On The Outside Looking In

 

My second host mom’s son Luis is in Newton, Iowa for his exchange. He’s in the middle of his senior year, and as such, is eligible to go to Prom. He recently asked a girl to go with him, and she said yes. How did he ask? A sign and flowers.

Nelly showed me a picture of this and said, “So much to ask a girl to a dance? It’s crazy!”

My first instinct was, “Oh, you just don’t understand the concept of a prom-posal. I’ve seen bigger and I’ve seen smaller. That was pretty average.” And then I took a step back and thought about it.

It is pretty crazy to have an elaborate plan to ask a person to a school dance. It’s also crazy to spend so much to go to said school dance: buy an expensive dress, rent a tux, go out to dinner, and more. Limos, flowers, after prom, not to mention the drama associated.

My senior prom fell on the weekend of Rotary Youth Exchange’s outbound training for my district, and I decided that going to Brazil for a year was more important to me than going to prom.

Prom is crazy. Nelly was completely right about that. And yet why is it my first instinct to dismiss a judgement against American culture out of hand?

On the various exchange student groups of Facebook that I’m a part of there’s a joke that goes along the lines of the exchange student being allowed to talk as much crap about their home countries as they want, but the second they hear others talking crap about their home countries, they defend their country until their dying breath.

It’s somewhat of an unspoken rule among my exchange student friends that we won’t rag on each other’s countries unless a citizen of the country in question actually brings it up. And even then it’s all pretty tame. (And if most of our time is spent ragging on Brazil, well, I’m not going to make a big deal out of it.)

I’m an outsider to Brazilian culture, and an insider to American culture. Of course I’m going to think Brazilian culture is weird. Judgement is a complicated thing, because as an American I can’t have an impartial view of American culture either. The same thing goes for Brazil, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned while being here is that there are many different faces and layers of Brazil, and one person’s Brazil is another person’s foreign country. There are so many different layers that I can’t even say that I’ve successfully discovered one.

People from Brazil and Natal, specifically my host families, tell me things about the city and the country, but sometimes I wonder how biased their views are, and, as such, if what they are saying is really true. But, then again, one person’s truth is another person’s lie.

I’m constantly being told how dangerous Natal is. On some ranking system, Natal is said to be the second most dangerous city in Brazil, and Nelly says it is amongst the ten most dangerous cities in the world. (I looked it up and Natal is actually the thirteenth most dangerous city in the world on some random list, but that’s still pretty high. It should also be noted that not included in said list in question are active war zones.)

Nelly is a journalist and constantly telling me things like, “Claire, there were twenty-five murders in Natal last weekend. This city is very dangerous.” Because she’s a journalist, she usually hears about the bad news before the rest of the world hears it. And sometimes the rest of the world simply isn’t paying attention.

Virna, my first host mom readily acknowledges that Natal is considered to be dangerous, but she wasn’t constantly talking about it and warning me. She trusted me to take care of myself and stay safe. I mean, it wasn’t like I was being stupid and exploring dark alleys in the poor areas of the city, but I could take the bus to the beach and the mall and really any place I wanted to (not that I went anywhere else). Virna would simply tell me to have fun when I left and to call her if I needed anything.

Living with Nelly is a whole different ballgame. She tells me I can go wherever, and that I can take the bus. I still go to the mall and the beach on the bus. But every time I leave the house she tells me to be careful and says a little prayer for my safety. Then she tells me to have fun. I’m glad that she cares about me but my anxiety level goes up when sometimes I’m not sure if she actually thinks I’m going to die or not.

Nelly constantly tells me stories of the tourists in Brazil that were robbed or assaulted right before I leave the house, and when I tell her that I understand and that I’ll be careful, I must first listen to another hypothetical situation about an American girl that’s killed before I leave. I’ve decided not to go a few times because I thought these stories were Nelly’s way of telling me that she didn’t want me to go, but then she asked me why I canceled my plans. I live in a state of constant confusion.

Nelly tells me every time I leave to take the bus to put my backpack on my lap and never to take my cellphone out on the bus, because I could get robbed or assaulted, and I shouldn’t call attention to myself. Never mind that I have blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin, and a pink backpack. If anyone’s the elephant in the room, it’s me.

All of the situations described are not to raise your blood pressures or make you nervous on account of me. I’m fine, I promise. I am careful. But I don’t think that Nelly’s fears are entirely based in truth, but in rumors and stories she’s heard. Nelly has never taken the bus in all the time I’ve known her. Busses are for the lower class (and the exchange students). I asked Nelly and she told me that she hasn’t taken the bus since she got out of college and made enough money to buy a car. She says that it was more than twenty years ago.

