Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What I've Learned from Carnaval

So as you may know from the last post, my American friend Kristin and I are in Rio de Janeiro for Carnival. The week is going well! We're having a good time, and... gasp! There have not been any threats upon my life.

My important lesson this week is that Carnival is what you make of it! If you want some insane drunken debauchery, you can certainly find some. If you want to make out with strangers, there are strangers who are willing to make out with you. If you want to dance your butt off, that can be arranged. If you want to focus on the religious aspect, with Ash Wednesday, pre-lent ceremonies, they're being held. And if you have a bad arm and just want to enjoy the festivities with friends on the fringes of the parties, that's easy to do and no one is going to give you a hard time about it. I have not been pressured to do anything I didn't want to do (and for the record, I didn't want to kiss strangers, drink until falling down, or shamelessly rebolar). I've treated Carnival as an excuse to be my silly self without worrying  about social rules. So I got dressed up in funny hats and crazy makeup and got a ridiculously colorful manicure. That's all fun in my book!

Speaking of my book, this trip has given me a way to articulate something I've been wanting to write about for a while now. Kristin and I are staying with Nicole, an American friend I made through former-blogger-turned-friend Lindsey. Though Nicole and I grew up in opposite corners of the US (most literally), we're the same age and had relatively similar childhoods. However, here in Brazil, our experiences have been very, very different. She studied abroad here, lives in a huge city, and is now married to a Brazilian cop. She's had very different jobs than I have and has lived in very different communities. So her interpretations of things in Brazil are very different from mine.

While my first instinct was to disagree or question things she said, I realized -- who am I to question her experience? She is clearly very involved in the culture around her. It's just a different culture than what I've been exposed to.

Our conversations have made me think about my frustration with the internet's reaction to my and other blogger's recounts of experiences in Brazil. Both Brazilians and fellow foreigners alike are quick to completely negate our realities. In blog comments and on Facebook, these naysayers often reply with comments like, "you're wrong! That never happened to ME in Brazil!"  or "that only happens in X region, not in the whole country!" or the relatively irrelevant "there is a historical reason for that problem, so stop complaining about it!"  and, even less relevant, "that happens in your home country too, so you can't say anything about it when it happens in Brazil!"

Listen. First argument, for the Brazilian readers who get on foreigners' cases about complaining or having rant-y posts: It is impossible to be an immigrant in your home country, so you will never truly understand what an immigrant in your country is experiencing. My experience growing up in California is completely different from the experience of a diplomat who moves to DC with his family, or a poor farm worker who moves to Kentucky alone. Who am I to say that he's interpreting his experience incorrectly, or that he needs a new perspective? Even if a foreigner lived in my California city and worked at the same place, our day-to-day lives could be totally different. (And I'm going to be frank here that I am not that interested in reading an immigrant's blog long term. How am I going to relate to their experiences as a foreigner in the US? And even if I disagree with the way they view the US, what would I get out of "correcting"  them or trying to prove them wrong?)

Second argument, for the fellow foreigners who are annoyed or just confused by accounts from other foreigners: your life is not my life. We're all doing the best we can to understand things, right? When you are living in a foreign country, there is a LOT of new information to take in every day. We all have to absorb as much as we can, but sometimes we miss stuff, and sometimes we learn different things. For example, the information that Nicole gets from her cop husband from Rio is often slanted very differently from the perspectives I get from my doctor husband from the "interior" of Sao Paulo. In addition, we foreigners are here for different reasons. Some want to be here more than others. Some of us foreigners have more opportunities here than others.

And to my fellow foreigners, sometimes we just get things wrong. Sometimes we think we understand something, but we don't. All humans are guilty of generalizing (see? I just did it). Everyone has moments when they are quick to judge. Starting life over can be really, really tiring. Even those of us who try to be open-minded and optimistic are going to be frustrated sometimes, no matter which country we're from or where we've moved to. But we've all come from different places, and we're seeing both the same things and different things through different, personal lenses. Everyone's viewpoint is still valid.

So I guess I am just asking everyone to stop, take a step back, and see if you can see more of the good in other people. Ask more questions, whenever you can. Give people the benefit of the doubt (that goes for the Brazilians reading the foreigners'  blogs as much as it goes for the foreigners trying to understand life in a new country). Try treating others with patience and empathy rather than judgment and resentment. Instead of trying to "correct" others and force your perspectives on them, see what you can learn from them. When you insist that someone's interpretation of their experience is wrong, it can be very invalidating. That's the last thing someone needs if they're already feeling semi-invisible, out of place, or like they're falling behind in a new culture.

Just do what's good for you and be nice to other people! I think those 2 activities will give you plenty of things to fill your day with.

Happy Carnival, everyone!

PS: I've turned off the comments on this post. If you feel the need to give your opinion, please do it in your own space (like on your own blog).

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