Why being oneself in Brazil isn’t a breeze – Observations

In my time abroad, mostly in Colombia and Brazil, I’ve noticed something significant. No matter how much I study the culture or how good my language skills are, it’s hard to be myself. What do I mean by that? This post by Leo at The Lions Den is self-explainitory, but I’ll repost the part that struck me.

“We hit the Rio Vermelho district and sat outside drinking beer late into the morning. Pretty common occurrence by our standards, but what set this particular outing apart was the subtle cultural interaction that happened between her students and myself. To my glee, I have reached a point in my Portuguese that allows me to be my safado, jokester, no public shame kind of self, and it is indeed most liberating. The process of learning a language has been somewhat difficult for me, as I have had to survive being the quiet awkward observant one for too long. I hate this. Truly hate it.”

I know the pain you’ve endured, Leo. Even with my knowledge of Portuguese being tested at 96%, give or take, that still doesn’t mean I can be myself in Brazil. This has to do with a single factor which has two sides, one is knowing that your spoken Portuguese is fluent and versatile, the other side is being confident enough that you won’t mess up (or that you’ll be okay with sounding like an idiot in the case you do). It’s the former that bothers me.

My spoken Portuguese in a normal conversation with a stranger borders on quite good but not great and this is noticable when you are a native-speaker/stranger talking to me. Luckily, I’ve reached the point where they assume I’m Brazilian but they just can’t place me (although when they do, it’s as a gaúcho while in the North or a Paulista/Carioca otherwise). Nobody likes sounding like an idiot so this makes you think twice about how you say what you say and also about how much to say. For day-to-day operations, I go for ‘short and sweet’ but when out to have fun or even to learn, this method doesn’t cut it.

Personally, I like to see how long I can go with others thinking I’m Brazilian but it doesn’t bother me in most cases when they know I’m not. At this point though when they find out I’m not, I’ll get one of two treatments. Either they will pretend I’m a complete moron linguistically or they will treat me normally. Being an American interested in South America has its advantages here. For one, I’ve grown up in a culture where no one really talks to each other so in the case I’m seen as the linguistic moron, it’s a good way to not talk to people I otherwise wouldn’t talk to. A personal interest in Brazil though gives me another option, I can talk to those who treat me normally and that is a chance to learn more about their (regional) culture.

One may come across certain situations which come down to taste, preference and environment rather than language skills. One such example is when you find yourself in a noisy bar and you are with a group of around 5-6 people, perhaps more. Let’s assume, as is the case most of the time, that the conversations going on at the table are in Portuguese. Let’s also assume you can’t understand 85% of what is being said and therefore you have trouble following along. This has zero to do with study-time and everything to do with how you are in your home country. In the U.S., I like bars but I don’t like crowds and by extension that means I don’t like noisy bars. Why? Because you can’t hear a thing, meaning you can’t concentrate, meaning you can’t join in on the conversation and enjoy yourself without going hoarse. In Brazil though (or any other country), not participating makes you seem like you are either a quiet foreigner or a stuck-up foreigner…no one seems to consider the fact that it’s just not your thing to be in a noisy place (if you go to Brazil, get used to it, it’s a noisy place all-together).

Getting back to the main point; being yourself. The things I’ve discussed can definitely make it hard to relax and ‘shoot the breeze’ or even to get into a conversation that is on the more intellectual/philisophical side. The solution to being able to be yourself is to either give in 100% to your efforts…meaning study spoken, informal Portuguese like your life depended on it without fear for error and with a mind open to corrections OR to find people who are bilingual, especially if you consider yourself to be bilingual too. In the case of the latter, you can make jokes in both languages and discuss the finer points of an issue in either language, etc., etc. In my experience though, with a long-time conversation partner (be it a friend or what-have-you), you’ll fall into using one language most of the time with the occasional code-switching for words you both understand have a more loaded meaning in one language or the other. Over the years, I swear I did not try to meet and become friends with English-speaking Brazilians but most of my good Brazilian friends are fluent in English. It’s refreshing then to be able to be oneself for a change, to not be the quiet and possibly-frustrated foreigner but to just be the same person you’ve always been, whatever that means to you.

This post goes out to my good friends (you know who you are) whose own interest in my native tongue have allowed for a fuller experience of friendship than I could have had with anyone who is monolingual. After all, my Brazilianist inclinations almost require that a good friend be bilingual so we can be free to share ourselves and our interests in the language we see fit.