I’ve been an ESL teacher in Brazil for the last four years now, and in this time, my students have thrown a number of interesting questions my way. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that one asked something that really made me stop and think. Since being asked, the following question has corkscrewed itself into my thoughts:
‘Andrew, how has Brazil changed you?’
Well after careful consideration, I have three examples I’d like to share with you all.
I used to live in Japan; a land where people bowed a lot and generally avoided all kinds of physical contact…and then I moved to Brazil. I’m not gonna lie to you, during my first few weeks here I really felt like I’d stepped through the looking glass into a completely different world! Over in Brazil people think nothing of kissing and hugging, which certainly took some getting used to.
I’m well aware that I must have looked exquisitely awkward during my first few months in São Paulo, like someone with intimacy issues who badly needed to see a therapist! Well nowadays I’ve become accustomed to greeting people like a Brazilian. But this has got me thinking…..what will I be like when my time as an expat draws to a close and I find myself living back in the UK? It took a while for me to stop bowing at the Tesco checkout women on my return from Japan, so I hope I’m able to quickly snap out of hugging and kissing people I’ve just met upon my return to blighty!
This point is actually something I tend not to talk about because it is one aspect of living here I find unsettling. Last year some good friends of mine came to visit, and one evening we found ourselves in the unenviable position of needing to use the metro during rush hour. As we waited in line to pass through the turnstiles, out the corner of my eye I saw a guy on a skateboard begging for money. He had no legs and was using his swollen hands to pull himself along the floor. My friend gasped as soon as she laid eyes on him, and then remarked:
Of course, I had…but I’m used to seeing this sort of thing on a daily basis, so I wasn’t nearly as shocked as she was. I looked over at him and then back at my friend, and then I forced myself into an expression of sympathy. I was clearly a lot more detached to what I was seeing than my friend, and recognising this instantly made me feel uneasy.
There are a lot of people in this city in desperate need of help, and as cold as this might sound, this guy is just one of many. I understand homelessness and poverty are problems around the world and not issues exclusive to São Paulo or Brazil. Yet for me, they aren’t things I’ve really had to deal with before. Since resigning myself to the fact I can’t help everybody, I’ve hardened to seeing people like this. I’ve had to, as a resident of São Paulo this is now my reality. But what this means is that these people have become like ghosts to me, people who I rarely allow to trouble my consciousness.
When discussing the subject with one of my friends a few weeks ago, he reasoned:
“If you give money to everyone who needs it, you will become poor too.” This might be what I wanted to hear, but it doesn’t change the fact I now think nothing to walking past homeless and desperate people daily, without so much as pausing for thought. In this respect, São Paulo has changed me in a way that I don’t feel so comfortable with.
Reevaluating some of my ideas about the UK
As most expats can identify, I’ve been confronted with things in my new home that have challenged me to reevaluate the way I perceive my own country. With the World Cup looming, I thought I’d share one topical example of this.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that all people from England will grow up to become tea drinkers, talk about the weather excessively and be proud of their World Cup win almost fifty years ago. The way the press back home bang on about 1966, it makes it pretty difficult for us English to dismiss our victory as anything less than being a HUGE deal. However, during the last World Cup my Brazilian colleague took great delight in pointing out just how unimpressed he was with this victory.
“What? You have won it before?” he teased.
“Eeeerm, of course we have!” I asserted, as if he were a fool for not knowing this!
“Just the once?” he continued, with a teasing smirk playing across his lips.
“Well, yes in 1966.”
“Cute! You know Brazil has won it five times?”
With my pride somewhat ruffled, I tried to think of something redeeming to respond with; to communicate to him the importance of this win to us English. But…I couldn’t! In less than one minute he’d forced me to confront the fact that, in comparison to the Brazilian team, our win isn’t really such a big deal after all!