Change Your Words

Holli Sullivan - Brazil


December 10, 2011

I watched a video once of a blind man sitting on a corner. He was holding a sign that said “I’m blind please help.” He gets the occasional dime n’ nickel, but the majority of the city folk ignore the man and go about their days.

A young woman stops in front of the man, turns his sign around, and writes a new message. The day passes and the man begins to get donations from left and right, not knowing why. The woman returns and the blind gentleman asks her “What did you do to my sign?” She smiles and tells him “I wrote the same…but different words.”

The video continues to show his new sign which now says “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.”

A simple change in words can have a huge impact on the way that people feel and behave. Sometimes this change is so subtle that it can be almost impossible to find, especially when learning a new language.

Here in Brazil, I have been meeting challenge after challenge in terms of being accepted by the people in the apprenticeships. No matter how sincere a smile you give them or how humble you feel, sometimes people really just don’t want you there. We explain with all the love and humility that we can muster that we just want to help. We are willing to help with anything, anything at all. If you want us to help with the snacks, we will help with the snacks. If you want us to help clean the bathrooms, we would love to clean the bathrooms. “A gente quer ajudar.” We want to help.

After over a month of standing awkwardly in the kitchen of APAE, trying to find ways to help, and being called “American” like it was a swear word, my roommate Annie and I were wondering why in the world we were so hated by people who didn’t even know us, and we decided to ask our host mom about it.

What our mãe told us was surprisingly comforting. While many peoples of the world may have preconceived, stereotypical ideas about Americans, it wasn’t that they hated us and didn’t want us there principally because we were American. It was more the way that we were going about it. We stood for hours and hours watching the chef at APAE cut vegetables and make mango juice, just waiting to be asked to help. That is not at all what needed to be done. Although I still don’t understand all the things my host mother says, I caught her using the word “aprender” many times in her response to us. And that is when my light bulb switched.

In Portuguese the word “aprender” means to learn. We are here to learn. This lesson from my mãe really impacted me, so today I thought I would give it a try.

In the kitchen at APAE, I decided to at least attempt to help Nede and the gals make the mango juice and cut the okra. Rather than watching, and asking over and over if they would like help, I changed my words, and told them I wanted to learn. Sure, I might have felt a little bit dumb saying that I want to learn how to cut open a bag of juice concentrate or how to cut okra the way they do, but in the end the result was better than I could have imagined. The ladies were happy to show me how to open the juice correctly, and when I messed up we laughed. When someone who knew how to cut okra tried to take it from me, Nede told them to let me do it. “She wants to learn.” She said. The glares and angry vibes from before were gone, and I was able to finally feel alright being there in the kitchen.

I realize with just a simple change of words, we have the power to change an entire situation. From now on I am no longer here to help. I am here to learn.

Holli Sullivan