Before I forget my English

There’s no word for it. The feeling is… awkward. But it’s mind-blowing. It’s uncomfortable, but exciting. It’s all these words that I need to look up (thesaurus.com!)… because I’ve forgotten them. It’s exhilarating, inspiring, invigorating, uplifting, and also, unfortunately, exhausting.

My heart races when I feel words form in Portuguese on my tongue. It stops when I speak. It comes back pounding harder than before when I get a response. They understood! 

Except I don’t think, “They understood!” Instead, the voice inside my head says, “Eles entenderam!

What?

I know. I mean, I don’t know. The realization, that awkward yet exhilarating feeling, hit me in waves…

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The first time I was thoroughly “shook” with the feeling was at my host brother’s presentation about the United States. I sent a couple of pictures to my friends, both in Brasil and back home, with captions like: “More American pride here than I have ever seen in my life” and “They are more proud of the US than I am”. Inside the school, you could not tell that it was a the first dreary, rainy day of Spring. 5th graders were excitedly showing off their research on their respective countries as parents watched on proudly. I roamed the classroom, trying to absorb as much Portuguese as I could from the kids’ presentations. I cannot recall thinking at all for the first 5 hours I was there.

Somewhat overwhelmed and dazed, I eventually found myself following my host mom into a quieter room across the hall. The English teacher greeted us and showed us the collection of shirts the kids had painted with an English sentence of what sport they enjoyed the most. My host brother, Matheus, painted a shirt with “I like swimming”. It then clicked in my head that I could speak English with the woman in front of me.

My heart raced as I asked, “Você é a professora de Inglês?” (Are you the English teacher?) My heart stopped.

She laughed, “Yes, I am.” My heart pounded harder and harder. Ela entendeu. 

“Você fala Inglês?” (Do you speak English?)

She hesitated, slightly confused. “Yes… I do.”

Oh. My. Gosh. I had never felt more dumb in my life, and I was dumbfounded. She responded in English, but I thought in Portuguese. I had suddenly hit a point where I couldn’t differentiate between the two languages. More than shook, I tried to tell her in English what I was doing in Brasil, but it came out mixed and mostly Portuguese— I was taught to introduce myself in Portuguese, but I didn’t realize I would forget my English in return. She nodded along. I don’t know if she understood anything I said because the next thing I knew, I was being hustled off toward another room of presentations, with broken Portuguese thoughts stumbling through my mind.

I left the school that day with an awkward feeling I couldn’t describe in any language.

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The second instance was a shared experience. Trevor, Sophie, and I were looking for a place to lunch in my neighborhood when we passed by a very aesthetically pleasing coffee shop. A coffee connoisseur himself, Trevor was eager to give the cafe a try.

Although fancier and more expensive than the places we were starting to frequent, we decided to sit down with the menu anyway because the atmosphere was well worth it. We oohed and aahed at their wide selection of coffees, breakfast items, and meal options. We joked about how cultured we would get if we ate here—the shop was called Café Cultura, after all.

Suddenly, Trevor’s infectious laugh erupted out of seemingly nowhere. I can’t remember exactly, but he said something along the lines of, “Oh my gosh! I thought we were reading Portuguese the whole time but the menu is actually in English!”

What?

Trevor nearly fell out of his chair laughing, and I was about to cry. I hadn’t realized that the menu was in English either. We had been so focused of surviving in a world of Portuguese that even when we were staring at our native language, we couldn’t recognize it right away. We laughed and laughed, and as I usually do, I teared up with an overwhelming feeling of something I couldn’t name.

The experience was mind-blowing. The immersion was starting to feel really, really real.

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And then when the uncomfortable yet exciting feeling filled up an entire day, I knew that I really was beginning to forget my English.

It began with our language class trip to the neighborhood sacolão, a sort of indoor farmer’s market. As a group, Chloe, Rujen, and I were tasked with answering three questions about the sacolão to present to the class when we returned. I jumped to the task right away and went right up to the cashier, Rose, introduced our group, where we’re from, what we’re doing, and what questions we needed answering, all in polished Portuguese. And it all came naturally.

Later, Chloe told me that I was one of the people in our cohort that is much more fluent in Portuguese than they will let themselves believe. It was uncomfortable to hear, mainly because I am rarely, if ever satisfied, with my work, but it was exciting that it finally registered in my head: yes, I can, in fact, hold a conversation in Portuguese. 

So the rest of the day, I didn’t shut up.

I talked to my host grandma. I told her clearly in Portuguese where I was going after lunch, that I had my keys and phone, and that I’d be back for dinner.

Trevor and I went to a surf shop/bazar in search of work pants and ended up staying for a long conversation with the 3 employees. We even got the address to a cheap clothing store downtown, so although we didn’t buy anything, we also didn’t leave empty handed.

At dinner, I gushed 3 weeks worth of conversation I didn’t have the courage to translate all at once to my host mother. She was so receptive, and probably as exhilarated as I was that I finally opened up to a full conversation. I spent most of my time listening and observing— learning to talk in theory— but now I was actually putting myself to practice.

I explained my adventure to the sacolão, introduced my friends, recounted work horror stories, gossiped some, compared Brasil to the US, and made clear my purpose for deciding to live 5000 miles away from home.

It was inspiring, invigorating, and uplifting. I was thriving. I am thriving. And I will thrive.

And that night I didn’t sleep. I was exhausted from all the feelings I felt even though it was just one awkward and mind-blowing feeling that I still can’t quite pinpoint, but I didn’t sleep.

Mainly because I was fighting off a 103°F fever, migraine, cold sweat, and excruciating pain from the rabies vaccine I got earlier that day, but that’s a story for another time. Hopefully, a time before I forget my English…

Love and Peace,

Elise

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