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. Continue reading