Tag Archives: Brazil

The hairball

[In honor of Mr. Clemens’ upcoming birthday (Nov 30), a memory from my Twain phase.]

For 12th grade English in my high school in Brazil we had to write and perform a dramatic monologue based on a character in one of the books we had read in the last two years of our International Baccalaureate (IB) program.  Most of the girls chose characters from One Hundred Years of Solitude.  They performed in flowing white shifts on a stage covered in flower petals and candles, wailing of their hopes and sanity, lost in the hot sun and imagined swamps of Macondo.

A friend of mine and I had both transferred in from overseas, so we had alternative repertoires from our junior years.  She chose Sylvia Plath.  She wrote a long, complex poem that dramatized Plath’s final moments making sandwiches for her children before putting her head in the oven.  It was terrifying and brilliant and greeted with awe (at least, I was impressed, maybe others were just freaked out by the intensity and the verse.)

I went a different route.  I decided to portray the hairball that Jim uses to tell the future in Huckleberry Finn.  Somewhere in the teenaged guidebook to social suicide is a special case study about standing in front of 60+ smug Brazilian high school students and telling them, in thick Southern drawl, that you are a hairball, puked up by an ox.

I fucking loved it.  I started and ended as Mr. Clemens himself, but through most of it I twitched and contorted and sprawled my coarse language all over the auditorium, transformed into a storytelling glob of saliva-soaked hair.

Moving to Brazil is poor timing for  a Twain phase.  I’m not sure that classic Americana translates culturally.  I also don’t think my classmates’ lack of cultural connection to the Mississippi River was really my problem.

My problem was that I was small and weird.  I’d read Crime and Punishment in my junior year too.  The raw dirtiness and unrelenting suffering of the book was profoundly affecting for a kid my age, a kid who was loath to do anything wrong, never mind bludgeon an old woman to death.  Irreversible and unthinkable error.  It was a like a gruesome accident you couldn’t look away from.  But for my dramatic monologue?  I wasn’t a tortured Russian, plagued by my past hopes and the crumbling façade of my increasingly unlikely future.

I was a hairball.  A partially digested wad of backwoods mythology.  A brief and soon forgotten oddity hurled up from the acidic depths of a place we all ignore.  I was a minor character, not even a character, a minor set-piece, a dumpy little piece of the backdrop come spitting and retching into life for just a moment on stage.  It felt like destiny.  That hairball told me of my future as an awkward little freak and I hugged it close to my heart.

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Speaking in tongues

As a kid I figured that one day I would speak Spanish.  I listened and understood much of what my parents and their friends were saying, and I studied dutifully in my Spanish classes in school.  With the same surety that I would one day feel like an adult (PS, I don’t) I knew I would speak Spanish.

My father’s native language is Spanish and when my mom, brilliant and in love, started dating him at age 15 she just taught herself the language like the rest of us teach ourselves to jump rope.  She doesn’t even have a gringa accent.  She works in Peru and most people simply assume she’s from another Spanish-speaking country.  My own acquisition of the language did not go quite so well.

When we moved to Brazil when I was 16 I learned my first Portuguese words in the airport passport control line, “bem vindo,” welcome.  My Portuguese quickly outpaced my Spanish.  Not only was I surrounded by it more than I had ever been with Spanish, but I really loved it.

I wanted to love Spanish.  I thought I did, or could.  But it wasn’t love, just grasping at something that I thought was supposed to be my cultural birthright, the life raft that would float me through the sea of pale Texan faces where I did not belong.

Not that I belonged in Brazil.  My social stiffness stateside doesn’t go away when I go south of the border.  It might even be worse in Brazil, where my natural demeanor is in stark contrast to the culture of rhythm and music and warmth.  I am not white, Anglo-Saxon, or Protestant but I am as priggish as they come (I mean honestly, who uses the word “priggish”?!)

But something about Brazil hugged me close and murmured words into my ear that I wanted to understand and speak back.  I studied Portuguese and just reveled in the cadence of it, which seemed intuitive to me.  The more I learned, the more comfortable I was making mistakes and asking people to explain things to me that I did not understand.  Why waste time being a shy perfectionist when there is communicating to be done?

Last week I went to Peru.  It has been a decade since I studied Spanish and almost as long since I attempted to speak it.  And lo and behold, I can understand airline instructions! Ask for directions! Carry on a conversation for over a half hour with a random stranger!  Negotiate my way through a clotted airport line to make my flight on time!  My Spanish was slow, shaken painstakingly from my brain like so many grains of sand found tucked into every conceivable crevice after a day at the beach, but it was there.

It was comforting to know that even after I had abandoned it like an ungrateful child, Spanish still lingered in my mind, waiting calmly and patiently to serve the marvelous purpose of sharing thoughts with other people.

I had always wanted to speak Spanish because I thought it would give me something.  But over the last decade I’d experienced what it was to enjoy another language, to just try (sometimes in awkward tenses and misplaced nouns) to share thoughts with another person without worrying whether or not I sounded smart enough.

I won’t ever speak Spanish fluently.  But that doesn’t really matter to me so much these days.  As a kid I thought Spanish would solve problems for me by bestowing me with an established cultural history and ethnic identity.  I thought it would be “cool” to speak another language.  I thought the speaking of a foreign tongue would imbue me with a magical confidence in myself that I did not yet possess.

But that isn’t really the point, is it?  Knowledge and new abilities are not neat tricks that you perform for personal glory.  Our perceived skills are not anywhere near as important as the heart and motive we bring to our actions.  It is more important to reach out with what we do know than it is to scheme for the personal satisfaction of knowing even more.

My adventure into my long-lost friend Spanish was fun and peaceful.  It felt grown-up.  I am confident in my ability to do what I can do, confident in my understanding of what I cannot.  I am grateful for the former, I am grateful for the latter.