Grappling with social cues in a foreign country
“I said, ‘Okay one.’” She brandished her index finger. “One quick one. Then he stuck his tongue down my throat.”
“Oooh, yuck. What did you do then?”
“I retreated into the kitchen. They were really nice to me. Everyone was so nice to me.”
It was 3:30 in the morning. I was looking blearily at my 16-year-old daughter, Molly, who had just returned from her first party in Penedo, the small, upriver town in northeastern Brazil where we'd come to live for a year.
Before leaving the U.S., I’d had my share of anxious visions about what could happen to our kids in a small town in Brazil. This wasn’t new. My husband, Peter, and I had thought through our worst nightmares before every trip abroad. But when it was just the two of us, our perception of the risks was different. We put ourselves pretty far out into the “bush”—hiking across China for our honeymoon, crossing borders into small African countries on the brink of revolution. We had that youthful sense of invincibility. But then we had kids.
When we were choosing where to go after our second child, Skyler, was born, we'd said no malaria; so we chose malaria-free Spain. When the kids were six and 10, we chose the capital city of Mozambique. It had malaria, but wasn’t far from Johannesburg and good medical care. But they were young then. Now we had teens.
So Brazil. Would our beautiful blonde daughter’s celebrity status protect her from predatory men, or would she be seen as a special prize, a conquest, a target? We’d been warned by Brazilian friends at home that it was common practice at parties to be asked by someone you’d just met if you wanted to make out. “Quer ficar comigo?” No strings attached.
So when Molly had come home from school earlier that day jubilantly announcing that she’d been invited to her new friend Keyla’s 15th birthday party, we thought we were prepared. She’d been told to keep her eyes on her drink and stick with friends. Molly barely spoke Portuguese and so far only one person we'd met spoke English. But Molly can dance and at a party, in Brazil dancing well will get you a long way.
“Mom, what should I wear?”
“What do you have?” (We'd moved to Brazil with one duffle bag each.)
At 10 that night, another new friend, Leyla, came to pick Molly up. Molly was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and her favorite multicolored flat sandals. She opened the door. There was Leyla—in a satin minidress and four-inch heels. Molly rushed back into her room.
“Mom, what can I wear?!”
She re-emerged in a short black dress and the only heels she owned, two-inches high with a tame strap.
“Have fun,” I called as she slipped out the door. I doubted she’d heard me, or the trepidation in my tone.
Parties in Penedo start at 10 or 11, after our bedtime. We had no car. We’d considered finding a taxi driver to bring Molly home in the wee hours, but thought better of it. After midnight, if they were willing to work, chances are they would be doing it under the influence. So she'd be stranded at the party with no way to bail. We kept our cell phones by our bed, figuring maybe we could call Zeca, the young lawyer who spoke English and was fast becoming a friend. It turned out Zeca was often at the same parties.
That first time, I woke up at three a.m. It was still dark. No sign of our 16 year old. Though I wished she were home, I was less anxious than I would have been in the U.S. Perhaps this was because, abroad, I was too in the dark to know what to worry about. And in this small town, the big U.S. bogeyman, drunk driving, didn’t exist. Lots of people were drunk but almost no one was driving. Kids didn't have cars. In Brazil, the parties are also intergenerational, so I knew Leyla’s mom was there and would bring them home.
I went to lie down on the living room couch. Not long after, Molly quietly opened the front door.
“How was it?” I asked sleepily.
“Oh, Mom, it was really fun, but…It was kind of overwhelming, too. There was lots of dancing. But these guys, they made a big circle around me and were shouting, “Mohly, Mohly, I love you, I love you.”
“Yeah. In English. For a long time. And they kept asking me to fica (to make out) with them. My friends were trying to protect me. But finally, I gave in. I told Felipe, you know, the guy who worked at the desk at the pousada, that I would, cuz at least I kinda knew him.”
That first introduction was an eye opener. You can hear about a custom in another culture but what do you do when it's actually dropped in your lap. Do as the Romans do? Some things are easier to try on than others, like sampling new food. But making out with strangers...?
Well, we’d been warned this would happen to Molly. But to our son Skyler? It turned out that at age 12, our tan, blond, blue-eyed son had an impassioned female following, both his age and older, acquaintances and total strangers. They’d regularly ask him to kiss them, at school or on the street. Anywhere would do.
“Mom, what do I do? I want to go play tennis but there’re all those girls out there!” And there were; a little, tittering clutch eagerly watching our front door from the concrete benches in the plaza.
“Can you just say we don’t do this in the U.S.? That we don’t kiss strangers?”
“I’ve tried that. They just say, 'But this is Brazil'.”
In Skyler’s first few months in school, we received several love notes a week, surreptitiously slipped under our front door. Once I heard it happen and whipped the door open, mischievously hoping to catch the author. She’d vanished. On purple or pink paper, with heart or rainbow stickers, in a combination of Portuguese and broken English, they ranged from the fairly innocent (and somewhat inscrutable), “Never get out of Brazil that is a rock. I’ll die” to the racier “Just want your baby well,” or “I’am Prostitute and you is my Bum” or better yet “Fuck! Te Amo!”
One Saturday, Skyler took part in a Capoeira demonstration at a neighboring school. We'd recently begun to take lessons in this Brazilian martial art/dance form. As soon as his Capoeira group arrived, he was surrounded by girls wanting to pose for pictures with him. Our "California surfer," with his shaggy blond hair and clear blue eyes, stood dutifully for one selfie after another, a big white smile, frozen painfully on his face. Theoretically, this should be a boy’s dream, but it wasn’t.
This is what we began to realize about cultural immersion. It's not just about language, which was where most of our focus had been. Certainly that plays a part. But there are all those other things. All that body language; what seems suggestive in one culture might be casual in another. All that learned understanding of what's acceptable and what's not; a curt response to a social advance that feels rude in one culture might be routine in another.
Okay she's in, I thought, she's immersed. And then I thought: she'll be able to handle anything.