Danger of Contentment

By Jason, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Saudades. This was one of the first words that I ever learned in Portuguese. The best way that I can describe this word are the little feelings you get once you deeply begin to miss something or someone. Now more than ever, I have many of them.

It has been roughly a month since I left Brazil, and for most of that time I have been at home reflecting on my past seven months. Thinking about all the ways in which that bridge year has influenced me and the way I think at home has been something that seemingly has become part of my daily routine. Those seven months had gone so right in so many ways that it’s hard not to miss it. From my wonderful host family, to my apprenticeship, and all the things in between that made my host community what it was, it is impossible for me to have wished for anything better. Although this is the case, there is one factor that acted as a parasite which wove itself into my mindset and grew into a problem which I did not address until it was too late.

I think that it’s safe to say once you have become comfortable within your host community, you can give yourself a pat on the back because that means you’ve reached a point that many people struggle with when it comes to living somewhere drastically different from where they are originally from. Unfortunately, with this feeling of being comfortable, comes the danger of becoming too content in your community.

For me, the consequences of this contentment did not come until the final week of my bridge-year. I had been living most of these past seven months with the idea that there would always be time to do the things that I wanted to do, and although this was true during the former months, it quickly spiraled into something that lasted with me even in the final weeks.

The unfortunate consequences of this tendency to push things off to a later time did not truly hit me until my final weekend in the country when I realized that I was rushing to do everything that I ever wanted to do in that country in those final few days. Even then, there was nowhere near the amount of time that I needed to fully see all my plans through.

Granted, the time that I am writing this is spring of 2020 when the world is going through a rapidly growing pandemic. Even though this did cut my time in the country short by three weeks, it’s still something that I must acknowledge when reflecting on my time in Brazil. The more I think back on it, the more times I realized that I had this tendency to give the “I have plenty of time for that” excuse, which obviously was not true in the long run. During my last weekend in Brazil I was rushing to do all the fun things that I ever wanted to do in those last two days, which made that weekend some of my best moments in the entirety of my seven months there. Finally visiting the Sand Dunes of Lagoa, hiking up various trails, trying some food that I’ve always wanted to taste such as natural açaí and pasteis. I absolutely loved my bridge year in Brazil, but to think how much better it could’ve been if I had been doing all the things I wanted to do makes me wonder.

Because of all this, there are still a ton of things on my list which I never got to do in Brazil. So if there is anything that I would say to anyone who is going or about to go on a similar journey, it would be to please live everyday in-country as if it could be your last. Even if it’s your first week and you’re 100% sure that you have plenty of time, do your future self a favor and start checking off things on your list now instead of tomorrow

Bus Chat

By Abigail, Tufts 1+4 Participant

My hands struggle to remain steady as they carefully transcribe each character into my notebook. My feet, propped up on the metal rail in front of me, try to keep balance as the bus races down the hill, turning sharply and stopping every few seconds to open the door and let more people in. In both ears sings the soft and silky voice of Yoon Mirae — Korean R&B — in an only somewhat successful attempt to block out all the noise around me — the constant swishing of the folding doors, open, shut; the subdued hum of men and women coming back home from work or shopping; the excited shouts of grinning schoolchildren just getting out of school.

My eyes lose their light-source temporarily, a shadow hovering over my paper. One of those students has sat next to me, and is leaning over to see what it is that I am doing. “¿Eso es inglés?” — is that English? — she asks curiously, staring at the Chinese characters on the page.“No,” I begin to explain in Spanish, removing my headphones and placing them in my pocket. “This is Mandarin Chinese. It’s a language that uses characters rather than an alphabet.” She looks up at me, fascinated and perhaps a bit confused. As we continue conversing, I explain to her that I take Mandarin classes in the city center, where I’m heading now, and she tells me about herself — her age, grade level, and school she goes to. She still looks interested in the strokes I’ve written, so I ask her if she’d like to learn a bit of something. “Yes!” she exclaims excitedly. So I turn the pages until I get to where I wrote down the numbers and begin teaching. “Uno” is “yī”, “dos” is “èr”, and so on. She repeats after me, seeming to soak it in. Then her stop comes up and her siblings, who were standing nearby, call her to get off. She bids me farewell Ecuadorian-style — never “goodbye” but rather “see you later” — as she demounts the bus.

