Brian and I had realized how much we cared for each other just a couple of weeks before he was sent to Brazil. Our lives were in chaos, and we didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew I’d miss him.
I visited him there for the first time about seven months later. I had owned my passport for nearly eight years and had never put a single stamp in it until that trip. I’m pretty sure a (pre-passport) three day cruise to Mexico doesn’t count as international travel, so I can say that my international life started with that first trip to Brazil.
That was six years ago. I visited him in Brazil multiple times, and finally moved down here with him after nearly three years of long distance romance. We left Brazil a year ago, moved to Scotland, then down to England, and now we’re back in Brazil.
I am no longer that English speaking American girl who had never left her country. Now I’m that (mostly) bilingual American woman who has lived abroad in several different countries. I can’t properly express how grateful I am for the life I’ve had for the last six years, and how lucky I feel, but I can tell you that it has changed me. How could it not?
It’s changed the way I look at everything. I’ve never been a very judgmental person, but I’m sure ignorance has made me a bit of a closed minded idiot at times. By ignorance I don’t mean the willful choice to keep my eyes closed in order to keep my own beliefs intact, I mean just really not knowing what was going on outside my own sphere.
It’s not just about people, although that’s a big part of it, it’s about how we live and what we see as normal.
— Take living spaces for example. When we lived in Brazil the first time, Brian and I were out with friends and one of them asked us if our apartment was big or small. We spoke at the exact same time and I said, “small” while Brian said, “big”. Brian is from Scotland where houses are tiny and apartments even tinier. He grew up in a house with his parents, two siblings and a grandmother all crammed into three bedrooms and with a kitchen the size of my walk in closet. He never considered it a small house, and still thinks of it as quite big. I grew up in California and while we never lived in a McMansion, we did live in a series of houses with more rooms than people, and each of those rooms had plenty of space between the edges of the bed and the walls. My perception of a normal sized home was set at the American standard. I used to think that my little house in Houston was tiny. By Houston standards, I supposed it is, but I don’t live by Houston standards any more. Our apartment in England has two bedrooms each with about two feet of space around the beds, a kitchen that is not usable if there are two people standing in it, and a living room which is crowded with two love seats. Our new apartment in Brazil is also two bedrooms but is about twice the size of the England flat and feels quite open and large to me now. The added balcony feels like luxury.
— My tastes for food have expanded. I won’t say they’ve changed because I still love the familiar foods I’ve always known, but I’ve had so many more kinds of food than I had ever tried before and I can say I’ve added a few more items to my list of “things I want to eat”. When Brian first asked me out for a meal he wanted to know if I liked Indian food. I didn’t know, I’d never tried it. The look of surprise on his face still makes me laugh. How could a human being never have eaten Indian food? His British love of all things curry just couldn’t understand it. I still thank him for introducing me to chicken korma. Now our cuisine choices run to Thai, Japanese, Brazilian, Italian, Mexican, Indian and any other kind of food we can find available. My cooking has improved immensely just because of the variety of dishes I’ve learned to like by trying them.
— I think my personality has changed a bit with each of these moves. I’ve learned to make friends faster, to say hello and good afternoon to nearly everyone I’ve come across, to strike up conversations in the elevator and the grocery line, and to make personal connections wherever I can find them. As an introvert, that’s been a difficult and enormous challenge for me, but one that’s been so beneficial. The way we live our expat life has meant that we don’t stay in one place for a very long time. This means that if we’re going to make friends, we’re not going to waste time by hanging back and seeing what develops. If we want a life outside of Brian’s job and the apartment, we have to make it happen by getting chatty and talking to people. I say good morning to strangers. I have conversations in the hallways. I pounce on a chance to get to know someone new. My “personal space” has gotten smaller. The drawback is that I think I freak everyone out back in the US. I have to dial it back before people start slowly backing away from me.
— I’ve learned that I like the hugging and cheek kissing greetings of Brazil, and that we love the social life here. We are definitely not club people, but we are quite happy with long night, a medium sized group of friends and a few bottles of wine.
— We’ve developed a language all our own. At home we speak a mixture of English, Scottish slang, and bad Portugues, and we’re both pretty fluent. I wonder what we should call it? Portuscotslish? Whatever it is, nobody else seems to understand it, no matter where we are. It’s one of the things I love about how we work together.
— I have a harder time accepting the materialism and boredom of US culture. I think because we’ve scaled down our lives so much and gotten rid of so many of those “things” that used to be so important, and we’ve thrived because of it, that I see that need for the latest gadgets, the newest car, the shiniest motorcycle and the latest entertainment as immature. I know that’s because I feel like I’ve grown out of it, and therefore I myself was more immature when those things were important to me, that I’m projecting that label onto other people. My problem, not theirs. Still, it’s hard to see photos on Facebook of those giant American houses, with two giant cars in the driveway and a three foot deep pile of Christmas presents under a two story tree (in front of a 52″ tv screen) and not want to shake the owners by the shoulders and tell them , “You live like KINGS, and you don’t even know!”
— I’ve learned that nothing is permanent, nothing is certain, and good times pass as inevitably as the bad. I’ve learned that we need so much less than we thought we did, and we need people so much more than we realized. I’ve learned that Brian and I can totally rely on each other, that we’ll take care of each other in every way we can, that we’ll support and challenge each other always, and we’re a good team when it comes to figuring out how to do anything we want to do. I’ve learned that no matter the country, no matter the language, no matter the color of the currency, we can carve out a home together and make it work in our own mixed-up intercultural way.
I have to say that I’m pretty happy with these changes. In becoming more accepting of other places and other cultures, I’ve become a bit more accepting of myself. I’m still awkward and annoying at times, I’m still a bit lazy, I still don’t do enough for other people, and I’m still not a great cook, but I think at least that I’m a better person than I was six years ago because of the life we’ve had.
How has life changed you?