From memoirs to diphthongs: August/September updates from the classroom

When winter break ended in early August, I joined the rest of the Letras department in adapting to an entirely new schedule. And like, I mean entirely new.

For whatever reason, the English faculty at UCS don’t teach the same classes from semester to semester. Instead, they’re assigned classes seemingly at random, and fairly late, too–I don’t think they found out what they were teaching until partway through break. Obviously, this makes it super hard on the teachers, who have to constantly invent new curricula and sometimes teach themselves entirely new disciplines (like functional grammar, which Prof. Samira taught for the first time last semester, despite having no background in it) on extremely short notice.

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UCS in its springtime glory

But if students and teachers find themselves with more work around this time of year, I ironically ended up with less. Due to scheduling quirks (namely, a dearth of late-afternoon classes and a concentration of evening classes largely on the same days), I’m actually helping with a lot fewer classes than last semester. Whereas before I was attending classes Tuesday through Thursday, this semester, I only help teach on Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday.

(I actually felt bad about this; per Fulbright guidelines, we’re supposed to be working 20-25 hours a week. Not counting prep time, 2.5 classes a week adds up to just about a third of that. But it’s not like I could even take on more classes; the few courses during times I was free were simply covered by other ETAs. So I had to get creative and plan some other things instead.)

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been up to for the past two months:

Business English I — Mondays 7:40-10:30,  Prof. Maria Valésia

My first business class at UCS, this course has the unenviable position of being required, prerequisite-less, and for some reason, not geared toward true beginners. As a result, students’ English skills range from conversant to nonexistent, and our pace in class is glacial.

As I understand it, this class dynamic is the result of another quirk of UCS politics. Apparently the head of the business department fought against a placement test, which means everyone gets lumped into the same class. Meanwhile, the book we use is for intermediate-beginners, and we spend no time in class on the basics that so many students need to understand and meaningfully engage with the book’s content

As a result, I started offering free small-group tutoring an hour before class, which three of my students reliably attend. I’m using one of Maria Valésia’s old workbooks as a guide, and we literally started with conjugating “to be” and going from there. It’s slow going–given that we meet an hour a week and I have literally never taught basic English like this before–but it’s better than nothing. I can tell the students are feeling more confident, at least, and I try to supplement our mini-lessons by connecting them to English-learning content available online.

In class, I’ve led some exercises on asking questions (providing a long list of questions, having students ask/answer them in pairs, and afterwards discussing what are the most/least relevant/appropriate questions to ask in a business setting), comparing simple present and present continuous tenses, and phrasal verbs (trying to identify patterns in meaning based on their preposition, followed by a memory game in pairs to match the phrasal verbs we covered and their definitions).

English VIII — Wednesdays 7:40-10:30, Prof. Elsa Mónica

Working with nearly the entire Oral and Written Skills class from last semester (plus some new faces), this is the final semester of English that Letras students have to take. I wanted to provide a long-term project that combined reading, writing, and speaking, so I developed a semester-long memoir project. For these two months we’ve been reading and discussing excerpts from various memoirs, and in October we’re going to write and peer-edit our own.

As a result, this has turned into my favorite class this semester. In contrast to all the things it feels like I’m winging here, I’m confident in my abilities to lead a discussion about literature. And while it took a week or two to get going, some of my students’ insights genuinely surprised me. Plus I enjoy getting to share these memoir-esque pieces that I love, which I defined broadly enough to include stuff like the blog Hyperbole and a Half and the graphic novel Persepolis alongside traditional memoirs like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, and Elie Wiesel’s Night.

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Excerpt from the first page of the excellent Persepolis

(And just to brag: I had one student transfer into this class after she learned about this project I had planned)

Phonetics and Phonology — Fridays 7:40-10:30, Dr. Sabrina

If you have spent any time listening to me speak, you’d know that I’m a terrible choice to teach impressionable young learners how to pronounce things in English. And as it turns out, this course is actually pretty difficult! The first class I sat in on dealt with where in the mouth different vowel sounds are made, and the second was about the international phonetic alphabet. These are all things I don’t know, and being a native speaker doesn’t especially give me a leg up; the phonetic alphabet is based on received pronunciation, which is British.