That singular, brief interaction was one of the most memorable experiences of my bridge year. At that moment, just as the little girl got off, I realized what a modern interaction that was — me, a native English speaker, listening to Korean music, speaking in Spanish to an Ecuadorian schoolgirl about the Mandarin Chinese language. This is one of the best examples of cultural globalization that I have personally been a part of. 500 hundred years ago, or even 100 years ago, such an interaction simply would not have been possible. Technology has made it possible to listen to music in practically any language, schools and exchange programs make it possible for foreigners like me to spend some time in Cuenca not just as a tourist, and people’s increasing curiosity of cultures and countries far from their own make it possible to study a wide variety of languages. To be a part of such a complex intercultural exchange, even when it seems to be something as simple as teaching an Ecuadorian schoolgirl  some Mandarin numbers, filled me with a sense of thankfulness for the beautiful, diverse, and ever increasingly connected world we live in today.

Food Remains Ever So Important

By Seneca, Tufts 1+4 Participant

For as long as I can recall I have tried my best to embody the contrarian, the Devils’ Advocate, the counterculture. I regularly adopt wildly argumentative stances with little basis just to be able to oppose my friends. I hated more than anything when my younger brother would imitate me–how I dressed, acted, my preference in beverages—because I felt that he was stealing the persona that I had uniquely crafted.

I was a pescatarian for the vast majority of my life, from birth until just recently. This came about naturally, as initially I was merely a compliant member of a pescatarian household. As I grew older, I was able to further educate myself on the benefits to vegetarianism. My friend Malcolm drilled me on the obscene amount of water required to raise a cow, my parents instilled with me their moral aversions, and “Food, Inc.” opened my eyes to the horrors of the meat industry. All the same, I tend to identify two alternative factors for why I adhered to this dietary constriction for so long: convenience again, and how it set me apart from my peers, upholding my contrarian orientation. I loved that nearly everybody I told about my pescetarianism had an anecdote to the brief span that they experimented with doing the same, and subsequently succumbed. Yet I had willingly deprived myself of the foods I had heard so much about, never once yielding to temptation. That is, until this year abroad.

Expanding what I was comfortable eating literally admitted me into my incredible host family (they refused to house vegans or vegetarians) and the Sunday churrascos (barbecues) are easily my favorite facet of life here. I value the collective responsibility of creating a group meal, and although we sometimes use alternatives such as zucchini or eggplant to accommodate friends, the traditional foods are all carne.

I absolutely adore baking. I have been baking since I was very young and in a split second would deem it my greatest and most distinguishing passion. Baking is something I was certain I could share with my host household, as it serves as a great means of socialization and ideally yields delicious results. Baking with my friend Annika here in Brazil has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and while I acknowledge the weight of that statement I will try my best to justify it accordingly.

Prior to this year, the thought of baking anything swarmed my head with visions of butter, milk, and eggs.My mom and I oftentimes equate how delicious a baked good is to the amount of butter in the crust, or cream and eggs in the custard. But, my friend Annika is vegan. Everything I’ve had the pleasure of making with her has been such, or dairy-free at the absolute least. This was initially an incredibly daunting task, I’ve been forced to rewire my brain about an ability I was supremely confident in. It has been otherwise enlightening for the same reason, I have been able to regain some of my humility and take the backseat as a student once again.

As I branched out in a new direction and expanded my diet, I lost a defining part of my identity. Until this year I never recognized just how much confidence I derived from filling my role as the contrarian. Whilst baking vegan was a strange and foreign experience at first, I now recognize that it has unveiled a newfound curtain tome. Both instances undermined deeply embedded fragments of my identity and forced me to experiment with branching outside of my comfort zone. While these shifts have rendered me more insecure to the question of how well I may know myself, I treasure the opportunity for humility, introspection, and discovery.

