The Girl Who Doesn’t Know Anything

Henrietta Conrad - Brazil


April 26, 2012

“Ela não sabe de nada.” She doesn’t know anything.

“Nada?” was the incredulous reply. Nothing?

The street was dim illuminated only by the dim light from the bar and a dim yellow street lamp. I stood there with my ten year old host cousin, facing four young Brazilian men casually leaning against a car. One of those men is my cousin’s uncle, Tiago, who was introducing me to his three friends. As I was giving the customary greeting of a kiss on the cheek, Tiago spoke for me:

“Ela não sabe de nada,” he stated and then in a more hushed voice he said, “Americana.” as if that explained everything.

“Nada?” one of the men replied incredulously, “American you say?”

“Ela não parece…” another said while the rest agreed. She doesn’t look like an American. They looked warily back and forth from me to Tiago as if we were pulling their leg.  I gave a shy smile and a quick flick of the wrist as if to say ‘Yes, that would be me, the girl who doesn’t know anything.’

“Yeah, nothing. She doesn’t speak Portuguese. She doesn’t know how to wash her clothes or cook beans and rice,” Tiago nodded his head slowly as he explained my situation; “She came here to learn.”

My little cousin broke, what I felt was, an awkward moment, “Ciao, Tio! Bye, Uncle. Vou pra casa. I’m going to the house.”

“Embora. Let’s go,” She directed to me.

I doubt Tiago recognized the weight of his words but I simply felt belittled and did’t even have the chance to show who I was to these new acquaintances before they categorized me as incompetent. The irony of the situation was that this man had a basic education and had no insight to my life whereas I was immersed in his: family, city, culture, language.  Yet, I was the little foreign girl who didn’t know basic things like cooking the main cultural dish or washing piles of clothes by hand. The other fact that irked me was that if knew so little how was I understanding the conversation. As we walked back to the house my cousin held my hand chatting away cheerfully. I was not engaged in what she was saying but I gave convincing nods and smiles to keep her satisfied.

Tiago’s words stung as they continued to echo in my ‘empty’ head. She doesn’t know anything.  I teetered between a positive aspect and a negative one. On one hand I wanted to keep my dignity. I’m proud of education I’ve received and I feel like I’ve always taken advantages of opportunities to expand my mind. On the other hand, he was right, I was here in Brazil to learn and learning is a humbling experience especially when that learning is in the school of life.

We entered and left the periphery of each street light; into the light and out of the darkness, into the darkness and out of the light. I decided I could swallow my pride if that meant people would open themselves up to my foreign presence. I made a mental note to do my best to not do what Tiago did to me: ‘tirando honda’. To act like I’m better than someone else because not only does it hurt on the basic visceral level but it is counterproductive to positive social interactions and cultural exchange.  After all, almost everyone is proud of what they know and are willing to let a curious, humble, and open mind pick their brain.

Henrietta Conrad