– Pema Chödrön
Last week, I was chatting with a friend of my mom’s about her experience moving to the United States from Germany, while she picked my brain about my time in Brazil.
“Did you speak English before you came here?” I asked out of curiosity.
“I did, but I was too scared to talk to anyone.” A lightbulb went off. I know that feeling! I’m able to follow about 99% of Portuguese conversation and I can speak at a level that allows me to communicate with a reasonable amount of complexity, but I hate to do it. It’s exhausting and terrifying. I mess up all the time and people don’t hesitate to let me know. Nine times out of ten people ignore me, instead preferring to ask my partner “Does she understand what I’m saying?” (Fortunately, I lucked out there and he replies exactly as I would: “Why don’t you ask her?”)
When we started chatting about our foreign experiences, I didn’t expect to find someone that I could relate to so closely. Yet the moment she began to describe her fear of speaking English, of being judged, the isolation that you can feel when you’re in a new country speaking your non-native language, a little voice in my head started screaming “YES!”
When I’m in Brazil, I often hear the same criticisms over and over. You should speak Portuguese at home. If you spoke more with people, you’d feel more comfortable. Don’t compare the two countries. You’re not trying hard enough. It just takes time.
In a country that doesn’t have a ton of immigrants – according to the Migration Policy Institute, it’s 0.1 people out of every 1000 – it’s hard to find validation in my experiences, especially as a woman, too. The things that are weird to me, that are uncomfortable, that make me uncomfortable are normal to everyone in my immediate surroundings. When I vocalize my fears, frustrations, and criticisms, the cultural response is very different than what I expect as an American, only adding to my discomfort and disappointment.
After attending the Out in Tech talks in New York this weekend, I found myself pondering the situation even more. On a panel about developing an inclusive corporate culture, John Maeda shared an interesting anecdote that touched on how everyone’s experience with privilege or oppression is different. Someone who experiences sexism as a ciswoman will not experience the same sexism as a transwoman would and vice versa. Both are valid experiences, but there needs to be equal space for both narratives to be told.
As a white woman in America, I’ve scored pretty high on the privilege lottery. Sure, I navigate sexism, particularly in the tech field, but most of my days are pretty easy. So as I started sharing my experiences as a part-time immigrant in Brazil – for lack of a better label – I realized my anger and frustration were related to something I’ve never had to deal with before, namely being part of a minority group in a very large, equally hierarchical culture and country.
My immigration experience is, of course, very different from her immigration experience, in ways that are both good and bad. Yet in Brazilian culture, it’s very much a minority experience. What I feel and hear on a day-to-day basis is very far removed from the reality of most people there and there’s no reason to learn otherwise. So when I express something that, to me, is a very natural, obvious frustration, my voice is just a whisper in the din of the experience of the Brazilian majority. Instead, it just sounds like I’m angry for no reason, like when it’s too cold out and the wind is hitting your face. Who do you complain to about that?
As a result of these constant transitions back and forth – spending time in Brazil and spending more time in the US as someone who’s been modified by my experiences in Brazil – I feel like I’ve been in this permanent state of discomfort. I don’t know how to describe myself anymore. Anyone asking “Where are you based?” is pre-empted by a deep sigh and a sentence between with, “Well…” On a very mundane and physical level, I find myself having difficulty shopping for clothes (what is my style anymore? how do I want to express myself?) or deciding what to eat (I constantly crave American food, but now I want it to have some of the tastes I’ve grown familiar with in Brazil).
As a woman with overlapping layers of privilege, what does it mean to spend time in a minority group (woman, immigrant) in a country that is riddled with different stories and experiences of privilege and oppression? When I see my culture represented everywhere, from TV to movies, clothing styles to catch phrases shouted in an amalgamated Portunglish, how can I simultaneously embody a minority experience? And is it only so uncomfortable and noticeable to me because I’ve never been in that position in my home culture? Or is the discomfort simply a natural, more immediate reaction to my first world expectations in a developing country?
I often find myself thinking that I just want to find some stillness and belonging. Of course, feeling settled is a feeling inside of me and this discomfort is teaching me something. Instead of running from it – or standing there and screaming at it – I want to learn to embrace it. As uncomfortable as it may be at times, there’s insight to be found, either within myself or within both cultures at large. It takes time, but I’m trying to find the courage and patience to learn how to untangle it, piece by piece, to learn a little bit more about myself and, just maybe, to learn about a lot of other people around me who’s experience I’ve never fully heard before.