Reality Check

Annie Plotkin - Brazil


November 9, 2011

At Fall Training for Global Citizen Year, we were taught to be open-minded, compassionate, and to expect the unexpected. By the time our departure rolled around, I was sure that I was going to be the American that broke down all the barriers and stereotypes; furthermore, I envisioned this happening with a pretty picture frame around each moment I hugged my host mom and laugh with a child in the street.

While I have hugged my host mom many times and laughed with my host niece, these experiences have been outweighed in terms of sheer quantity by the instances of standing around feeling the eyes on my cargo pants and blundering at an attempt to try something new like eating sugar cane (who knew you didn’t swallow it?).

Another example of failing to expect the unexpected was my conversation with the cook at my apprenticeship. We were in silence as she washed dishes, cooked beans, and poured coffee while I sat and watched, as she insisted she didn’t need any help, let alone want any. Since I couldn’t show her that I was a capable person, I wanted to at least demonstrate that I wasn’t taciturn, or worse, arrogant. After gathering courage for a few minutes while she wrapped up the beans and the dishes, I finally asked “você tem filhos?” or “do you have children?” I was proud of my innocent and conversation-opening question, but was shaken when all she replied was “sim”. I took another moment to assess my options and decided to tackle this with another friendly and non-intrusive question, but when I asked if they all lived nearby, her answer remained the same, clipped, uninviting “sim”.

The conversation continued in a similar pattern for another three or four questions until I finally took the hint that silence was part of staying out of the way, and by forcing her to listen to my not-so-adorable Portuguese I was just as much in the way as if I was putting forks in the wrong place.  In my sullen silence I reflected on the frustration I had been feeling at my apprenticeship. At the time it felt appropriate to be self-indulgent and decide that this woman was simply unfriendly and that my apprenticeship was simply not working out. What was I doing watching dishes dry anyway?

But self-indulgence rarely gets a student abroad anywhere when it comes to adjusting. What I am learning is that some people don’t want to waste time at their job to show a young kid how to do something simple, or sift through my Portuguese for the usable bits, or display sympathy when I show up late and sweaty from getting lost on the way back from lunch. But can I blame them? Absolutely not. As my friend and fellow GCY Fellow Holli Sullivan put it, “what if some random foreign kid showed up at your job and asked you to explain how to fill an ice bucket when you have a line of customers and a language barrier?”.

So not everyone I encounter is a glowing gateway to the next level of my gap year. I’m also not a knight in shining armor who is going to change the life of every child I talk to and every cook I pester. Now that I have anxiously torn off the gleaming wrapping paper that shielded the perfect year that I imagined, I’m getting the reality check that I wasn’t expecting but sorely need.

Annie Plotkin