Thursday, October 4, 2012

My Experience in Brazil

Since I did focus my first post on how language shaped my experience in Brazil, I would like to take some time to discuss the AIESEC experience as a whole! Going abroad through an AIESEC internship was one of the best decisions I could have made this summer – the structure and connections that the organization facilitated for my experience were absolutely amazing.

One of the best parts of the experience was definitely getting the chance to live with a host family – and I really lucked out with my family! When I first learned of the distance between the home that I was going to live in and the location of my job, I was actually pretty disappointed. I was going to have to spend at least 2-3 hours per day commuting from home to work. Apparently, the Brazilian family in the city that had originally offered to host encountered some last minute, unavoidable circumstances that prevented them from taking in an intern.

So, what ended up happening was that a member of the LC – my host sister, Luana – offered to take me in just a couple days before my arrival. After spending just a few days with the family, the commute became totally irrelevant. Luana was so great and so helpful in guiding me through my experience, and my host mother and father and their friends and family from all around the neighborhood were hilarious, witty, so genuinely interested in speaking and sharing with me – and, amazing cooks! I worked in the evening nearly every day, so I would come home after my host family had finished dinner – which just meant the fridge was completely stocked with delicious Brazilian meat, beans, rice, and more.

With my host family

Before I went, I was really excited to travel to Brazil alone, coming into the country without knowing anyone. And going through AIESEC, I did get that sense of independence, while also having a huge safety net and so many opportunities to meet people once in Brazil.

I met many members of the LC in Belo Horizonte very quickly since my host sister was a member of the committee, and I also started meeting new interns from all over the world – people who were able to teach me and show me things about their lives in their own countries that I’d known nothing about before. I met a girl my age from Morocco, who attends school in the UK – and speaks French, Arabic, English, and Spanish fluently!

As I learned about other people from various countries, I was also able to share a lot about my own culture, both of the United States and Russia, and dispel a surprising amount of stereotypes that I hadn’t even known existed so strongly. Many people I met had a perception of the United States as a country with a very homogeneous culture, and they were interested in hearing about the cultural variety I’ve experienced in my life, especially being a first-generation American. I was able to explain to people that the United States is a country with a countless amount of cultural subsets and communities. I found myself having a hard time answering questions about what our country is like, and more often than not, I found myself explaining that America is defined, in many ways, by the fact that there IS no easy way to explain “what it’s like.”

I encountered a lot of interesting cultural differences that I had to deal with in Brazil. For example, like in many countries, Brazilians greet each other with a hug and a kiss, even in the most formal of situations. With me, however, I noticed that a lot of people who knew that I was from the United States either hesitated significantly before hugging me, or went directly for a handshake! This was pretty disappointing, because I really enjoyed greeting people in the way that they do in Brazil, and I knew I’d get to experience plenty of handshakes once I came back home! I talked to people that I was closer with about this, and we shared a lot about the random nature of these cultural differences – people were glad to hear that generally, Americans wouldn’t think that greeting with hugs is a rude practice – we have just adopted a different pattern of greeting!

I feel like the most important lesson that I learned in Brazil was that sharing myself and my experiences is a much more valuable use of my time than I had ever imagined before. When I first started working at the language school, I was worried that I wasn’t helping the students as much as I could – after all, I was merely spending my time speaking my own native tongue. It wasn’t a particularly difficult or tiring task to engage in. But one day, a teacher at the school told me that one of his students, who had had the intention of repeating her most recent semester, had come up to him and revealed that she had decided to move forward instead. She had said that ever since I’d started attending their classes, she’d gained a lot of confidence in her knowledge and had realized that she knew much more English than she had thought. I felt so great and so honored when I heard this. Although this was the only student who made the big decision to move forward in her studies instead of repeating a semester, a lot of the students did also become much more aware about how much English they actually do know. That’s what made realize that I didn’t have to be stressed or challenged in the way that I had thought for my work to be valuable – that’s when I realized that simply being there at the school and doing the best I could was influencing other people in the exact same way that everyone I met in Brazil influenced my life – just by being themselves and sharing with me!


In general, I really loved the culture and the people of Brazil so much. I was amazed at how many open, friendly, and truly engaging interactions I was able to have throughout my time there with complete strangers. During my first few bus rides, I was quite shy about asking others for help with directions in my broken Portuguese, but I soon realized that my shyness was completely unnecessary. Not only would strangers help me as much as they could, but they would ask me questions about where I was from and what I was doing in the city, how I liked Brazil so far, and even if I liked Brazilian food! It wasn’t just with me that people were so open – I saw other strangers speaking to each other in Portuguese on the buses all the time, and I often tried to guess if people who were engaged in conversation really knew each other or if they had simply met on the way to work and began chatting!

I concluded my time in Brazil by travelling to Rio de Janeiro, then a small town called Parati, and finally to São Paulo, with several other interns that had come to Brazil through AIESEC. To do justice to these experiences would take much more detail, so I won’t attempt to really explore the trip here – but I will say that the experiences I had travelling were completely life-changing for me. I had never stayed in hostels before, and had no idea how much I would enjoy it. Being able to instantly meet all kinds of new people from literally all over the world, staying up late and hearing all about their amazing stories, while filling our busy days to the brim with sight-seeing and exploring was just simply incredible. I was so inspired by the variety of things I was exposed to within the timespan of a single week, ranging from the beautiful mountains and beaches in the south of Brazil, to the massive urban monster of São Paulo, to the amazing, unique people that we stumbled across. I met a woman from Germany who was living in Argentina because she studied abroad there in high school and became fluent in Spanish (with no prior experience) and had fallen in love with the country. The reason I met her was because my friends and I were intrigued when we saw her tending to an enormous burn wound all over the sole of her foot – we learned that just a few days ago, she had spontaneously decided to participate in the tradition of running across hot coals during a festival in Argentina!

In Rio with other AIESEC interns
Coming home after spending two incredible months in Brazil was a shock at first – on the plane, I just couldn’t believe I was going back to my regular life. But ultimately, the experience I had was so wonderful, and definitely the most rewarding thing I think I’ve done to date! Now, I just can’t wait to travel abroad and seek out experiences like this again in my life.

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