As a result, I think it’s appropriate that I’m only attending this class every other week–because I’m just as new to this as the students are, Sabrina has caught me giving them erroneous information. Sabrina reassures me I’ll be more useful once we start to cover stress and intonation, but we’ll have to see. Most of my contributions to class so far have been leading mini-discussions about the pronunciation mistakes I hear Brazilian Portuguese speakers make in English.

Etc.
So as I mentioned, I have some extra free time this semester. On Mondays I’ve been attending one of Prof. Samira’s doctoral-level classes called “Inferences in Reading.” I don’t follow all of the in-class discussion, but some of the readings are in English, and I’m enjoying the chance to see what a post-grad Brazilian classroom looks like.

In return, the professor has started referring some of her other students to me for editing, as they’re trying to publish articles in English-language journals. So now I’m spending some more time editing as well.

Additionally, we ETAs are continuing our “English and Chill” discussion club series from last semester. I’ve already presented my two topics for this semester (differences in cultural values and voting, both of which will soon be blog posts), but I still attend every week to facilitate small-group discussions during the presentations that the other ETAs give.

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A preliminary poster I made for this semester’s English & Chill

And then finally, I’ve joined a discussion group for masters students in environmental law, focusing on the idea of the commons. It’s a class I admittedly get frustrated with–one of our goals is to define the commons, so I feel like we’re constantly having arguments over what the commons should mean because we can never get on the same page about what it is–but I’m also being immersed in an interesting discussion at the intersection of economics and sociology that I’m generally fascinated by.

Working at UCS, doing Fulbright, going through life in general—I’m doing the best I can with what I have.

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The weird and wonderful idioms of Brazilian Portuguese

Idioms are great. They’re little nuggets of culture and history hidden inside a language, completely nonsensical to outsiders who lack the context of a native speaker. As a Portuguese-learner, I’m tickled whenever I encounter one. So I’ve collected some of them here, to share with you.

(The first four entries were taken from a presentation one of my students gave me—I already included screenshots of my favorite slides here, so I won’t repeat the idioms in this post.)

Fazer uma vaquinha
Literal translation: Make a little cow
Meaning: Fundraise by pooling money
Background: In the 1920s, fans of a soccer club in Rio de Jainero decided to encourage their team to play better by collecting money to give the athletes if they won. A normal victory would net them 10 thousand réis, while the reward for an important victory was 25 thousands réis. In the Jogo do Bicho, the animal for #25 was the cow, giving rise to this phrase.

Pagar o pato
Literal translation: Pay for the duck
Meaning: Take the fall for something
Background: According to an old Italian tale, a married woman once prostituted herself to a vendor in exchange for a duck. Sometime during this exchange, the woman decided she had sufficiently paid for the duck, but the vendor wanted to continue. They got into an argument that lasted until the woman’s husband returned home. The woman told her husband she didn’t have enough money to pay for the duck, so to end the fight, the husband gave the merchant money and “paid for the duck”

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Also a handy political statement: “It’s time to pay for the duck” (c/o nvoupagaropato)

Cair a ficha
Literal translation: The token to drop
Meaning: To finally understand something (to “click”)
Background: In pre-1990s Brazil, public phones apparently worked with these coin-like tokens. Once the call was completed, you could hear the token falling to the bottom of the machine—a sign that your message had gone through.

A essa altura do campeonato
Literal translation: At this point in the championship
Meaning: At this stage of the game
Background: …Brazil really likes soccer. Also, with five World Cup victories, I guess they’re also used to being in a championship.

Só para inglês ver
Literal translation: Just for the English to see
MeaningOnly for appearances
Background: When Great Britain recognized the newly-formed Brazil in 1822, it demanded that Brazil cease importing slaves. In 1831, Brazil eventually passed Feijó’s Law, which stated that all slaves who entered after that date would be free—and owners would be tried in court as kidnappers. However, slave owners were some of the richest (and hence most powerful) people in Brazil, and their influence extended to the courts. Feijó’s Law was never really enforced, and the arrivals of imported slaves quickly rebounded to pre-treaty heights. Thus it was said that the treaty was signed “just for the English to see,” without any intention of actually enforcing it.

