How to stumble your way through the humble and humiliating

I’ve joined a writing class. In Portuguese. Yeah, it’s going as you’d expect: it’s a lesson in humility.

Take action or stop complaining

The thing is, you can complain about something or you can go learn to do better.

I’m good enough at Portuguese these days that I know I have my failings and where they are more or less, but not good enough to know how to fix them. And my co-workers are getting overwhelmed with my questions of: “But WHY do you say it like that?”

It was time for some tough love. It was time to seek out an expert.

Classes on the hilltop

So every Tuesday at 4:30pm, I trudge past the church, past the hospital, and up the San Francisco-grade hill to my classroom.

silhouette of a humbling uphill climb

my walk to school

I sit among the voice-cracking teenagers training for their placement exams and learn all the ways that I still can’t figure out when you use an X versus a CH (I am disappointed it is chuchu not xuxu, but xingar–to scold–is a truly fabulous word), the difference between S, SS, SC, and Ç (yes, they have all four–who knew?–and they all make the same damn sound), the four different ways they have to say WHY/BECAUSE (which are all disturbingly similar), and when Brazilians use the comma (hint: everywhere).

The saving grace is the teacher, who is giddy with the discovery of another voracious reader/writer in town where most people only read the Bible. He tries to be as kind to me as he can; but it’s clear that sometimes he’s smiling that gentle smile that says: “I have no idea what you just said, but mmmm, the parts I did get sounded kinda interesting.”  I know that smile. I’m a mother of a storytelling four year old. I’ve used that smile. Writing class is a humbling experience.

Me, in writing class. You’re dead, dumb bunny. Dead, dead, DEAD.

Some of us make mistakes, Some of us make it a lifestyle

In general, being an immigrant is humbling.

All of us stumble occasionally, and some of us make a lifestyle out of it.

I asked a clarification of a saying in a team meeting the other day; I just couldn’t follow the discussion of a student’s struggles without it. My co-worker swished her hair over her shoulder, batted her superhumanly long eyelashes at me (truly–I spent half this meeting deliberating whether or not they were false; the jury’s still out), and gushed that she was pleased as Sunday punch to finally be able to help educate the American in the subtleties of Brazilian culture! Taken aback that my little clarification had just become the topic of round-table discussion, all I could mumble-grumble was: “Oh lord, please. This is my everyday, m’dear.”

Afterwards I couldn’t help but fume: there’s a particular type of courage that it takes to be an immigrant. It takes a courage that few understand to show up and admit that you have no idea, over and over, every single day, just so that you can win participation in the most basic aspects of life. If you haven’t walked this path it’s easy to overlook it. But damn, that immigrant who drives your taxi probably has more courage than you’ll ever know. He has to.

There’s a courage in showing up every day, knowing that most likely you’ll fail, but here you are anyhow because the only way out is through.

A salute to the stumblers

There’s a woman in my writing class that annoys the holy hell out of me. She’s more dense than the usual walnut, and it’s fingernails on my mental chalkboard. I have little patience for idiots. But really, if I stop my knee-jerk (emphasis on “jerk”) reaction, I gotta admire her gumption. Like the overweight person in the gym, she’s showing up with what she’s got and doing what she can. So many people stop short of that. Bravo. So who’s to judge? Certainly not the foreigner with the truly terrible spelling, that’s for sure.

We’re in this together. You bumble down your path, I’ll try to wander humbly down mine. And if you stumble, I’ll try to be there to pick you up.

 

Feature photo by Sam Mgrdichian on Unsplash

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Comments

  1. Ouch. I feel this one. When I stumble on a word, my son’s teacher loves to comment (to him, in Portuguese, in front of me) “you have to teach your mom Portuguese.” She loves to make a show of my struggle. During the last group parent-teacher conference, I asked if we could receive more feedback specifically on what each child needs to work on, since we receive basically no feedback, but the teachers complain that the parents don’t do any homework with the kids. (Especially difficult for me, for obvious reasons.) And her response was to address the parents with, “And you see? These are the difficulties we deal with. We have parents that don’t even speak Portuguese. How can I help the students when I can’t communicate with the parents?” Ok, first of all lady, I’ve been learning Portuguese for 10 years, so to say that I don’t speak Portuguese is a bit of a leap. “I’m good enough at Portuguese these days that I know I have my failings and where they are more or less, but not good enough to know how to fix them.” I’ve been there for far too long! In the teacher’s defense though, I really should stop stagnating and push myself with my grammar. Congratulations to you for doing so! “…there’s a particular type of courage that it takes to be an immigrant. It takes a courage that few understand to show up and admit that you have no idea, over and over, every single day, just so that you can win participation in the most basic aspects of life. If you haven’t walked this path it’s easy to overlook it. But damn, that immigrant who drives your taxi probably has more courage than you’ll ever know. He has to.” I feel like I should get this inscribed on a plaque and hung by my desk.

    • oooooh! Lemme just say, you’re WAY more generous with your son’s teachers than I would be! Harumph! Making passive-aggressive comments like that in front of you. She can just go sit herself down in a corner until she learns to play nicely with the rest of the adults, for crying out loud. And please DO hang it over your desk if that helps. You’re a rockstar, and don’t you ever forget it!

  2. You know, I’m just so “over” her comments that I don’t have the energy to remind her that I do speak Portuguese, anymore. However, as a non-religious family, I drew the line when she chastised my son for saying Jesus doesn’t exist (which apparently “upset a lot of students”) and told my husband that I need to go to church. The next time she mentioned this to me, I told her and my son in front of the other students, “He can believe whatever he wants to believe. He can make the decision himself. I’m not going to take him to church and force him to believe something.” Then, privately I told him to simply not discuss Jesus or God in school. Ughhhh I don’t care what religion anyone wants to practice, but I hate the pushiness and obligation here.

    • It’s so hard. Religion is everywhere!

      • It IS. And I don’t mean to come off as anti-religious.. and I think I DO give that impression to many people here. I think that’s a push back to the constant, overwhelming aspect of religion here. (The whole Jesus-doesn’t-exist thing refers back to this incident: https://casademelobrazil.blogspot.com/2018/08/an-agnostic-goes-to-hell.html ) I really just want him to be able to make his own decision about religion and I don’t think he’s being allowed to do that.

        • I know that I’ve come off as anti-religious. Which is funny, because there are religious things that I would insist on us doing because, community, and my husband would get the credit. Or things that we didn’t do–totally him procrastinating–and again, I got the blame. If you don’t do it by their formula, you can’t win. So personally I stopped trying. And I started marching out the simple passages in the Bible I DID like (love your neighbor, judge not, Jesus was a radical, etc.) when people started getting on their religious high horse. Which is surprisingly effective. But we are clearly a Catholic family. We go often enough that it’s not a debate. I think talking about God is people’s shorthand for whether or not you’re a person of morals (we’ll not get into the hypocrisy of that assumption…) I wonder if you could get away with stating that you believe in a strong moral foundation for your son, and that you want him to get to know God in his own time, on his own terms? And just leave out the possibility that someday he may decide to NOT find God, and that would be fine too! 😉 It’s a tough one. Congrats on holding strong to what’s important to you!

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