (and not just the fun superstitions or tasty cuisine) that arise from another country’s complicated history. Only then can we even start to understand what motivates and drives a people or a foreign policy.
I won’t pretend that after 3 short months, I have any handle on Brazilian or even Sao Paulo culture. Plus I’m a scientist. What do I know about these things? Meu! Que saudades de você, São Paulo!