Learning about Life: A Reflection after Living in Brazil

Danni Askew
July 1, 2014

I am characteristically indecisive, and up until 11:50pm on the night last of fall when it was due at midnight, I had not submitted any applications to study abroad in any program. So many countries excited me, but nothing could beat the excitement I subconsciously felt at the chance to spend 4 months in Brazil: a tropical, Latin country known for its social emphasis on having fun. I did not know a single word in the Portuguese language, and I did not know anything about Rio de Janeiro; I did not even know that Brazil would be hosting the World Cup or the Olympics, or anything about the economic status of the country, or about any racial or socioeconomic inequalities among citizens (all of which I am now embarrassed to admit).

All I knew was that I craved meeting people with diverse backgrounds and learning from social experiences outside of an academic school setting, and Rio seemed like the perfect place to do that. Out of nowhere, I felt a wave of confidence and a desire to take a leap of faith. I spewed out my information onto an application for the IES Abroad Rio program and sent it in at 11:59. Subsequently, I stayed up all night researching Brazil. From pictures and short online articles, I began to create expectations of what my time in Brazil would be like.

Most of the pictures I saw were bright, colorful pictures of Carnival. When I searched pictures of Rio, I saw the beautiful natural landscape of mountains, beaches on the ocean, downtown skyscrapers, and favelas lining hills in the background. I had limited knowledge of the music in Brazil, but I had prior exposure to Chôro and Bossa Nova through my history playing classical guitar. I was picturing constant singing and dancing through the street, people laughing, and spinning around the streets. I was expecting an entire country’s landmass as a tropical island full of parties and dancing. I only imagined happy people, with that famous Latin sociability and friendly outgoing spirit. I was prepared for Carnival-like activities every day all-year-round.

My main goal prior to studying abroad was to be immersed in a new culture. I had never experienced culture shock before in my life, even to the smallest extent of moving to a new summer camp or moving to college, I had never gone through an experience that shocked me or made me feel remotely scared. I was looking forward to feeling culture shock in hopes that I could experience a new emotion and learn from a culture which was drastically different from my own. I had goals of playing music with locals and learning about different instruments and genres, and speaking to local musicians about the significance of music in their lives.

From the few pictures I had seen of Rio, I was not expecting the many similarities between Rio and other large urban American cities. I was a little disappointed in the lack of culture shock I felt. The streets were flooded with advertisements promoting an American sense of capitalism, and there were corporate American companies everywhere, such as Coca-Cola, Subway, McDonalds, and many other food products. I was “culture shocked” in the sense that I was shocked how similar the culture in Rio was to urban American culture.

Admittedly, these strong opinions were founded in the first two weeks of living in Rio, when we did not have full-time classes and spent most of our days on the beach. The biggest cultural aspect I was shocked by was the high amount of skin exposure around town, but I did not attribute this to a difference between Brazilian and American cultures; I attributed this to the difference between my cold, rural, Midwestern culture and any warm, urban, beach culture, whether in Florida or California or Rio. My initial impression of Rio was a party city, full of fun and lacking any worries. However, after classes started, I realized that the first two weeks were a temporary vacation in the touristy paradise areas of the city. I was able to begin to see the daily routines of people living and working in Rio.

Every day of the week, I started and ended my days by taking the public bus. At first I didn’t mind the 90-minute commute, because I was too focused on taking the right bus, not getting lost, and making it to school before class started. After a few weeks of using Rio’s public transportation, I started to understand the critiques of the efficiency and predictability of the busses. It takes patience, flexibility, and sometimes creativity to get to work or school every morning. At the bus stops, I saw the frustration and worry in many people’s eyes as they waited for their busses to come. On the busses, I tried to overhear conversations among locals, although I was limited to understanding their communication through nonverbal signals due to their fast pace in speaking Portuguese. Their gestures, facial expressions, tons, and actions gave me enough to interpret without understanding their words.

A huge majority of the observations I documented throughout the semester were from bus stops or bus rides. I didn’t realize the significance of this pattern until later on in the semester. I gained an appreciation for the public transportation in Minneapolis, and I gained admiration and respect for the people in Rio who deal with this every day. I felt hopeless and helpless that I didn’t have control or suggestions to improve the transportation system, which makes me try to imagine how much more hopeless or helpless the people who live here must feel.

In my academic courses at IES Abroad, I learned about cultural and societal issues in Brazil as a nation, not exclusive to Rio. In my Race, Nation, and Cultural Identity class, I was learning about racial discrimination and issues of cultural cannibalism from the rest of the world. In my Music and Society class, I learned about the role of different Brazilian music genres in different sectors of Brazil throughout recent history. In Urban Narratives, we discussed creative interpretations of real-life struggles of Brazilian citizens. In Service Learning and Portuguese, we learned many overarching themes which tied the content of my other three courses together with things I was beginning to observe in daily life. I am thankful for things I was learning in class that were easily applicable to the daily lives of the Cariocas around me. My academic studies were supplemental to things I was learning by living in Rio, and vice versa.

