Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Lesson in "Bastante"

The intricacies of culture...
Culture is a funny thing when you start to think about it- a truly huge concept made up of so many small details; a fluid idea that flows easily through our days, often unnoticed until it changes or rubs up against what we consider "culturally normal."  

Culture is made up of the sum total of characteristics that define a certain group of people as unique. Food, customs, dress, language, values, art, music, relationships (and so much more) work together to form culture.

Right now, where you are, you are both experiencing and defining culture.  Think of just one small part of culture, food- what you eat, when you eat, where you eat, with whom you eat- all of this (and more) not only defines your culture, but is also defined by your culture. 

Often we do not even begin to think about being a part of a certain culture until ours comes into contact with another.  I myself did not consider "sweet tea" as a part of my culture until I moved to Washington, DC to attend college and it wasn't as readily available.  Now I know "sweet tea" is a part of my culture (and no, iced tea with sugar added is not the same thing.)

Living here in Brazil, we have come to recognize and appreciate many differences between our "home" culture (southern United States) and that of this small part of Brazil. While I want to share with you some of these differences, I want you to understand that I am in no way trying to paint a broad picture and say "Brazilian culture is this" or that "Brazilians all do this."  Our experiences in Brazil are in no way broad enough to paint a complete picture, but hopefully our experience can provide some small glimpses into this beautiful place and people.

...made of tiny pieces of life...
I also want to be careful for you to understand that while the insights I have reached about our cultural differences have come as a result of comparing the differences in culture, I will not say or ever conclude one culture is "better" than another.  Every culture contains innate value, even if some aspects of that particular culture are a little different (like eating livermush in the south.)

From our experience, Brazil is a very warm culture.  Greetings and leave-takings with those you know almost always includes a kiss on the right cheek and a hug.  If you enter into a group, you are expected to greet everyone and to introduce to everyone individually anyone you have with you. A quick "hi" to the group isn't really enough.  This warmth spills over into relationships, which are highly valued and often take priority over activity.  To stop what you are doing to have a conversation, to ask someone how their family is, to answer to how yours is doing is the norm.

Brazil is often a rather fluid kind of place.   For example, one of the interesting things about recipes here is the measurements are not as exact as the ones we would give with our recipes in the US.  A tablespoon is not a specific measuring spoon, but an actual large spoon that you might use on the table.  A cup in Brazil is an actual tea cup.  Sometimes you might be given a recipe that includes putting water in a pot and when you ask how much, the person gives you a weird look and says, "bastante" which roughly means enough or a lot.  You both just might end up laughing trying to decide just how much "bastante" measures out to be.

...form a beautiful tapestry.
This fluidity was also seen recently in dosing of medications.  At least one member of our family has been sick every day for the month of May.  Seriously.  During this time, I happened to read directions for one of the medicines which said something to the effect, "Take 1-4 (or more if you need to) every few hours or so as early or late as you need it."  My memory might be exaggerating a bit, but nonetheless the medicine directions were about as precise as "take bastante."

Sometimes, this fluidity (and even the warmth of the culture) can rub up against our "home" culture enough to create some friction.  Our American minds want a little more precision, a little more definition and a little less of the unknown.  Still, living in this friction is good for us as it helps us to see what we really hold to be important for right or for wrong.  For example, which has more value, the work you are trying to complete or the person who just came through the door?  Not to mention this is great training for Mozambique, which we understand can be even higher on the fluid and relational style of culture. 

Every time we learn to love and live in a new culture and as we learn to see our own culture through a new lens, God truly has "bastante" to teach each of us. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Incarnate Language Learning

A few thoughts on language learning...

1. It is hard.  I have decided there is a reason that God has humans learning our first language early on in childhood.  Language learning as an adult just is not natural. Seriously though, it is hard work- physically, emotionally, mentally- all of the above is somehow covered daily in learning a new language.  Fortunately days of studying, memorizing, and practicing slowly begin to build on each other as the fruit of your effort begins to show. This fruit encourages you to press on through the hardest days as you begin to connect with others and share with them life.

