Culture and Contrast in Fortaleza

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Missy Reif, 2013-2015, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Brazil (center), performing with members of Oré Anacã

During my time as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Fortaleza, Brazil, it was apparent that my students at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC) had widespread access to American culture. They watched American TV shows and movies, listened to American music. Yet, despite living in the fifth largest city in the country, most of my students had never met an American before I arrived on campus. While this idea made me a little nervous at first, it was an amazing opportunity to show my students that life in the United States is more than American Pie.

ETAs in Brazil fill a number of roles on their university campuses. At UFC, my time was split between giving guest lectures and running my own extracurricular activities on campus. In two years, I led many conversation clubs where we played games and practiced English without the pressure of grades or assignments, and organized weekly cultural seminars on topics including religious and cultural diversity, sports, and American holidays and traditions. All of these activities provided students with opportunities to improve their English, and their confidence, in a fun and laid-back setting. While our activities sometimes focused on aspects of the language—workshops on slang and phrasal verbs were always a hit—I found that the students were most interested in in-depth discussions focusing on distinctions between the United States and Brazil.

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Missy Reif, 2013-2015, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Brazil (front row, center, holding flag), celebrating the Fourth of July with some of her students

This type of cross-cultural exchange permeated every aspect of my life in Brazil. ETAs in Brazil work 20-25 hours a week and are asked to develop outside projects that engage them with their local host communities. Having danced my whole life, I arrived in Fortaleza knowing that I wanted to do something with dance, I just wasn’t sure what. I found my group, Oré Anacã, by chance, after a student heard I was interested in dance and offered to take me. Despite my previous experience, I found that the dances performed by Oré were completely different from anything I’d previous learned. The group focuses on traditional folkloric dances of Afro-Brazilian or indigenous origin and has a strong focus on the North and Northeastern regions of Brazil. By dancing with Oré, I learned about the Festival de Parintins, the largest cultural manifestation in the Amazon region; the legend of Bumba-Meu-Boi from Maranhão; representations of different Orixás from the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé; and more! In the end, dancing with Oré Anacã was a highlight of my two years in Brazil. In addition to experiencing the country’s dynamic and varied traditional culture firsthand, I had the opportunity to forge friendships that will last far beyond my time in Fortaleza. As an ETA, I shared my culture with students. At the same time, participating in Oré Anacã taught me about Brazilian culture in a way that would have been impossible to learn on my own.

For those interested in being an ETA in Brazil: be open and understanding of cultural differences. Brazilian academic culture, and Brazilian culture in general, is so diverse that you have to be open to new experiences, even if you’ve been to Brazil before.  It may seem cliché, but it’s something really important for your professional and personal success (and happiness) in Brazil.

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