On my various bus rides, I’ve noticed that those who ride the bus are predominantly those with darker skin and cheaper clothes. The women who ride the bus don’t wear as much makeup as the women who drive in cars. Those who ride the bus are of the working class. They constantly look tired.

Nelly telling me to keep my iPhone hidden during bus rides makes sense to me. She tells me that once I take it out, twenty pairs of eyes are immediately looking at it thinking, “I want that phone.” But it’s hard for me to believe that when I get on the bus and see more than half of its riders on their own smart phones. At the same time, I’m not exactly riding into the poorer areas of the city.

Sometimes I just want to scream at Nelly, “Don’t tell me how many people in Natal were killed last weekend! It doesn’t help!” I’m grateful that she cares about me and my safety. But I don’t need five stories and three hypothetical situations about the danger of the city every time I leave the apartment. (Okay, I’m exaggerating.)

I live amongst the privileged, and while I think that view of Brazil is an accurate view of one layer of this country, it also misses an entire dimension of reality.

Last week the geography teacher asked the class how many favelas they thought were in Natal. Favelas are slums – the mega poor areas of a rapidly growing city. Just in Natal, he said. Not the surroundings, or the suburbs, or the outskirts. Just the city.

The class decided that there were about five favelas, and the geography teacher laughed. He said there are about seventy favelas in Natal, and the whole class was shocked. I was shocked. I don’t know how you divide one favela from the other, and how big or small these favelas are, or even if what he said was true, but still seventy favelas seems like a lot to me for a city of one million people. Or maybe it’s a little. I don’t know.

But really what struck me was that in a super socially divided society, people don’t see the classes outside of where they themselves live.

I think that this is true in the United States, too. I want to say that we are an open minded society, but there is in no way that that is true. I could take the light rail to go downtown, but instead I drive. Colfax is seen as the neighborhood to avoid, but how dangerous is it really? As a society, the United States largely views itself as better than the rest of the world, but are we really when our middle class is declining and the class differences are widening?

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A picture of Pipa for your pleasure since I don’t have pictures of the bus.

8 comments / Add your comment below

  1. You’re a smart girl, Claire Bear. Hope you will do investigative journalism someday. I think you’d have a knack for it. Love you lots! Mom

  2. Hi Claire,

    I’m glad you take the bus. BTW, no need to avoid the Colfax bus. Not dangerous and very interesting.

    Mark, Laura, Richard, Jennifer, Wilson, Nancy and me and maybe Beth and Matthew are all doing to the Democrat caucus tonight to vote for Hillary. When I spoke to Sophia the other day, she was thinking of supporting Bernie. This is the super-tuesday primary day, and we are all anxious to hear the results tomorrow.

    GrandBob

  3. Hi, Claire – I love, love, love your blog. Sometimes funny, and always interesting, well-written and thoughtful, even though I don’t usually post a comment. I’ve had many of the same thoughts that you expressed so well in this post. We hosted an exchange student from Germany many years ago, and I always wondered what he took away from the experience. If you’ve spent 9 months with a middle-class white family in Denver, do you really know the US? For that matter, do I? I’ve never lived in NYC, or in a cabin in Appalachia, or a ranch in Montana, etc. etc. But anything that expands your horizons is a step in the right direction. Be careful out there and keep writing!! Cindy

  4. The growth and maturity I read/hear just blows my mind. THIS is what world travel and the experience you’re having is all about. We’re all SO PROUD of you for being so aware, for listening so carefully, for recognizing our biases, and for grabbing every moment of this time for all it can show you. <3 <3
    Heids

  5. I’m so proud of you. The Claire I met almost two years ago doesn’t compare to this Claire right now. You’ve grown so much throughout this year and I’m so glad you’re doing fine! I’ve always loved how you observed things and looked at the little details most of us miss sometimes. Love you lots sister! Abi

  6. This is a great post, Claire. I heard a woman on NPR yesterday who lives in NYC working 6 different jobs for $16,000 a year. She is doing this to take care of her daughter’s daughter who has AIDS. The daughter had AIDS too and died. People who grow up in upper middle class suburbia can’t imagine this sort of scenario but the US is filled with people in poverty. Which is why Bernie Sanders is popular. You are learning so much. I couldn’t be prouder that you keep getting out there in spite of the warnings. Love you!

  7. You are a smart bear, Claire, be safe and enjoy the journey and we miss you very much…..love Gmom and Gdad…….

  8. This post rocked. I was thinking about how some of the dudes I play roller hockey with think I’m an alien as I live in a different part of Aurora, went to college, etc. We have different cultures and we live 10 min from each other. Sheesh.

    If you figure this stuff out for sure, please let me know.

    PS. I’m not nervous, I promise. But I’m glad you’re being careful and thoughtful. Just sayin’.

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