O peixe morre pela boca
Literal translationFish die through the mouth
Meaningloose lips sink ships, basically
Background: Fish who don’t open their mouths don’t get caught on hooks. I learned this phrase through The Mystery of the Chupacabra, a Portuguese chapter book I picked up at a used-book fair back in March. It was the first book I read in Portuguese, and I’m inordinately proud of the words/phrases I figured out as a result.

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Manter uma boca de siri
Literal translation: Keep a crab’s mouth
MeaningTo keep a secret

Descascar o abacaxi
Literal translationPeel the pineapple
Meaning: To solve a problem

Segurar vela
Literal translationHold the candlestick
MeaningBe a third wheel
(Like, the couple’s there having a romantic date and you’re just there holding a candle for them)

Cara de pau
Literal translationWooden face
MeaningSomeone acting shamelessly

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In our house, most often applied to Yves

Enfiar o pé na jaca
Literal translation: Stick your foot in the jackfruit
MeaningTo do something to excess
(This has become one of my favorite expressions to use, what with all the all-you-can-eat buffets around here.)

Manteiga derretida
Literal translationMelted butter
Meaning: Crybaby

Saia justa
Literal translationTight skirt
MeaningTight spot

Quem não arrisca não petisca
Literal translationWho doesn’t risk doesn’t snack
MeaningNothing ventured, nothing gained
(I learned this when Elaine’s sister’s family was visiting and we were running to the grocery store to pick up some finger food (petiscas) to serve for a light dinner. She had a certain brand of frozen food in mind, but she couldn’t find it in the freezers, so she decided to ask an employee if they had any in the back. “Quem não arrisca não petisca,” she told me, completely unaware of its literal truth.)

 

6 tips for talking with non-native English speakers

Prior to coming to Brazil, I liked to think of myself as someone who communicated effectively with non-native English speakers. I knew enough to speak slowly and clearly, using simple terms and avoiding the unhelpful repeat-what-you-just-said-but-louder technique when faced with people who didn’t understand me. But having spent several months as a non-native Portuguese speaker (in a city where few people speak English), I now have a new appreciation for what works and what doesn’t when you’re trying to engage effectively with a non-native speaker.

In the spirit of intercultural exchange–you know, bringing my experiences back to the States and all—I wanted to share six of the methods I’ve realized here.

(I also want to give a shout-out to my host mom Elaine for embodying so many of these. She’s not only taught me Portuguese; she’s shown me how to better communicate with people across the world. Anyway, onto the tips:)

 

1. Talk directly to the non-native speaker 

If you’re curious about whether a non-native speaker speaks your language, ask them directly. Often I’ll be introduced to someone as an American, and that person will then turn to my host to ask if I speak Portuguese. Now, I’ve noticed these people don’t speak English, so I’m guessing they might be nervous about communicating with me. But regardless, I still feel a little demeaned because I wasn’t given the opportunity to express myself like an equal participant in the conversation.

Ultimately, it’s not a huge deal. But I do think talking directly to a non-native speaker (even if you don’t speak their language) is an easy way to help them feel welcome in a conversation. (As a side note, I can tell you this is standard training for working with interpreters as well: talk to the person, not the interpreter.) (And as another side note: a lot of people with disabilities report feeling similarly demeaned when people talk to their caretakers instead of them; I know that’s something I’ve needed to remind myself not to do.)

 

2. Specify when you’re using names

If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation in a foreign language, you’ll know how strenuous it is to constantly figure out the meanings of unknown words. In my experience, those conversations become a lot easier when your foreign-language conversation partner explicitly tells you when one of those unknown words is a name. Specifying if you’re talking about a person or a place or something frees up all sorts of mental bandwidth that your non-native speaking partner can then apply to following the rest of the conversation.

 

3. Be expressive with your body language

On a related note: I’ve noticed that my competence in a conversation is directly proportional to how much context I have about its topic. If some says something random to me in Portuguese, even if I “know” all the words, I invariably have to ask them to repeat it. The sounds just don’t make as much sense in my brain if I don’t have a context I can slot them into.

