Every once in a while, I’ll have a recollection of someone more experienced than myself explaining how I should travel before life burdens me down with responsibility and ambitions that would prevent me from doing so in the future.
Half of the time that person had never been to more than a few neighboring states, and the other half, the wise shaman of a fortune teller has been around the world once or twice in search of something.
Having lived half of my life in Los Angeles I grew up exposed to immigrants and globe trekkers alike, and have always heard stories culture shock.
One month before I turned 20, I arrived in Guarulhos Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I arrived knowing virtually no Portuguese. The little book-on-tape I had been listening to for three weeks before arriving seemed to go blank when I actually arrived.
For about 30 minutes, I was alone in the airport, surrounded by cab drivers and world trekkers who looked at me as an equal.
Those 30 minutes alone taught me more patience than the longest and most awkward conversation with any possible employer or romantic interest.
I mentally processed how I might negotiate a form of transportation, knowing only the universal sign language of a wave and the hands on the invisible wheel of a car.
I was met at the airport 30 minutes later by someone who spoke a limited amount of English, but it was a welcome relief. Any amount of negotiating through broken English beat the prospect of large arm movements, smiles and nods that may have taken me anywhere in that foreign land.
Was this the culture shock that everyone had spoken of in the United States? It felt different here. There air smelled different and the humidity was uncomfortably higher than the Decembers I remembered back home. I had forgotten about the difference in hemispheres while on the 15-hour plane ride.
The smiles were the same. They still brought comfort and understanding, even if they were smiles at your futile attempt at mouthing my poor high school Spanish and forcing it to sound like the Portuguese accent I had heard on the language tape.
I was then taken to the missionary training center, and there entered into an intensive nine-week program of language, communication and cultural classes to help me assimilate into Brazil more quickly.
Nine weeks later I was thrust into the outside world again with no English for a safety net. I had learned Portuguese on the fly. I’d write down words I heard and memorize them every day.
While I lived in one of the sprawling suburbs of the metropolitan Sao Paulo area for six months, I was easily learning (and re-learning) at least 30 words a day.
I lived in Sao Paulo for two years, speaking English on the holiday occasions I could afford to buy a phone card to call home. I lived comfortably off of $40 a month. It paid for just enough food to get by and bus trips in and out of the city each day.
I remember writing in my journal about how this was how I wanted to live my life, for the rest of my life. I wanted to live only off of what I needed, surrounded by people who were happy with what they had, and learned to remain happy even through the most difficult of financial situations.
The currency had been changed in Brazil more than 10 times in the previous 20 years. It left many people untrusting of the government, and even less of the money.
Minimum wage would often render a “sesta b?sica” (basic basket), which would provide the most essential foodstuffs needed to get through the month: rice, beans, oil, sugar, flour, milk, pasta and one or two cans of fruit. Some of the fancier baskets had cookies and other lavish items, but it retained that core necessity of food.
Rent in Sao Paulo could not be paid by one employed parent, and often not even two. Countless numbers of fathers and heads of households held two jobs or one regular job and later performed odd jobs around town to gain what extra money they could. This wasn’t new to me.
After one year I was fluent in comprehension of Portuguese, and three months after that, on good days, I could confuse people by claiming to be a Brazilian. It was nice to be considered one with the culture, even if I still had my awkward moments of English thought.
I finished my two-year mission learning more about life, human beings, myself and religion than I thought I could ever have comprehended. Those wise people who encouraged me to travel couldn’t have known I needed this comprehension and empathy so desperately in my life, could they?
Despite living in Brazil for those two years, after the airport I never felt awkward or out of place again. I was robbed, had guns pointed at me, ate interesting food and walked more than 10 miles a day; I had never been happier.
Until the day arrived when I would return home. I flew in to the Burbank airport. Things had changed since I left.
Sept. 11 had happened, and my only first-hand knowledge was Brazilians citizens either teasing me that my country had been attacked, friends from home saying how horrible it was that something had happened (but not explaining what had happened) or the newsstands showing pictures of the collapsing towers.
It was weird telling people I was going home. I felt at home in Brazil, surrounded by people who truly exuded happiness.
Debarking the plane in Burbank led me to the outside world of the United States for the first time in two years. The pollution smelled very familiar, but the cars were different-they were huge.
People avoided eye contact. There were no friendly smiles or random conversations. I was chided for having forgotten many common English words because I spoke solely Portuguese for two solid years, and only wrote letters and read books in English.
I was in an awkward land of $20 dollar and $40 dinners. The money I could use for an entire month was consumed and eaten in less than a day here in Los Angeles.
Culture shock for me was returning to Los Angeles, having almost completely assimilated to the Brazilian way of life. However, unlike in Brazil, I didn’t want to embrace everything, knowing that somehow something had to be changed.
I was grateful for what I had, but dismayed that everyone around me seemed to need to have more, or as much as possible.
I’ve become accustomed to the cost of living in Los Angeles again, but I do not think I will ever be able to erase that bit of Brazilian in myself that encourages me to be happy through all of my trials, relax when I need and deserve it and make what I have last as long as it can.
Being a student has helped me not feel overwhelmed entirely by culture shock. Soon I became too occupied with two part-time jobs and full-time school to really even notice the waste going on in all directions around me.
But now and then, when I reflect back on the things that have brought me the most happiness in life, I recall that the worst culture shock I ever had was the day I returned to my beloved home city of Los Angeles.
Chris Daines can be rached at email@example.com.