The Brazil Files: Conflict of Interest

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Before I utter any statements of depth in this piece, I have to present a bias. Though not meant to offend those who believe in proselytizing, I find myself firmly standing on the side of those against it. If you feel that religion and/or a faith tradition of some sort is your source of hope, guidance for life, and possibly even your ticket to eternal salvation, so be it. I respect that, and I fully honor the right we each have to practice some form of the aforementioned. However, the second you start telling me or someone else which form is best (read: which version will prevent me from burning in hell for the rest of eternity), we’ve got beef.

With that said, I want to go ahead and put it out there that I take issue with the bulk of missionary work (past and present), especially that which takes place in developing nations. It is a reminder of the power of nations who sit firmly and comfortably in their G8 seats, spectators in a game of international tennis. Only in the case of missionary work, the victory comes at a higher price, one that can mean not only renouncing one’s culture, but also one’s religion (or at least denouncing it in public) as a means of attaining vital resources. This is not to say that missionaries have not done good work. There are countless records of missionaries who have helped others in excellent ways, minus all the religious rhetoric. However, even if the message of faith lies in no more than an utterance or the simple presence of the mission’s name, missionary work nevertheless boils down to a political campaign in the name of God.

In light of my objection to this line of work, I find myself dealing with a mental conflict almost every day of my present job. My campaign has nothing to do with God, but in terms of international influence, the English language and American culture come pretty darn close. Though I have been teaching English in Brazil since July of 2008, there are still a few things about my current profession that rub me the wrong way. The source of my discomfort in teaching my mother tongue lies in implications more so than tangible, empirical evidence, thus making my inner turmoil all-the-more “inner.” Much like a mosquito bite on the sole of your foot, my conflict has been an itch I can’t quite scratch.

Before enrolling in the program in which I am involved, I already knew I wanted to live in Brazil for a few months to a year to have more exposure to Brazilian culture, particularly an aspect of it that involved more of the quotidian variety. I was looking to go beyond the favela-riddled, bikini-clad, beach bathing, rainforested Brazil with which we are presented on our television screens and in our Netflix queues. I wanted to be forced to speak Portuguese on a regular basis and pushed a bit beyond my comfort zone. I was not looking for a spoiled, privileged, escapist ex-pat experience of the Eat Pray Love genre.

The easiest way to achieve my goal was to teach English here, but I knew in the back of my mind, I would be presented with interesting challenges that I may not have faced if I had chosen another route to secure a job in Brazil. For one, I would have to be a de facto representative of American Culture TM. My language and my country would be placed center stage during class, but what Americans do, eat, buy, and think would be the main topic of conversation at all other times as well. I would be reduced to a living, breathing souvenir. Yet in actuality, I find myself to be a bit of a disappointment to my students and the Brazilian English teachers, not for lack of teaching skills, but for lack of conforming to their ideas of Americans and American life.

Before moving to Brazil, I lived in New York City for six years, so even my view of most Americans was one I took with foreign eyes. I often considered myself somewhat isolated from what most would consider “American culture” mainly because I had lived in NYC, which is clearly more of an international city than say Memphis, Tennessee, the city of my birth. I listen to Metronomy, Surkin, and J*Davey instead of Rihanna, Fall Out Boy, and Snoop Dogg (all of whom have achieved considerable success in Brazil thanks to MTV). I have a considerable amount of tattoos. I am a vegetarian who likes international food. I am agnostic. I am not a fan of Nike, Tommy, or any popular clothing brands. I am not a classic American beauty. And on top of all that, I am black, which still throws some people for a loop here in Brazil because most people assume I am Brazilian until I open my mouth.

Though Brazil’s access to American media has expanded rapidly thanks to globalization, the films, music, and popular culture to which Brazilians are exposed is clearly the dominate culture, of which I do not really consider myself a part. The idea of Americans that many Brazilians have as a result of this type of media is not exactly the most accurate. We are considered arrogant, ignorant, and overweight on the one hand, but filthy rich, glamorous, and perfect on the other. There is very little room for anything from the margins, and even what is thought to be “alternative” is still the same old simulacra. Nevertheless, I have to put on a happy face and endure countless questions related to the subjects above, only to be followed by my response, which is usually something like “I have no idea who that is. I download my music from European blogs. Sorry!” or “Well, no, I don’t eat bacon in the morning, because I don’t eat meat, not even the white kind, which I know is not considered meat here.”