All The Little Things

By Luke, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Coming from a small town in western Massachusetts and transitioning to the bustling city of Cuenca was overwhelming. Here I was—plunged into this foreign space in a new home, with people I had just met, speaking a language I was still learning.

Sitting down on my bed that first night, I felt entirely helpless and alone. Riding the bus for the first time, I panicked that I would wind up completely lost. Saying “no puedo entender” in seemingly every conversation I had, I worried about being able to communicate effectively. In this transitory period I felt lost. Luckily, as time went on, beautiful little moments began to shape my experience.

I remember first meeting two of my host siblings. They crashed into my life, and their light, laughter, and love collided violently with my sorry emotions. Graciously, they welcomed me in, asking question after question and, in turn, sharing stories of their own. Excitedly, they introduced me to the park in front of the house. Energetic, shouting “¡mira, Lucas, mira!” they demonstrated their parkour moves on the playground equipment, navigating each difficult task with ease. They encouraged me to try it out myself; so, clumsily, I attempted to mirror their movements. I soon learned that I was not able to contort my lanky limbs in the ways that their nine and ten year old bodies easily could. Later, they shared with me Pipas, sunflower seeds, sharp with lemon flavor. “Phew, phew, phew,” as they showed me the proper method for spitting out the shells.

I remember having spontaneous singing sessions—“Recuéardame” on repeat—with me chiming in every few words. When this got to be repetitive, we moved on to “Cuán Lejos Voy” from Moana and “Believer” by Imagine Dragons. After a while we hopped up, saying, “bailemos, saltemos,” our bodies wiggling in time with the music.

I remember boarding the bus, everyone squished together in one big jumble and witnessing the incomparable energy that emanates from the people, each with their own unique story. Indelible in my mind is the memory of that woman, face turned away from the man by her side, baby in her lap, with tears streaming down her face, her body rigid against the seat of the bus. What was her narrative?

I remember the pijamada we had, my four host siblings sprawled out on the couch in my room, their whispers piercing the nighttime silence every few seconds. The youngest, crying, pulled me out of bed and told me that she missed her mom, who is working in the United States. They asked for a song and, unknowing of any Spanish ones, I softly rendered a similar version to one that my parents sang to me as a kid.

I was slowly, reassuringly finding a rhythm. I realized that I had come into the experience with all of these expectations which were not being immediately met. I anticipated creating lasting bonds with my host family, navigating the city with ease, and becoming more comfortable with my Spanish skills. I came to understand that by focusing on these expectations, I was ignoring all of those little moments, each saturated with emotion and meaning, that were the stepping stones along the way.

All of these moments carry so much meaning. It is the unconditional love of my host mom, the light that streams through the curtain in the morning, the saludos that I share with my host siblings. It is cafecito and pan, joyful laughter and sudden tears, movies in Spanish and Bruja the lovable cat. It is all of this and so much more that create the beautiful jigsaw puzzle that defines my experience here.

A Meditation on Birds

By Andrew, Tufts 1+4 Participant

I have always had an affinity for birds. In grade school I dreamed of working in a parrot rehabilitation center and poured love into caring for the hens I raised in my yard. Most days involved reading the field guide “Birds of Wisconsin” and my seasons were divided by patterns of migration. From loons at dusk to Eagles with prey; I would often sit and simply listen. These voices, I now realize, lectured many of the first of life’s elusive lessons.

Yet in adolescence I landed at a point where this appreciation fell away. There came a time when April chose to cut off from the oranges. I left purple years and Orioles without jelly. At life ́s heaviest, I saw the nature of Wisconsin as no blessing at all. Forests were cotton and trees swallowed each tick of my watch; I realize now I had set an alarm.

With adolescence came a longing to fit in and so I trained myself to see mass as the way. I was sure city was solution and took comfort in setting systems of equations that ate bigger numbers of people to produce higher chances of finding a flock. Happiness was a pseudo-probability derivative of people and punctuated by digits-calculations, constructions-as if science or statistics were the infallible variations of subtle math that neither lies. It was in these crowds that I envisioned each face gently weaving away to reveal my concrete perch while forgetting that systems and substitution were taught not only to solve for X, but importantly for Y.