As a result, I’ve come to realize that hand gestures and facial expressions and other sorts of body language are vital to improving my listening comprehension. These don’t have to be elaborate mimes; even simple gestures go a long way. For example, when Elaine moves her hands apart from each other, I have a clue that she’s talking about something growing or increasing–which means I can get the gist of the sentence even if I don’t know the verb she’s using. Or like, if she casts her eyes towards the kitchen when she’s making a request, it helps me realize that I should be listening for kitchen-related vocabulary.

I can’t stress this enough: nonverbal cues have often been the single factor that makes me understand something in Portuguese. Being expressive makes communicating with a non-native speaker so much easier.

 

4. Provide examples as you speak

In line with the last two tips, I’ve also found it super helpful when people provide examples of what they’re talking about. For example, if someone asks me what my favorite season is, they could follow that up with “spring, summer, fall, winter?” Offering me more information increases the chance I’ll understand what my conversation partner is talking about, gives me time to process their question, and helps provide me with the information I need in order to respond. (I may not know the word for “season” and forget the word for “fall” [my favorite season], but I can deduce the question by knowing “spring,” and “summer” and answer it by identifying the word that most sounds like “autumn” (otono).

 

5. Repeat yourself using different (easier) words

When Elaine says a word she doesn’t think I’ll understand, she’ll usually follow it up with several simpler synonyms. This is great—I get a quick Portuguese lesson, and the conversation flows on uninterrupted. Plus, I feel super lucky to have this opportunity because it’s basically the same process that kids go through as they’re learning their native language.

 

6. Avoid phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are these verb+preposition combinations that change the verb’s meaning. I never really thought about them before, but they’re a nightmare for English-learners because they’re both numerous and fairly arbitrary. Like, think about how the meanings of “let,” “set,” or “knock” can be modified by combining them with “up” or “down” or “off.” There are tens of hundreds of these combinations, and although there are some general patterns that can learners intuit their meanings, they really just have to be memorized.

Anyway, you can make it easier on non-native speakers by doing your best to avoid phrasal verbs altogether.  You can say “prepare” instead of “set up,” for example. Doing so also has the added benefit of increasing the chance that a non-native speaker might recognize a cognate (a word with the same meaning and similar sound in a different language).

 

Of course, your mileage may vary with these tips—they’re borne of my experiences as an English speaker (with a background in a couple romance languages) interacting with people whose first language is Portuguese. But at the very least, I think they’re a good place to start.

The Smoking Snakes and Brazil in WWII

A couple blocks from my house sits the Museu dos Ex-Combatentes da Força Expedicionária Brasileira, a museum dedicated to Brazil’s participation in WWII. If you’re like me, despite this war’s name, you didn’t know Brazil got roped into it. So I decided to go and learn. Here’s what I found out:

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By the time the war started, Brazil was ruled by president-turned-dictator Getulio Vargas. Brazil traded with both Axis and Allied powers up until early 1942, when pressure from the US led Brazil to cease diplomatic relations with Italy and Germany.  (In exchange for support for its steel industry, Brazil had permitted the US to build airbases in the northeast.) In retaliation, German U-boats sank 13 Brazilian vessels over the next six months, killing over 600 people.

Vargas was a dictator himself, and also personal friends with Mussolini, but his administration was unable to withstand the public outcry over the U-boat attacks. Brazil officially declared war in August of that that year.

This led to some problems for the sizable communities of German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants living in Brazil, especially around Caxias. The government prohibited speaking these languages, leaving entire communities afraid to speak or facing punishment if they did. In Caxias, that meant renaming public spaces to scrape any trace of Italianness from them—including the central square in Caxias, which was named after Dante Alighieri.

Some Italian descendants in Caxias saw themselves as Brazilians first, but others saw themselves as proper Italians and thus supported fascism in the motherland. German and Italian nationalists could pick up AM radio signals from their respective countries, and there was even a pro-fascist newspaper in Caxias.