I underestimated the amount I would learn from my host family. My “host family” was living with a 66-year-old woman who welcomed my roommate and me into her home. She has three children, two of whom live in Rio, and an ex-husband who also lives nearby. The four of them all became family to me: a source of comfort in this overwhelming experience. They were friendly, welcoming, included us into their family routines, and embodied all of the Latin hospitality I had ever hoped for. We occasionally had brunch on Sunday afternoons and sat around playing traditional Brazilian songs with guitars around the piano. They taught me how to speak Portuguese and constantly encouraged me to practice with them. Through my time spent with them, many of my goals and hopes were fulfilled, and many wonderful memories were made.

Besides my professors at school, my host family was my most easily-accessible source of answers to any questions I had. I appreciated their willingness to help me understand many of the complex inner-workings of Brazilian society. However, I remember the day that I realized that all of my information about issues in Brazil were coming from people who spoke English: all of my professors, the staff at IES Abroad, my host family and their friends. Although I felt like I was hearing opinions representing all ends of the social spectrum, it occurred to me later that I was only hearing directly from people who were well-educated and speaking on behalf of others. This was when my motivation to learn Portuguese kicked into full-gear.

Prior to this moment, my primary motivations to speak Portuguese were for ease of navigating the city, avoiding being taken advantage of by people who overcharge services to tourists, and blending in on the streets to prevent being targeted by thieves. After this moment, all of those motivations were still relevant, but my primary focus was on being able to hear and understand the opinions of local people who were not fluent in English.

This is one of the many reasons I was enthused to work at my service learning placement. This was a direct route of accessing local people, who worked in a field and lived in a neighborhood which were removed from tourism. Besides looking forward to working with kids and getting involved with an organization, I wanted to speak with the employees and hopefully hear their opinions on issues in Rio and Brazil.

Many of my classmates openly expressed negative sentiments towards Cariocas, calling them rude. However, I am convinced that Cariocas, understandably, reflect the attitude given to them. When I acted tired or impatient when asking someone on the street for directions, often the people did not give effort to help me in return. When I was sincere in asking for help or advice, I have never met a Carioca who was anything less than helpful and generous with their time and advice.

It’s difficult to take a step back from the situations we are in, especially monotonous daily routines, or during exciting and overwhelming moments. It requires intentionality. However, the times I remembered and chose to try to observe how a group is being observed, I always learned something. Trying to notice how one person’s actions affect another person is an important skill in any situation throughout life. Trying to open your eyes to new ways of seeing the world is a skill I will try to improve for the rest of my life.

The most emotional part about writing this reflection has been that I was mostly using past-tense when describing the experiences I’ve had in Brazil. It is a tough realization that all of these learning experiences are in the past now. Although I will continue learning about life through many experiences in the future, it is still sad that this major experience has come to an end. I am so happy when I look back at the huge amount of random things I have learned: about Rio, about Brazil, about the world, about humanity, about life, and about myself. I have absolutely zero regrets about studying abroad in Brazil; I am thankful for that last-second decision to come to Rio. I still have endless unanswered questions from my time here, but I am accepting that some things take time to process, and sometimes there are no answers to the questions I am so desperately interested in.

I expect the confidence I gained in stepping outside my comfort zone and pursuing individual adventures to carry me through many years in the future. I gained appreciation and confidence in standing up for people or causes which are unrightfully being spoken out against, in small cases with friends being closed-minded or in large cases with the entire country of Brazil and FIFA. I also learned the importance of being surrounded by people who will hold me to those same standards. I want to continuously challenge my opinions and perspectives for the rest of my life.

One way my perspective changed this semester is my perception of the size of Earth. In some ways, the world seems smaller than I ever imagined, because it seems more accessible than I ever thought. Other countries don’t seem as far away, now that I have traveled across hemispheres, and seeing the many commonalities between Brazil and the United States reminds me of the innate commonalities throughout humanity everywhere. I feel a greater sense of participating in an international community, and working to meet and understand many more groups of people in my lifetime. Contrarily, in some ways, the world seems bigger than I ever imagined. It has been humbling to begin to realize how little I understand about this world. The many differences in social norms and values have made me critically analyze why I think the way I do, and strive to be put in uncomfortable situations which force me to learn about diversity among societies.

It could be argued that I learned more about life in these past 4 months than I have in the previous 21 years combined, although it’s hard to compare since most of the things I learned have been built upon past experiences, thoughts, and lessons. I will continue to build upon the things I learned here and apply them to my life and future studies. I will forever hold in my heart the sense of home I felt in Brazil, the love I had for many aspects of the culture here, the memories I made with friends and strangers, and the things I learned about life.

Danni Askew

<p><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">I am a junior studying sociology, public health, mathematics, and leadership at the University of Minnesota. I&#39;m passionate about music and express that passion through an all-female a cappella choir on campus. In my free time, I enjoy playing classical guitar, percussion, piano, and writing music. During every summer, I work at a summer camp in northern North Dakota; I love outdoor adventures and working with kids.</span></p>

2014 Spring
Home University:
University of Minnesota
Explore Blogs