Obiter Dictum

Myriam Sitterson - Brazil


December 17, 2014

I’ve been wanting to write about the challenges I’ve been facing here for some time, but I haven’t known where to begin. These three months in Brazil have not matched up with anything I could have imagined back in August, even after sitting through training seminars, reading countless blog posts, and listening to incredibly intelligent and well-meaning people with lots of life experience impart guidance and wisdom to me and the other fellows. None of their words accurately reflect the challenges I’ve encountered so far, mentally or emotionally or otherwise, and I think that’s why I’ve been struggling to find words of my own to convey how I’ve been feeling.

For one, I’ve found the term “culture shock” and the ideas surrounding it to be somewhat misleading. In Morretes, Brazil, things like popular music, food, and dress, as well as the way people generally interact with one another, are just about as different from those same cultural aspects in Miami as one would find comparing two random towns within the United States. People are people, no matter where you go, and it doesn’t make any more sense to call an entire country “warm and open” than it does to call one “fat and lazy.” My host family is loving and supportive, but that isn’t a statement about Brazilians and shouldn’t be interpreted as such. The same range of personality types and family dynamics exist everywhere, and it frustrates me when that isn’t acknowledged.

Somewhat related to all that are the conceptions of poverty that are often either expressed openly or insinuated when people (other fellows, members of my host family, friends from home, me) talk about money, or the lack of it. Especially among the fellows, there seems to be this idea that the financial resources our host families and communities possess have some sort of inversely proportional relationship to the growth and learning we will be capable of this year. Also, while there very well may be some level of correlation between living simply and being happy, I’m tired of the assumption that poverty in developing countries means beautiful, resilient people who, despite their circumstances, are happy with what they have, or that, if you spend enough time with these people, you’ll experience great personal growth, learning to appreciate your many blessings. I think the more accurate reality is that everyone wants at least a little of what they don’t have, because for each of you in the U.S. who has said you wished you could have hopped on the plane with me to Brazil in August, there are three people here who have expressed the same feeling about flying back with me in April.

When people ask me where I’m from and why I’m here, and I respond that I’m from Miami and that I’m doing a cultural exchange, the conversation almost always proceeds with “que chique!” (“how fancy!”) And it is. The fact that I’m here at all is “fancy,” and I don’t think that would change much if I were working on a farm instead of in a library. My host sister, a year younger than I am, has hardly traveled outside this town, and never outside this state. With her high school graduation next month, she’s in an important decision making period, and the feelings she expresses, the sadness at leaving home and the anticipation for the future, are ones I know and remember well, and yet, my inability to relate to her on so many other levels reminds me that there are limits to immersion. Sometimes I feel ridiculous when I talk to my host family or other members of my community about anything specifically program-related, like the purpose of training sessions for example, or the assignments I’ve been given to think about while I’m here (things like setting goals and risk-management and capstone projects). Why is that? Why does it feel like there’s a discrepancy somewhere in all of this? Because, on the one hand, I believe wholeheartedly in Global Citizen Year’s mission, and I love what I am doing here. On the other hand, I’m barely nineteen and sometimes I have no idea what I want for myself, much less what want for this community. I just don’t want to do anything for the sake of checking off boxes.

*obiter dictum (noun): a judge’s incidental expression of opinion, not essential to the decision and not establishing precedent.

Myriam Sitterson