I decided to study abroad the summer before my senior year of college. The short reason for why I decided to do this was that I knew I would never get another chance to do something like this again in my life. Oh, and I picked a country – Brazil – with which I had no previous exposure or experience with the primary spoken language, Portuguese. When I got off the plane in Florianopolis after 13 hours of transit, I was completely blown away at the beauty around me. Mountains were in all directions and the ocean kissing the sky filled in all the gaps of the horizon. The first few days were a complete blur. For those wondering if culture shock is a real thing, it is. I met all the other students in my program the night I arrived and we had orientation all day the next two days. After that, I was delivered to my host family along with my roommate. So began my start to adapt to Brazilian culture. I was so scared those first few days, and that’s completely normal. But something incredible happened when I started to push the fear back and take a few risks each day: I started to grow within this new societal structure that I wouldn’t have experienced anywhere else.
I made sure that I had some kind of an adventure each day. Whether it was something small like fishing in the river of my homestay’s backyard or something big, like hiking over the mountains of Floripa to secret beaches, I always made sure to push myself. I also made an effort to use the little Portuguese I was learning each day, with wonderful success (at least in my eyes). After three weeks, I could converse about basic things pertaining to myself, such as what I was studying and how long I had been in Brazil. I even attended a cultural exchange event with some Brazilians to practice my Portuguese. When I told them I had only been learning Portuguese for a little less than a month, their jaws dropped! No, it’s not because I’m uniquely gifted in language learning (hah), it’s because I made a dedicated effort to become “more” while I was in Brazil.
Another interaction I like to tell people about is the one I had with a traditional Brazilian barber. I got pretty shaggy while I was there and I was in desperate need of a haircut. But I was unsure whether I could explain the haircut I wanted without ending up with a mohawk. My program director in Floripa helped me make an appointment and taught me a few words that would let the barber know what I wanted, then wished me good luck. I walked in very hesitantly, and all the while was rehearsing the sentences I had pieced together before walking in. When my barber came downstairs to get me, he greeted me and told me he was actually learning English! We agreed that, for the hour-plus appointment, I would only speak in Portuguese and he would speak in English. While he cut my hair, we talked about music, movies and how he wanted to visit the US so he could drive down Route 66 and perfect his English. I loved every minute of it, and I got a really nice haircut on top of everything else!
I know how lucky and amazing this sounds, but it’s not unusual. So many of the other students in my program had experiences just like this. I would go as far to say that it’s common in other places, too. The Brazilians we met were so thrilled that we were making an effort to learn about their culture and language that they were more than happy to be patient with us and help us with the Portuguese we knew, or take us to some of their favorite spots on the island. Needless to say, we all fell in love with the isle of Floripa.
When I was in the US of A, it was easy to think that English was the language we should all be speaking and that my culture was the same as everyone else’s around me. This meant that I was hesitant to reach outside of my own social circles, which throughout my life have been anything from baseball buddies to other Texans. Now, having been an outsider in a totally alien place, I can see things from a whole new perspective. When I get back and look around my campus now, I will see groups of international students in a whole new light. I’ll see that it’s just a hesitant group of people eager to learn about the culture they are in, but unsure about how to go about it. I have a new patience and respect for those that I meet in the world. Further, I’ve been blessed with the ability to accept cultural traditions of others, instead of just enforcing my own.
University of Tulsa ‘17
Florianopolis, Brazil Summer 2016