Quite quickly what were once wishes transformed into reality, swift to unfold. I moved cities while traveling the world and was washed by waves of wonderful people. I was living what I thought should be my dream and though I would say I felt happier, life felt almost distracting. It culminated in academic pressure, a difficult relationship and friends with struggles of their own. After graduating completely exhausted, for the first time in many years, I allowed myself to embrace being alone.

Shortly after, the sky burst out in purple humming.

For so many years, the clattering of unhappiness forbid my mind from giving way to beauty’s songs. Yet the birds had never stopped singing. I had simply forgotten to listen. Perhaps in a world of frantic searching, it is the listening we need now most. For me, that meant to myself.

I had tried so hard for so long to fit into some mold that I forgot the simplicity of being myself. As we grow older we often lose touch with the joy this earth once brought us as children as we assume increasingly more imposed and inherited roles. For me, to listen to myself once again means beginning to learn to gaze through it all. It means staring so deeply that even the mud in the water eventually turns into love.

Ornithologists have demonstrated that birds can adapt their calls in both volume and style to adjust to acoustic terrain. So resilient are their hymns that they rely not on the world around them to be heard. It is in this resilient symphony where we can be magically reminded how love transcends sounds; words. We hear each call, and the differences combine. It is in the textured soundscape that we once again come to understand the way difference courts beauty.

This is an earth full of songs always singing, let us learn to let these voices be heard.

Peanut Butter and Chai

By Alex, Tufts 1+4 Participant

When thinking about what to get as a gift for my host family, my mind immediately went to peanut butter. There may not be any food condiment more quintessentially American than the creamy golden colored substance made from crushed peanuts and sugar. Peanut butter just doesn’t have the same tang anywhere else. It is the United States’ crown jewel: whether you are a Skippy or JIF fan, peanut butter forms a common bond between Americans. While American cuisine may be lacking, we can proudly call ourselves the founders of peanut butter. I knew I wanted my Indian host family to experience its deliciousness and get a taste for my childhood, as I had grown up eating peanut butter.

So 8,401 miles later, I finally gave my host family the prized peanut butter that had fortunately not been confiscated during customs. We arranged to have a formal taste test on that Thursday, and that morning, I eagerly woke up early and took my usual seat at the dining room table facing the window’s swaying palm trees.

I’m not a great cook, but I can proudly boast about making mean peanut butter toasts. As I began to lay out my ingredients, my host mom started to make her everyday chai. While I added cinnamon and honey to the peanut butter, my host mom added masala chai spices and ginger to her teapot. While I chopped bananas, my host mom poured steamed milk into the chai mixture. Finally, when I finished preparing plates with peanut butter and jelly, and peanut butter, banana, cinnamon, and honey, she added two spoonfuls of sugar each to five cups. Together, we crafted a breakfast I’ll always remember.

One by one, each member of my family came downstairs and enthusiastically grabbed pieces of toast before I could describe what I had created. As they took their first bites, I could see surprise turned to pleasure on their faces while I explained to them that this was a typical American snack. My host father jokingly told me that Indians typically didn’t eat sweet things for breakfast while I replied that sadly Americans did. My host sister Pritti declared her new love for peanut butter and stuck her finger into the jar, reminding me of one of my grandfather’s old habits. Pranoti added some ghee (a quintessential Indian condiment) to the toast, making it her own. While we continued eating our meal, I realized my role and my host family’s role reversed. I had been the one trying different foods daily and discussing the differences or similarities between Indian and American meals. Now, for the first time, they were getting a taste of how I had been feeling.

Food bridges cultures. My host mother’s careful preparation of chai, the staple Indian drink, paired with a classic American meal exemplified this notion. Through the taste of her masala chai, I am in India. Through peanut butter, I am in the United States. With both, I am on my bridge year.