Yeah, I know I’ve posted several things connected with Brazil. (But check out why in my post about capoeira.) In 2009, I spent a few months there teaching ESL, and in a massive understatement, it didn’t quite go as planned. What follows is a piece I performed for 2nd Story in Chicago after reflecting on the experience.
A few years ago, I was living in Brazil, working as an English teacher.
One day, during a lunch break, I ask Joe, my 17-year-old host brother who also worked at the school, if he knew where I could find a capoeira class.
In case you’re unfamiliar, capoeira is an African-Brazilian martial art originally practiced by slaves. It fuses dance and acrobatics with fighting set to live music…it’s hard to explain, mesmerizing to watch, and believe me, it’s the best workout you’ll ever have.
Anyway, Joe’s response – as he barely shook his dark blond hair out of his face to glance away from the computer was: “Capoeira is for poor people.”
I’m not sure what exact phrase referencing American culture I can use to convey the racism and classism and just plain stupidity this sentence contains, but it’s something akin to: only black people go on welfare or only gay men get AIDS. Absolutely ignorant and absurd.
“Fine,” I say to Joe, wanting to kick him in the face. “Whatever. Where can I find it?”
You see, capoeira is my solace. It’s my Zen. I mean, maybe yours is gardening, or yoga, or several shots of Jameson. But mine is capoeira. When things in my life are all mixed up, capoeira sets me right again. I needed that class.
When I went to Brazil I had expected to find capoeira on every corner. I swear though, it’s not like I had some unrealistic notion of Brazil in my head. I’d been there before – and yes, Brazil is full of everything you think it is – bikinis and sand and stinking slums. And in many cities, there is indeed a bounty of capoeira. But it is so. much. more. I had traveled from Sao Paulo to Rio to Salvador and reveled in the beauty of it all. I had found Brazilians to be warm, friendly, and inviting. The country made me feel happy and alive.
After that first trip, I decided I wanted to spend lots of time there. I was at a crossroads in my life anyway. A writing career that had taken off with a bang at age 25 made barely a wave at 30. I felt like I’d done nothing for 5 years, nothing but rack up student loans I couldn’t pay. I was also in a floundering relationship that wasn’t so bad I had an excuse to break it off, but wasn’t so good that I thought we’d be together forever. So I fancied I’d leave crazy American culture behind to teach English in Brazil and come back like Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina after she goes to France – you know: sophisticated, speaking a sexy language, maybe with a cute pixie haircut. It would be like pressing pause on my American life.
So I signed on for a five-month stint teaching ESL. I wouldn’t be able to choose the city I’d live in, but what would that matter? I’d traveled so much of the country already and had loved it all. What are the chances I’d end up somewhere I didn’t like?
I was placed in a small city in the state of Santa Catarina. It was hundreds of miles further south than I’d ever been, but I soon found out that it billed itself as the “most German town in Brazil.” But that was alright with me; I was excited. I mean, I’m German. I felt a kind of cool connection to this place.
I arrived there on a Tuesday. I met Joe, my host brother and co-worker, who was hulking and had a thick brow and feminine mannerisms. And then there was my host mother – who I nicknamed Crazy Brazilian Mom upon first seeing her. She had crooked yellow teeth, brightly dyed short red hair and a smoker’s cackle. She was wearing an “I ♥ Brasil” T-shirt that hugged the rolls of fat on her stomach and (wait for it) old jean shorts with the top button undone. She showed me through the house – big by local standards – a single-level, 3-bedroom ranch with an eat-in kitchen, a TV room and an office. My room had a window that looked out not to the outdoors, but into the dark garage. There was a lumpy double bed, a large wardrobe closet and an old TV that didn’t work. The house looked like it had been very hip in the early 1980s, but it seemed cozy enough.
Over the next week, after just 30 minutes of training, I met all of my 70 students across 23 classes which began at 7:30 in the morning and ended at 9:30 at night. I had breaks in the middle of the day – long enough to ride my bike home in the sweltering sun, eat lunch, shower and rest before heading back in the afternoon. But those breaks were often tense. Crazy Brazilian Mom would have lunch ready at 11:30 a.m. and when I would refuse to eat so early, she’d squint her eyes and shake her head. “It’ll get cold, girl,” she’d say in Portuguese.
Also, I’d often find that she had done my laundry or changed my bed sheets while I was working and refused to let me do it myself. Sure, I realized these were motherly gestures…but I was 31, not 18. They felt intrusive and nosey, not warm and inviting. Plus, I couldn’t stand the loss of control. I would politely ask her not to do my laundry but she didn’t listen. She waved off my request like I was an imbecile. So I decided that if I couldn’t stop her from doing my laundry, she certainly couldn’t stop me from not eating her food. No, it doesn’t quite make sense. But nothing made sense there.