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All of Caxias’s WWII vets

During the war, Brazil provided the Allied efforts with military bases, supply lines to North Africa, and even troops. The US trained Brazilian forces and outfitted them with US uniforms and weapons. In the end, over 25,000 members of the army and air force were sent to invade Italy as part of the Força Expedicionária Brasileira (FEB). The entered in Naples and traveled up to northern Italy.

FEB was known as the colored division, as their racial diversity was notable alongside the segregated divisions of black- and Japanese-American soldiers. FEB helped mount offensives on the Italian front, resulting in a number of battles. The most famous of which was the victory at Monte Castello, where FEB succeeded in taking over a German stronghold.

Throughout the course of the war, nearly 1,9000 Brazilian soldiers died.

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The route FEB took through Italy

After the war, veterans weren’t revered quite as they were in the United States. Sure, their return home was celebrated, but heavy censorship of letters home depicted a skewed vision of what life on the front lines was like. Grisly accounts of the battlefield were withheld; lighter tales of day trips were permitted. As a result, the Brazilian public came to suspect soldiers were just spending their time vacationing in Italy, and civilians were less likely to look favorably on them (in job interviews, for example) as a result.

(I think it’s worth noting that this information wasn’t included on a plaque or anything in the museum; I learned about it by asking the docent if Brazil venerated its vets in a similar way as the US does.)

Despite this, the memory of FEB lives on in everyday language. Due to what appeared like Vargas’s initial reluctance to join the war effort, people began to claim “Mais fácil uma cobra fumar um cachimbo, do que a FEB embarcar para o combate“—or, “It’s more likely for a snake to smoke a pipe than for FEB to leave to fight.” As a result (and as one of my students told me), people began to use “a cobra vai fumar” (“the snake will smoke”) in a way similar to “when pigs fly.” So of course when Brazil entered the war, they adopted the moniker “smoking snakes.”

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Brazilian troops largely used US ranks/decoration, but you can spy the smoking snakes in the top left.

This iconography was also supported by the United States. Walt Disney, when he wasn’t creating a Brazilian parrot named José Carioca to star in a 1942 film likely intended to encourage ties between South America and the Allied Forces, sketched a mascot for FEB to use:

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Anyway, what I’ve presented here is the barest of outlines of Brazil’s participation in the war; you can find a lot more information about that here.

The museum was great—probably the best I’ve been to in Caxias so far, mostly because it had plaques that said what things were so I didn’t have to pester the nearby docent in order to learn something. But even when I did, I was super well-attended and the docents were exceedingly friendly and knowledgable.

On a personal note, I enjoyed being able to draw connections between my life here and the history I learned about while living in Rome. And despite the tragedy of the war, I also realized that its wake created the program that allowed me to be here in the first place. I’m continuously struck by how any event is the result of a complex web of social, economic, and political factors—and how much I have yet to learn.

A small compendium of coincidences

At some 400,000 people, Caxias do Sul isn’t a huge city. But I’ve stumbled across enough coincidences here to make me feel like it’s a lot smaller.

For example, there’s an billboard by my house that depicts a model in a crisp navy sweater. The ad is across the street from the bus stop I use to get to school, so I spend a lot of time staring at this dude while I wait. One night, I was getting a ride home down this street after a meeting of The Club, and I warned my friend my turn was coming up. “Oh, after my ad?” He asked. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t: it turned out that he modeled for a brief stint while studying photography at university, but because he had since grown a beard and was wearing glasses, I hadn’t recognized him as the model I had spent hours staring at.

That same night, Barbara came back from hanging out with some friends of a guy she met on Tinder. One of his friends turned out to be someone I had befriended through the board game group. Ironically, she went to this friend’s birthday party and not me, because I had class that evening.

A couple months later, I went out to lunch with this friend and his wife at a restaurant just outside of Caxias. We were speaking in both English and Portuguese, which prompted a woman at the table behind me to tap me on the shoulder. She explained (in Portuguese) that she overheard us speaking English and that her daughter had studied in Portland. While there, her daughter had befriended an American who now teaches English in Brazil through a program called Fulbright—which apparently also has participants placed in Caxias, and was I part of that program? I told her I was, and I made some small talk with her daughter in English, generally marveling at what a coincidence the entire encounter was. I didn’t know the ETA in question, but I messaged her on Facebook just to share the news.