And though the questions can be tiring, I can understand why they are asked. What is more exhausting is processing the reality that as a result of the onslaught and heavy influence of American mainstream media by way of music, films, and other forms of entertainment (including sports), many elements of Brazilian culture are becoming a non-entity in the eyes of many young Brazilians. Brazilian televised news devotes about a fourth of their broadcasts to American politics. Brazilian culture, as the world becomes flat and so easily navigable because of the internet, is being quickly altered to closely resemble ours. Unfortunately, I am caught in the middle. I represent another side of American culture, which can be a good thing for my students, but I am American nonetheless, and some will never see me as anything more than that.

I have somewhat come to terms with my curio status, and at times celebrate it, mainly when Americans show a sign of intelligence in their choices (ahem Obama), but other times, I feel that my presence symbolizes a modern neo-imperialism, though through culture and language as opposed to direct territorial or financial dominance (albeit, those still play a major part in the case of Brazilian/American relations). There are zillions of English schools throughout the country, some of which have a direct link to the United States Embassy, and many Brazilians see learning English as a means of improving their lives, especially in terms of career success. Many of my adult and teenage students alike say that they are taking English in hopes of securing a good job in the future.

Yet in this time of greedy linguistic and cultural consumption, I worry of the looming backlash. I have some students who explicitly reject any and all aspects of American culture and are generally disgusted by Americans, save me (as an exception because I am their teacher), but who are begrudgingly taking English as language skills are seen as one of the few ways to separate oneself from the competition. Even some of my youngest students admit that they are only taking English because their parents are making them, unaware that their budding skill may help them put food on the table in a decade or two.

Seeing this saddens me and further fortifies my personal belief that though clearly beneficial in the long term, teaching English is its own form of missionary work. The parallels to missionary work that are demonstrated in terms of some students’ reluctance to learn when coupled with a frightening pressure to do exactly that in order to simply stay occupationally and culturally afloat worry me. In addition, access to recreational English classes are afforded only to middle and upper class Brazilians, which has previously caused a rift between some English teachers applying to work in Brazil and a few of the Brazilian consulate offices who believe that access to learning English and the skills thus acquired are deepening the divide between the rich and the poor. From what I have seen, I find it hard to disagree. And that’s speaking toward language studies in both Brazil and the United States.

In New York City, maniacal parents have infants who can barely articulate basic monosyllabic words in English taking baby French and baby German so their children will have a better chance of entering elite, private academic and hyper-selective public schools, and even then, nothing is guaranteed. Yet in general, beyond the basic needs met by pre-vacation language book purchases, i.e. how do you say “where is the bathroom?” few Americans are breaking their necks to learn any other language, despite our growing immigrant population. We barely have a handle on English, so God forbid we make an effort to devote attention to some foreign “babble” that we don’t need to speak anyway, right? “This is America. Speak English,” so goes the motto. Yet in our stubbornness to learn another language and general indifference to the prospect of our society and culture changing dramatically as a result of immigration and the expansion of 2nd-generation families in the next few decades, we are doing ourselves a grave disservice.

As a teacher of English in Brazil who already speaks Portuguese, I am a rare breed. Even my students were shocked that I had taken a time to learn a language that, in their words, everyone always just confuses with Spanish. In addition to the language surprise, my students were also interested in the fact that I had been to Brazil several times before, and knew that Brazil was about more than Carnaval. But despite these differences, the things that set me apart from other teachers they had previously had, I still wondered if intent mattered at this point.

In being an “unusual” American to them, there is an obvious benefit, but the shame that sometimes comes with my nationality, due mainly to the international reception of our behavior and the aggressive promotion of our culture abroad, can outweigh any good I intend to do as a teacher. In recognizing the big picture, I may be overanalyzing, but in being a part of this neo-imperialist process, whether or not I have direct control in it, I still have days when I am uncomfortable with my work. I know that I am empowering my students with a valuable skill that will earn them considerable respect in the future, but I wish that more of my fellow countrymen were making an attempt to be more connected to the world as well, instead of continuing to spread American culture with their blinders on.