In 2010, I spent three weeks in Puebla, Mexico to finish up my master’s program in ESL. Amid ancient cathedrals and extensive teaching units and luxurious welcomes and late-night plaza dancing and studious students and chocolaty mole dishes and open air markets, I found myself–in the air conditioned safety of my hotel room–having a meltdown. My skin crawled. I was overwhelmed with exhaustion. My brain was tangled between two languages. My body felt like it was walking in the twilight zone. My heart ached for home… for comfort, for ease, for freedom from having to work so damn hard to understand the mere basics of life.
I can’t help but reflect on that experience as we prepare to move 5,769 miles south to Brazil.
Like the naive
American expat I am, I have been predicting the layers of culture shock and in what order they will fall.
- First: school culture. One of the reasons I am changing student demographics is because over the last ten years teaching, I have felt my pedagogical craft dwindle more and more into the realm of motivational therapy. In each of the three schools I have taught, I have spent the first year there working my way into the hearts and trust of students; if not, there would be no learning. And though that is exactly where I want to dwell, and also where students remain forever with me, it is utterly exhausting to pour the entire contents of your identity out over and over and over and over, just hoping it will stick. (And of course, I do not in anyway blame the students. I blame their trauma and the system, but that is another post.) When interviewing for my new job, one of the questions the superintendent asked me was: “What are you most nervous about?” To which, I responded: “Having to win over another group of students.” He looked at me, quizzically, and then followed with a statement: “Oh, you won’t have to worry about that; Brazilians are so warm and welcoming. They will love you from day one.” Talk about a foreign language. Huh? Additionally, I have spent the last ten years convincing students what they can do: overcome society’s low expectations, overcome their neighborhood’s low expectations, overcome the school’s low expectations, overcome their own low expectations. Now, I wonder how much of my job is going to be convincing students of what they do not have to do: be perfect, pile it on, extend their resumes from two to three pages, add one more club, avoid mistakes, look a certain way, do it all. I have felt my calling the last ten years as one of inspiration; and now, I think it will be more aligned with the archaic definition: giving students the space to breath.
- Second, city culture. This feels even more poignant as I have spent the last couple of weeks before departing the country in the country. In the mornings, we sit on the porch and watch the circus-squirrels fly from tree to tree and comically climb up (or fall down) a slinky to get to the bird feeder. We sit on the porch and listen to the echo of morning doves and the call of cardinals and the squelch of black birds. We sit on the porch and watch the sunlight dance in and out of shade. We sit on the porch and feel the caress of the wind. We sit on the porch and rest in the peace of nature. We did that in Evergreen, too. And now, we are moving to the straight. up. city. High rises and traffic and airports and favelas and exhaust and pigeon poop and sirens and constant lights… well, I don’t know what else, because we’ve never done it before.
- Then, third, Brazilian culture. In Mexico, I could manage the language. But Portuguese? And what am I going to wear on a very-liberal-almost-naked beach? How do I pay in a currency I can barely pronounce? Am I going to be just another fat American? How do I get my prescriptions refilled? How do I follow along in a foreign workout class? Am I going to stick out like a sore thumb? What if I cling my forks on the plate in a restaurant? What other faux pas am I going to commit before I even realize what a faux pas is? (And how do you say that? And is there a word for that in Portuguese?) How do I find someone reliable to wax my privates? What if we can’t even find our way out of the airport? What if they think my anxiety-reducing-poop-provoking-magnesium-powder is crack? The more question marks I type, the more I think this actually might be the first after all.
If I’ve learned anything from my meditation practice, it is that 1, what we avoid, expands and 2, by naming it, something loses its grip. And so, this post.
I will welcome culture shock by its name, a guest to the party of adventure.