2. Language learning is essential to being in community and loving others well.  Before we came to Brazil, I read several things which put language learning into a new perspective for me.  One that will always stick with me is the idea that when we learn someone else's language, we are showing the incarnate love of Christ to them.

Christ,  Himself, came into a completely new environment as He entered our world as a precious babe.  He put Himself into our customs, learned our language and showed unending love by becoming one of us, the Incarnate Christ, God with Us. When we come into a new community and seek to love them, learning their language is of paramount importance.  Daily, we see the importance of this as the eyes of different people light up as we try to speak in their language.  While we often make mistakes, the effort alone is enough to give an example of God's incarnate love to those around us.

3.  It requires humility and a great sense of humor.  There are only so many mistakes you can make and only so long before sounding like a two year really gets to you.  At that point, you have a decision to make, do you allow the mistakes to keep your mouth shut or do you learn to laugh at yourself, your mistakes and keep trying?  It is easy to get into a difficult cycle of not wanting to talk because you will make mistakes, but not learning to correct the mistakes because you don't want to practice speaking.

Instead of staying in this cycle, we do our best to laugh at the mistake, learn from it and move on... to the next mistake.  (There might be an overall life-lesson here as well...just saying.)

4.  You can learn a lot about your native language in the process.  So when was the last time you thought about which verb tense you were using?  How about if a particular word is an adjective, adverb, or preposition?  (Seriously, my homeschooling, grammar loving friends would be eating this language learning thing up.)  I have learned far more grammar and English language structure studying a foreign language than I ever did learning in school.

5.  Language is not always a word for word translation and is never an exact the chagrin of the engineer in our family.  Every language is unique and has its own little nuances.  That which is a no-no in English (double negatives for example), are a must have in Portuguese.  That which makes sense in Portuguese (using the "I" pronoun instead of "me" at times) would not make for good English. No matter how much my logic loving husband desires it, language is not an exact science.  For every rule there is an exception and for every exception there is another exception or rule.  Such is the beauty of language.

6. Language learning is always worth it.  Language learning is hard, it takes a lot of effort and it creates its own unique stress- but being able to laugh with someone for the first time, being able to understand what a teacher is saying about your child,  feeling a little more confident about sharing God's awesome love with someone in a way that they might just understand- all of this and so much more makes it all worth it. 

The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.
   --John 1:14 The Message

Friday, May 3, 2013


We were told to expect it.  Even given a general idea of when it would arrive.  Those experienced in cross-cultural service had told us, "After three or so months living in a new situation, the newness will wear off, the "honeymoon" period will end and the reality of living day to day will begin."

But then it hits.

Maybe you see a picture of your favorite food on Facebook (Sidenote: Seriously considering de-friending Chick Fil A these days if they keep posting such yummy looking pictures.)...

Maybe a friend who you have come to love and enjoy leaves for fields afar...

Maybe you talk to a friend from back home where you used to live and just her voice excites you...but then you have to hang up and the line goes dead as the laughter fades into memories...

Whatever the cause, your heart sinks a bit, your step slows a little and your head hangs lower for the moment.

While we might call this homesickness in English, the great thing about learning a new language is the expanded vocabulary.  In Portuguese, this experience is described as "saudades."


Google translate defines it simply as "miss."  But then again, what can a computer know about saudades?  When we first encountered this word, we were quickly told by our teacher that it is much more than homesicknesses.  Saudades is a deep longing for that which you have left behind or for that which has left your presence.  It is a desire, an emotion so deep, that is it difficult to explain or describe with words.  Saudades is a word far better known through living than in talking about it.   I, myself, have come to equate it with the heavy feeling at the pit of my stomach or the tickling at the base of my throat that comes and goes throughout the recent days.

Still, life goes on and God pours out abundant grace as He teaches us to cherish the moment, mixing His joy in with the saudades.  One of our favorite ways to experience this joy these days is to flip through the pictures on our computer, remembering friends, family and sweet memories.  We tell funny stories and laugh even as the tears sometimes threaten and the saudades begin to take form. 

Joy mixed with saudades...we can hope that this is the beginning of the next phase...

Deus sabe como sinto saudades de vocĂȘs todos,no verdadeiro amor de Cristo Jesus. (Filipenses 1:8 O Livro)
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