The Difference Between Man and Wolf

Alan De Leon - Brazil

January 9, 2013

During the weekdays, I make a regular 30 minute walk to my apprenticeship organization’s headquarters. Back in Houston a similar trek would have been largely annoying – my car courts my laziness. I get a kick out of HQ every time I see it. It is an odd structure by common architectural standards: the outer walls are made out of plastic 2-liter soda containers; stacked glass bottles form the inner walls; the roof is composed of clouds and open sky; bottle caps meshed with cement are the floors; old tires are used as substitutes for chairs; one has to climb ladders into any of the three tree-houses found within to find, what I would suggest to be, the lobbies. If I could describe us in one sentence, I would say this: Grupo Ambientelista de Palmerias is an eco-concerned task-force that ventures to defend nature from destruction, and litter.

One morning, as I was organizing my tools at HQ to go collect my entire town’s recycling–the most tedious assignment of the week. I was relieved in knowing that this day in particular I had reinforcements coming in: an American cohort of 20 college students in the middle of a semester study-abroad program. This would mark the first time in months since I last had direct contact with an American. I am also the only English or Spanish speaker within an 80 kilometer radius. Brazilians say my Portuguese is fluent; it is the only language I speak now, and without internet access at my house here, I don’t have other options anyways.

I was excited to meet and talk with these people. When they arrived, I greeted them, welcomed them, and started prepping them for the day’s work. I spoke to them only in Portuguese, simply because I knew how. As I stood there amongst them, however, something felt abnormal: a disturbance of some kind was mutating the air, making it thinner. It caused my lungs to palpitate, and a rush of anxiety was condensing my blood. I could not explain what was happening, it felt as if the sanctuary of my realm was suddenly being invaded by unwelcomed guests: as I overheard the kinds of conversations the Americans were having, such as the implications of Barack Obama’s second presidential term and the season finale of The Walking Dead; as I noted the brands of clothing they were wearing, such as NY snapback hats, American Eagle polo shirts, Nike track shorts, and Sketchers sneakers; as I saw them mingle with each other, with their English, I could not help but feel so detached, so excluded, so alien to them. All I had on was a yellow t-shirt with a recycling logo in the front, swim trunks and a pair of Havaianas on my feet.

They spoke to me in a less-developed Portuguese, convinced by my new accent that I was a Brazilian. They took pictures of me next to the Recycle-Mobile, as if I were part of an exhibit at a contemporary Brazilian museum. They bombarded me with questions about Bahia and my life in it, treating me as if I was one of Brazil’s features and representative of its culture. They gathered around me, enclosing my freedom, suffocating my peace. They prodded me with their wonder, asking how long have I lived in Brazil, which city I was born in, and if I was any good at dancing Samba or Capoeira.

Their presence struck me with the most profound culture shock I have ever experienced in my life: Not by cause of Brazilians either, but by fellow Americans themselves.

I could not believe it. I had fooled my own tribe – a group that should have known me better than any Brazilian, for we were born under the same light and have been textured by the same culture, the same society, the same homeland. I have been strict in how I have handled my immersion: I replaced all my American music with Brazilian and Portuguese music; all of my computer and phone interfaces are in Portuguese; I started reading books in Portuguese instead of English; I intentionally wanted to be secluded in a place where there was no other American, no other person who could speak my native tongues (not even Spanish), not anyone else who could remind me and talk to me about anything reminiscent of the United States. I wanted this solitude, to live this life completely by experiencing the pain of being raised by wolves, without mediation or interruption by fellow man.

Even still, they should have known me. They should have seen through my disguise. They should have understood my afflictions of being displaced from my home, our home, but they didn’t: they had each other, and I had no one. I am alone. Could they not assume my nostalgia for my friends? Could they not sense my longing for my family? Could they not feel my suffering for having to give up everything I had in the United States, simply because I wanted to pursue my curiosity for a year?

I am bearing the overwhelming burden of cultural divide and am navigating through the darkness of Brazil on my own: indeed, I love it so much.

Before we left to go save the world, one trash bag at a time, I told them “E uma coisa também que vocês precisam saber, eu sou Brasileiro não. … I’m an American.”

Their reaction was amusing.

Alan De Leon