Oh, and then as we were leaving the restaurant, a passing car honked at us—which I thought nothing of in the moment but later learned was Luciana, one of my host mom’s friends who happened to be on her way to another city.

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Me and said friend, Marvin, at Ninho das Aguias—a hilltop park we visited after the restaurant

Some of these coincidences just stem from the fact that people from the US aren’t super common in Caxias. (“We all want to go there; why’d you want to come here?!” is a question we ETAs often get.) I once had an Uber driver recognize my apartment because he had recently driven another American woman (Barbara) there. And when I brought my family to a museum when they were visiting me, the tour guide suspected I might be staying with Elaine, because he was friends with her daughters and knew she was hosting Americans.

I’ve also had a couple encounters that just stem from being out and about. After church one day, my program manager managed to run into the city mayor and introduce us. Another time, Elaine and I were sitting in the cafe of one of Elaine’s friends. An older gentleman (another friend of the owner) joined us, so when the friend returned to work, the gentleman and Elaine got to chatting. He was a sculptor, which was cool enough, but he also turned out to be the creator of the giant sculpture sitting at the entrance to UCS.

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“Feet in the region, eyes on the world.” Photo c/o UCS

The Fulbright program: making the world a tiny bit smaller since 1946.

Graduation in a country known for its parties

This past weekend I went to a Brazilian graduation. And by US standards, it was wild.

The lucky graduate was Giovanna, my host mom’s daughter, who just finished her bachelor’s degree at a law school in Porto Alegre. Because the campus consists of like three floors in an office building, the graduation was held in a nice theater at a mall—and this ceremony seemed intent on using every special effect the theater had at its disposal.

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On a set level, this manifested itself as crystal-looking chandeliers and gleaming silver-backed chairs on which the 49 graduates sat. Across the stage were about a dozen faculty sitting behind a long table that was covered in some sort of ivy or leaves. This table also had the Portuguese word for “law” spelled out across it in big white cursive letters that recalled a Disneyland shrub.

Meanwhile, during the distribution of diplomas, the sound system got a full workout. Each graduate had apparently gotten to choose the song that would play while they walked to receive their diploma. Selections ranged from “All Star” and a funk remix of “Sweet Dreams” to a trifecta of “The Final Countdown,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and the Rocky theme. This song would start after the graduate’s name was called, pause while the degree was conferred, and resume as the graduate returned to their seat.

Watching the graduates get their diplomas was a bit like watching contestants get called down on The Price is Right. When their names were called, graduates would thrust their arms into the air or cheer or group-jump-hug with nearby friends. Some would wave or strike a pose as they crossed the stage, capitalizing on what my host mom referred to as their five minutes of fame. It 100% felt performative (and thus more than a little inauthentic), but it also felt like I was watching an actual celebration and not just a perfunctory parade of graduates across the stage.

This was probably the highlight of the graduation, but the ceremony went on for another hour and a half. Barbara and I had arrived an hour late (thanks to a late start from Caxias, awful weather en route to Porto Alegre, GPS malfunctions while trying to find our hotel, and Uber cancellations before what turned out to be a forty-five-minute ride through rush-hour traffic), but we still ended up sitting in the theater for over two hours. That was thanks to a half-dozen (fairly long, fairly rote) speeches, which eventually drove some of our seatmates to start clapping loudly any time the last speaker paused, like they were trying to urge him off the stage.

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A plaque at UCS with examples of typical pirate-like graduation get-up

Following the ceremony was a reception that honestly made me feel like I was celebrating a wedding. It was in a hall Giovanna had split with a friend, complete with table assignments and fancy flower arrangements and a fruit-filled open bar. (Barbara and I had also received physical invitations that rivaled a wedding’s, and Giovanna had set up a personalized website for her graduation that included a wish list.) Giovanna and her classmate even made their own big entrance set to music, and of course there was a DJ and a dance floor—which Giovanna, her dad, and some of her friends started doing multiple tequila shots on sometime around 1:30 in the morning.

