Back in June, we had a bit of a change in Caxias: one of my co-ETAs decided to quit her grant and return early to the States. I don’t know the exact circumstances of her departure, but I’m sure they weren’t helped by the stresses that come with living abroad.
This isn’t the first time I’ve spent a significant amount of time outside the US. I know that it can be difficult to construct support systems and social networks, especially when you don’t really speak the local language. As a result, I’ve been intentional about seeking out groups of people I could make friends with—but I’ve also lucked into several groups that have helped me make friends and feel like I’m a part of a community here.
I’ve already talked about Caxias’s quidditch team, so next up: the board game group.
I tried to google board game groups before I came to Caxias, and I didn’t have much luck. But back when I was briefly taking that Intercultural Communication class, I was talking with a friend of a classmate who mentioned he liked to play Magic: The Gathering. So I asked him where he played in Caxias, and he directed me to Dungeons and Cards. By messaging their Facebook page, I got in touch with Paolo (pictured in his outfitted-basement store, above), who added me to a Whatsapp group with about two dozen people who meet up every once in a while just to play board games.
This group is great. My first conversation during my first game night included terms like “Eurogames” and “Ameritrash,” which I’ve only ever read and was delighted to hear people use in real life. Everyone in the group seems to have an extensive collection of board games, and I’ve had the opportunity to try out so many new one. And everyone takes the games just the right amount of serious: being focused and attentive, but never sulking or complaining.
I generally try to speak Portuguese when I hang out with them, but because so many board games (and geek paraphernalia as a whole) are in English, nearly everyone can speak it—which helps when I’m trying to learn the rules to a new game.
For speaking English at an even higher level, though, I have The Club.
The Club is admittedly not a great name, but I love the little community it’s created. I discovered it by extreme coincidence: Elaine was taking us to meet up with some friends at a cultural center in Caxias, and while I was climbing the steps to enter, I overheard a native English speaker. Having never run into a non-Fulbright native speaker in Caxias, I whipped around to see who was talking. It turned out to be a group of Brazilians (and a Brit) who just finished the first meeting of a high-level English discussion club centered around sharing and discussing art.
Since then, The Club has become my monthly opportunity to freely express myself in English with a non-Fulbrighter. When I talk with the core members—who speak flawless, native-accented English—I don’t have to worry about slowing my speech or using simpler words and structures. It’s actually incredibly liberating, and because all of these members have also spent significant time abroad, I feel like I can speak frankly about the pros and cons of life in various countries. It’s a space I can feel a little more off-duty as a Fulbrighter.
More informally than the board game group or The Club, I’m also grateful to my students who have made an effort to befriend me outside the classroom. These invitations have ranged from attending dinner parties to watching children’s athletics, but I’m always happy to have a reason to experience a new corner of life in Caxias.
I’ve realized there’s a common thread running through all these friendships: firsthand experience being an outsider in another country. Nearly everyone who has gone out of their way to include me has also spent at least a couple months living outside of Brazil. And it’s not lost on me that they probably had people who made them feel included in the countries they visited, which in turn might encourage them to make me feel included in theirs.
Of course, I’m super grateful to benefit from this experience, and I’m excited to pay it forward once I return to the United States. But on a more global level, I think this pattern demonstrates the power of empathy, as well as the value of intercultural programs like Fulbright. When it seems like the entire world is turning inward, I’m heartened by the experience of other people embracing outward. If you ask me, I think we could use more of it.
As a final note: the ETA who left was replaced by an ETA from another city—Kiaya, whom you may recognize from the right-hand sidebar. She’s not allowed to discuss the specifics of why she left her host city, but apparently this isn’t the first time Fulbrighters have had issues with it. I don’t want to speak ill of the program or gossip about what I know nothing about, but as an aside to potential future Fulbrighters in Brazil: maybe stay away from Lavras.
Meanwhile, with so many variables determining a Fulbright experience, I’m lucky to be placed in a city with as many opportunities as Caxias. It’s definitely not the Brazil I thought I would encounter when I first submitted my application to Fulbright, but I’m really glad it’s the Brazil I’ve found. Thanks to these shared interests and people and groups, I feel like I actually have a little life here.