I’d been sent to this school through a Brazilian organization based in the north of the country, and I was the fourth teacher they’d sent there. One day, Joe explained the previous teachers. “Well, they were all black,” he said as he stood at the counter stapling registration sheets. I sat at a small desk next to the counter planning my next class. “And the last teacher.” Joe wrinkled his nose and rolled his eyes. “She was black and poor. I mean, you could tell. She had really bad hair and bad clothes…and well, some of the students had a problem with it.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“So we asked for a blond teacher. A white teacher.”
He said that like I should be proud.
Suddenly, I thought there must be a camera on me. He couldn’t actually be saying these words with a straight face. Because how was this possible? Could I stay there and teach people who only wanted to learn English from a white person? Could I remain employed by the larger organization who accommodated the school’s racist request? What were my alternatives, though? I toyed with two questions.
Who does it make me if I stay?
Who does it make me if I leave?
And things only got weirder. I heard German spoken every day. Bars played German music, served German beer, and when people heard my broken Portuguese, they’d ask, “Fala Alemão?” Do you speak German? The city had been settled for more than 150 years but it had been a secluded village for much of that time and didn’t take kindly to anyone who didn’t look like them. I wasn’t surprised when I heard rumors of nazistas living and thriving in the area still.
Crazy Brazilian Mom told me one night about Mary, a previous American teacher. “Mary was black,” she said. We were walking home from school after I taught the English class where she was a student. “Things were hard when she got here too.” We took a few more steps and I thought she was making some connection about the transition for me, how she realized it was hard. But instead she said, “Because you know, black people are prejudiced against white people.”
Only, I didn’t understand word “prejudice” in Portuguese at the time – preconceito. So I couldn’t stop and tell her, “You crazy nut-job, she probably didn’t like any of you because you’re a bunch of Nazi-sympathizing, racist assholes. If it seemed like she was prejudiced against you, I can’t say I blame her. I look just like you and I can’t stand you.”
And it wasn’t just about black people or poor people. Carnival was just an excuse to be lazy and not work. Samba dancing, that was for sluts. And soccer, well, that was ok, but it was mainly for street rats, just like capoeira. They hated everything about Brazil, the Brazil that I had seen and loved. They thought they were so much better than other Brazilians because they had washing machines and garages. Seriously.
But was that a reason to leave? I wasn’t a quitter. So, I decided I would do my job and remain true to myself; I wouldn’t stand idly by when they said something stupid. Only…it was so lonely.
I withdrew more and more. I didn’t want to socialize with Crazy Brazilian Mom or Joe, and I didn’t have a single friend. I had not one person to confide in, no one to talk to. Far from fulfilling my 5 month contract, I’d been there just 6 weeks.
I came home one night and retreated as usual to my room. Only Crazy Brazilian Mom was right behind me.
“What’s your problem, Amanda?” she asked in Portuguese. “You come straight to this room every night and don’t talk to me. All of you Americans do this. Why?”
My Portuguese argument skills weren’t quite up to par so all I said was, “I’m tired.” I walked into my bedroom and plopped down on the bed.
“You don’t wanna talk to me?” She had her hand on her hip and blocked the doorway to my bedroom so I couldn’t shut the door.
“No,” I said. I was exhausted. “No, I don’t.”
“Ninguém me merece!” Nobody deserves me! she bellowed. “I do everything for everyone! No one appreciates me!”
It went on like that for awhile. By the time she slammed my door I was sobbing, wondering how soon I could get out of there. It began to seem that the aimlessness I had back home didn’t nearly outweigh my misery in this place.
In the end, it took me another week to make arrangements, but I lied to everyone, said my mom was deathly sick and I had to go home immediately. I felt awful about it of course. Racists or not, I’d made a commitment.
Was I a wimp for leaving? Was I a coward?
Regardless, I’d already set the ball in motion and had booked a ticket home. Crazy Brazilian Mom, Joe, and my direct boss Caralyn, a cold, business-minded woman who only cared about working me as many hours as possible, came to see me off. We went to a nearby restaurant for one final drink. I sat at the table, feeling like a total schmuck for lying, when Joe started talking.
“You know, our first teacher was really great…up here.” He held his hand above his head as if marking a height above him. “Then the next two were just…bad.” He brought his hand down to his chest. “And with you, you were really good.” His hand went above his head again. He paused and then shook his head. “Next they’ll send us an Indian or something.” Everyone else at the table laughed but me. Needless to say, I no longer felt so bad about leaving.
“What does it matter?” I began, trying to keep my voice calm, “If he or she can teach, does it really matter what they look like?” Everyone stopped laughing. Joe shrugged awkwardly and looked away.
So that was it. I went home.
The other day, I was in capoeira class, doing a series of cartwheels followed by a few wild kicks, when I had one of those moments of Zen. You see, I’ve spent a lot of time being angry that my overseas trip meant to find myself, meant to be relaxing, was anything but. And in that moment, I realized that I had been aching for some kind of huge life experience in Brazil…and in truth, that’s exactly what I got. I pounced into another cartwheel and started thinking, maybe there’s a reason things didn’t work out as expected. But what is it?
That’ll take a few more cartwheels to figure out.