The menu indicated that the night would end with a hot dog “dawn snack,” but thankfully Elaine didn’t want to stay that long, and we were back at the hotel by three. It was a super interesting night—pretty typical in terms of both ceremony and celebration, from what different people told me. In the lead-up to the graduation, I was surprised by how big of a deal graduations seem to be here. I was honestly a little confused until I remarked about it to my program coordinator, who reminded me that most of these students are the first in their families to graduate. I still wouldn’t want such a celebration for myself, but at least I can better understand why others might.

In any case, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to experience a Brazilian graduation like this. Congratulations to Giovanna, and best of luck on her paths ahead!

The difficulty of leaving your culture behind is that you can’t

You may be familiar with the didactic little parable-ish story with which David Foster Wallace opened his 2005 Kenyon commencement address:

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

For much of my adult life, this has been my goal: to transition from the young fish to the old fish and recognize the water in which I live. It’s one of the reasons I chose the majors I did, and it’s also why I think travel is so important. By experiencing a new culture, you gain a new perspective on your own. But having spent five and a half months in Brazil, it’s becoming increasingly clear I’m running into a problem:

It’s really darn hard to notice water.

The clues have been there all along. I’ve mentioned how people in Caxias don’t strike me as particularly cold, because it’s what I’m used to coming from the East Coast. I’ve shared how I’ve been oblivious to entire rules in English (despite the fact I literally read about grammar for fun) simply because they aren’t taught to native speakers. And I just recounted how I assumed for some reason that all the buildings in Caxias would have indoor heating.

But this realization fully came to a head a couple days ago, when I was at a pizzeria to celebrate the birthday of one of Elaine’s daughters. Some of her friends were asking us about the things that we found strange about Brazil, so Barbara and I explained how it’s  annoying to have to go around and kiss everyone whenever you join or leave a party. (I find this is a safe difference to bring up, as opposed to like garish beauty standards or a general tendency to complain bitterly about other people’s behavior but then do the same thing yourself.)

Anyway, fast-forward a couple hours, and people start to leave. One of the friends we had been talking with stood up and gave a general wave around the table. Barbara and I said goodbye and returned to our conversation, thinking nothing of it. But then the friend said, “Just kidding! That was my American goodbye,” and proceeded to give everyone cheek-kisses instead.

Six months of living here, and I couldn’t pick up on the absence of a basic social cue because its absence aligned with my idea of normal. That’s the difficulty of noticing water.

DFW describes maintaining an awareness of water as “unimaginably hard,” which I think is fitting—it’s impossible to know what you don’t know. Even so, I went into my grant period thinking that if I was attentive enough, if I was aware enough, I would be able to make myself notice water through sheer force of will. Of course, I’m realizing nows that’s not how that works. I may be able to perceive cultural differences and check some of my perspectives at the door, but at the end of the day, I still have a history and heuristics—and I recognize I’m never going to be able to fully overcome those.

That’s not to say I don’t think I should stop trying. I think decentralizing the self is an inherent good, and the metaphor of water is a useful framework for thinking about life outside yourself. I used to have a professor who would call history the most dangerous subject because it teaches us that what is hasn’t always been. I think experiencing other cultures is similar, only lateral: it shows us what is doesn’t have to be.

Do I want to have to go around kissing everyone whenever I enter or leave a party? No. But do I wish the value at its root, a communitarian spirit of warmth and consideration for each another, had a little more traction in the US? Yes.

Don’t get me wrong; I think the US is great. I’m thankful for the opportunities it’s given me and I’m proud to represent it abroad. But at the same time, the culture of the US—like any culture anywhere—is a product of values with inherent trade-offs. From studying and living abroad, I’ve realized that some of those values I barely even register; they just seem self-evident to me. That’s my water, which I need to learn to notice.

I’ll give some more concrete examples of these cultural values in an upcoming blog post. I don’t want to come off as too self-important here, but if I’m charged as a Fulbright Scholar with increasing mutual understanding, I think calling attention to these values (and the ways in which they differ around the world) is an important step.

Like I said, I one day hope to be the old fish in the story that DFW shared. But if I have to be the young fish, I can see one silver lining: I get to learn what the hell is water.