03.08.10

Culture Shock—Coming to America

Posted in Brazilian Culture, Memoir Writing at 03:21 pm by admin

I was at a discussion group a few days ago, and one of the participants said: “Poor people of the world are suffering, their lives are miserable, and we must do all we can to help them find happiness.” I spent a lot of time thinking about this and I am perplexed and disturbed by this typical American point of view. Here is my opinion:

I disagree that all poor people are “suffering and miserable.”  Yes, I am sure all poor people would love to have their situations improved, but I promise you that an improved situation does not automatically bring “happiness.”

In my book, Divine Betrayal, which is based on my missionary childhood in Brazil, I describe what it is like to be poor. Although we lived in a modest, comfortable house, my parents were poor missionaries, and we never had much in the way of earthly goods. All my friends were very poor as well; their parents only had money for the necessities of life. My best friend’s house, across the street, had two rooms, a kitchen and a living room that also served as the bedroom; they used an outhouse for the bathroom. Their kitchen had a dirt floor, while the living room/bedroom had a wooden floor. They ate fish, beans, rice, manioc flour, tomatoes, and the fruit they could pick from wild trees. My friend had only one dress her mother had sewn to be worn at church and for special occasions, and she had two everyday outfits.

None of my friends wore regular shoes, they had tamancos, (a wooden soul, with a leather strap across the top). Most clothing was passed down from older siblings or cousins.  Even so, we never made fun of each other or yearned for nicer clothing.  We were content just being kids.

Through we didn’t have radios, TV’s, books, or store-bought toys, we never lacked for entertainment. We played hopscotch, jump rope, hide and seek, had cookouts, spent our time telling stories, catching crabs, swimming, etc…. There was no time to be bored. Our lives were not poor, but indeed they were very rich.

Brazilians are very demonstrative. When speaking in Portuguese, our hands and arms are constantly moving, and it is impossible to speak in this manner without experiencing emotions. As children and teenagers, we laughed a lot, and we cried a lot. We were never afraid to let others know how we felt about something.

The truth is, I only felt deprived when I was away from this emotional way of living, away from Brazil, away from Coqueiros and away from my “poor” neighborhood.

I have very vivid memories of returning to America, at eleven and again at age eighteen. I was lonesome for my Brazilian friends and I felt a deep void. What’s worse is, in spite of my sadness, I was expected to hide this emotion. I can best explain it as cultural shock, because in America, it was expected that I not show my emotions.

English was not my first language. I dressed differently and I spoke with an accent. I was teased about my accent and my dress. It was painful to be teased by other kids. I spent most of my time alone. I missed the richness of being so close to the basics of life, the everyday tragedy of death and the sadness for those who were very ill and near death. And I missed the joy of holidays, weddings, church services, friendships, the birth of a child, etc…

It seemed that life back there, in that poor place, was richer, more alive and more real. In America, I felt this sadness, this void for more than a year until I adjusted to the American culture and all its abundance and earthly comforts. I learned from my “impoverished childhood” that money, comfort, and wealth do not bring happiness.

So, I reject the idea that “poor people’s lives are miserable and we Americans can help them find happiness.” Nonsense! My experience screams to me, “happiness does not come from material abundance and cool emotions. Happiness comes from living a rich, emotional life, and fully experiencing life’s joys and sorrows.”

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