I Didn’t Know They Speak Chinese in Brazil

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“Boa noite,” I said to the tan Brazilian who opened the door of the hostel, clearly having been woken up by the sound of the buzzer. It was 3:30 in the morning. Doug, my traveling companion, and I were also feeling particularly groggy. We had gotten lost on the way from the bus station and ended up walking over five miles with our packs to get to the hostel.

“Não falo português. Você fala Inglês ou Espanhol?” I tried.

“Sim,” responded the hostel owner in Portuguese, rubbing his heavy eyes.

He opened the door and ushered us to follow him. Seeing as I had already exhausted my two sentences of Portuguese, I tried again in Spanish.

“Espero que nos disculpes por la demora. Nos perdimos en el camino.”

He seemed to understand me, but again responded in Portuguese.

“Não há problema. Eu sou Matheus. Aqui estão as duas camas. Você pode pagar pela manhã e se vocês estão interessados ​​em comer com a gente, vamos jantar aqui no albergue amanhã.”

He gave us a set of sheets and left. I immediately turned to Doug.

“Did you get any of that?” I asked.

“Absolutely none of it. I think I’d probably understand more Chinese. Actually, no. I definitely would have understood more Chinese.”

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We spent the next day baking in the Brazilian sun and enjoying the beautiful beaches of Parati. Studying abroad in Mendoza, Argentina was wonderful in almost every single way, except for the fact that it was land-locked. It felt so amazing to be near the water again.

Eventually, we wandered back to the hostel and were greeted by a ton of people who were hanging out in the common area. People were speaking Portuguese, Spanish, English, German and Hebrew. I gravitated first to the three Argentinians, and then over to the Scottish couple. Having been traveling throughout Brazil, for two weeks I was sick of having my interactions with people limited by “Portoñol” – the Portuguese and Spanish version of Spanglish. I was PUMPED that I that I finally found so many people that I could communicate with. I was how surprised by how comforting it felt to speak Spanish. Any struggle that I might have had with the language in Mendoza all seemed relative.

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We learned that what Matheus, the hostel owner, had been trying tell us the night before is that we were invited to eat dinner with all of the hostel guests. He had caught some fish that afternoon. By the time that dinner was served, there were three Argentinians, three Brazilians, five Israelis, myself and Doug. We quickly realized that no matter what language we spoke, there were at least two people who did not understand. (Two of the Argentinians spoke Spanish and Portuguese, one of the them spoke Spanish and English, the Brazilians only spoke Portuguese, the Israelis spoke Hebrew and English, the Scottish spoke English, I spoke Spanish and English and Doug only spoke English). The best part of the evening was that instead of breaking into language-specific groups, almost everyone at the table was translating for someone else. What ensued was a game of constant translation full of several riotous “lost in translation” moments or instants in which people did not realize what language they were speaking in until they were met with a confused stare and a giggle from the person they were speaking at. It was great.

The laughs that this global evening facilitated revealed that while many words and phrases may not translate directly from one language to another, laughter and humor most certainly do. On the surface, the goal for each of us was to use our individual language skills to bridge the gap of misunderstanding, but at times, it was actually the moments of complete and utter misunderstanding that we shared the most laughs. After that night, I spend some time thinking about how difference often poses an insurmountable feat to interpersonal relationships. However, after a night spent with a strange conglomerate of foreigners in a remote Brazilian hostel, I learned that it was actually the differences between us that made our connections so strong and memorable.

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Kaylee Schwitzer is a student at Bowdoin College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler on the Mendoza Universities Program in 2013.

Article by Kaylee Schwitzer