Tuesday, August 21, 2012


In two weeks I will be celebrating my five year anniversary here in Natal. Five years is a long time, especially when I think in terms of it being half as long as my parents lived in Brasilia as missionaries! I have now lived in Natal a year longer than I lived in Abilene, and a year shy of how long I lived in Edmond. It's safe to say this place is a part of me, and I'm as comfortable here as any of the other places I've called home.


Culture is a funny thing. Culture is one of those things that can make you love and hate a place with the exact same intensity at the exact same moment. Culture is learned, culture is taught. It's obvious, it's subtle. Cultural gaffes have surely gone down in the annals of Most Embarrassing Moments for millions of people. Cultural idiosyncrasies are what call travelers back over and over again to beloved places.

Before I left for Natal five years ago, my mom gave me a crash-course in several cultural tips. Looking back on her selection, it's funny to see what she chose to include. "The way you refuse something you are being offered is by just saying thank you, rather than no thank you," she told me. I learned this the hard way at a dinner party a few months later where I was desperate for something to drink. As the waiter brought over a tray of soft drinks, I said thank you and reached for a glass. Before I knew it he had turned around and walked away, taking my drink with him. "Oh," I remember thinking, "that's what she meant."

So much of my cultural sensitivity today was not taught. No one made a list for me and said "learn this." I had to pay attention to the way those around me behaved in certain situations and try to remember to do the same the next time around. Some of what I've learned, I've learned begrudgingly. I don't always want to greet people coming in the door with a kiss on both cheeks or share my food just because someone walked in while I was eating. But the longer I'm here, the more I understand the implications of not following suit. You see, what to me might seem like low-consequence going through the motions, to others it's a matter of basic dignity and manners. A few times I've found out after the fact that someone felt slighted by me or thought I had something against them because I had not followed appropriate cultural protocol. My blunder was that I walked into a room full of people and didn't greet each person, one by one.

Learning culture is a process. Five years later, and here I am still feeling silly or stupid or deeply embarrassed  over cultural gaffes, large and small, old and recent. My friends claim me as one of their own, joking that I'm more Brazilian than they are. I love that kind of compliment, but know that I can't accept it, much less allow it to give me any kind of confidence. I might have learned to always offer a glass of water to anyone who walks through my door, but there's still a chance I will forget, as they leave, to walk them to the door and open it for them, thereby demolishing any kind of Brazilian cultural street cred I might have built up.

My five years here in Natal have taught me much. Perhaps the most important lesson learned in my cultural education has been that Brazilians are very forgiving. No matter how many times I mess up, they're willing to forgive, forget, and assume ignorance rather than impoliteness. And regardless of where I end up, that's the best cultural tip I could take.

1 comment:

boyd2 said...

Excellent post. Well-written, informative, insightful, and full of heart. My kind of blog post!