“Flaming Hot Cheetos, tampons, Pumpkin Spice lattes, salsa, post-it notes…” I drawled on to the women behind the reception at the hotel I was staying at. Their eyes got bigger and bigger as I listed the things I would be buying at Target to take back to Brazil with me because they are either a. not available or b. super expensive.
“I’m sorry, but, they don’t have Flaming Hot Cheetos? I eat those every day.”
I could see their opinions of Brazil were dropping. “It’s really cool though! We always go to the beach and the people are so friendly and there are monkeys….I don’t always think about mac ‘n cheese and brownies . . . ” but I had lost them.
I get it. Some things are a hard pass when it comes to living abroad. Which is something I’ve been thinking about lately as I contemplate my next step. My time in Rio is coming to a close…six months from now. I’ve know for a while, I’ve said from the beginning I only thought Brazil would be a three year adventure.
And I’m not exactly ready to talk about the reasons I want to leave. That makes it sound too real and when it starts to feel real, as far away as it is, the faces of my friends that have become family and the students I affectionately call “my kids” and who sing songs about me being a “beautiful hot dog” flash through my mind and I’m not ready to face it quite yet.
But the truth is that being in international teaching means you start thinking about your next job the September before you actually go there. The visa process is complicated, can be expensive, some governments (like Brazil) ask for random pieces of paper to be notarized and legalized, and what constitutes a “business day” in one country is a calendar month in another. Consulates go on strike, systems change, etc. When I went to get my work visa the first time in San Francisco, I only happened to notice a tiny sign posted up in the back of the room, written only in Portuguese that mentioned that working visas for foreigners could only be picked up between the hours of 1-2pm on Tuesdays from now on. What the –
And so with the help of my stepdad’s airline miles and my parents’ enthusiasm to get me out of Rio at any cost, I flew to Atlanta to attend a job conference a few weeks ago.
Because I’m not going home for Christmas this year, and also because they are awesome, my mom, aunt Suzy, and sister Jenna flew out to meet me and we spent two whirlwind days exploring Savannah. Our dad lived in Georgia for a few years, and we actually drove right through his town, stopping to pee at a Cracker Barrel, as you do.
It was strange to be in their hometown but not see my dad, stepmom, or brothers. It made me miss my dogs terribly. And I do love the South – we were at a Super Walmart within three hours of me touching down (and I landed at 5am) and I was throwing all kinds of goodies into the cart, grinning at the check out price, hating myself inside.
We took a hilarious bus tour past haunted cemeteries, pirate houses, and the church steps where Martin Luther King Jr. first gave his “I have a Dream” speech. I drank too many craft American beers, ordered ranch dressing with everything, ate fried green tomatoes, watched huge cargo ships roll in and under the bridge, ate chocolate-dipped oreos and boiled peanuts, and stayed in a bnb that the host said was “remodeled in the ’80s,” and it took me a full minute to realize she meant 1880s. **California girl alert**
And it was just so nice to be with family. The one group of people you can’t hide anything from. The one group of people who truly cares and loves everything about you. Or at least pretends well enough until you’re not around. And it was so nice to be taken care of for a few days – do you want a coffee? What would you like to eat?You look nice! Is that new? Because everything is new and news when you only see each other once a year.
And to be back in the States, to go anywhere and not have to think about how to translate what I wanted to say, and to understand everything around me. That can be unnerving, too, though, as I get distracted by all the English I can hear. And I get distracted by all the American things I can eat. And drink. And wear. And buy. I read out loud every road side we drive past, sing along to every song I hear, need an appetizer and a salad and a meal and a dessert and this IPA and that local brew and a magnet souvenir.
I don’t know if I ever loved my home country so much as I do now, having been away from it for so long. I love America more dearly, defend her more seriously, take care to represent her as best I can now. Worry more.
The goodbyes to my family were rainy and rushed – in typical ‘me’ fashion I couldn’t find my glasses and last remembered having them in a bathroom some three hours away. In typical Jenna fashion, she found them nearly immediately when I started to panic. I threw American dollars at my mom to deposit into my account so I could make my college loans, she shoved diet pepsis into my coat pocket, a bewildered porter collected my suitcase and Walmart plastic bags, and we all didn’t know what to say.
I made it into the hotel lobby but had forgotten the name of the random woman from the agency email that I had agreed to split a hotel room with for a lower rate. Unused to wearing so many layers, I had to dig into several pockets to find my phone and pull up her email. I rushed to the room and starfished on the bed, suddenly wishing I’d never thought to leave Rio, suddenly very sure of how unqualified I probably was for any of the jobs I had come for, suddenly wishing very much I had just flown home with my family.
But then ambition kicked in, “THE CHILDREN MUST BE EDUCATED!” I said to myself, and I made it to registration, slapped on the nametag, and sat through six hours of 12 presentations of international schools. I talked to and/or signed up for interviews with Cayman Islands, Albania, Dominican Republic, Italy, South Korea, Slovenia, St. Petersburg, and several spots in Qatar and Abu Dhabi. Because YOLO.
But they came and went quickly. It wasn’t entirely the sea of business suits and briefcases and topknots from the conference, I don’t think (although for someone who hasn’t worn sleeves in 2.5 years and was shivering in three layers with the heat on, I did feel pretty out of place). There were several directors or heads of schools that gave me weird feelings, that said strange things, or I would have to live on a compound. Or I didn’t have the particular Bachelor’s degree that would afford me the working visa I needed. Or they had “already interviewed strong candidates for just that position.”
After a day of “what am I here for,” it felt strange but wonderful to connect so deeply and philosophically with my random roommate – a woman in her 50s, divorced, a middle school counselor, looking for a change in her life. We talked politics, education, women’s leadership, travel, interviewing. Then I took myself out for dinner at a vegan place and ate a kale salad which went really well with red wine.
So the next day was wide open. I slept it in. In my Murica onesie. I showered with steaming hot water, with perfect pressure. I wore a hotel robe. I turned up the air conditioning. I fought no bugs. All things I can’t do in Rio. I walked to the local mall and talked to salespeople in English and bought lip gloss and then hogged free internet at Panera. It is possible I had two caesar salads. I encountered a Cupcake ATM and I FREAKED. OUT.
Unable to face my roomie in her post-interview glory, and feeling downhearted about job prospects, and in a post-election effort to now always be friendly and kind and conversational, I chatted up my waitress in the hotel as I sucked up more wifi in the lobby (not available in our room without paying! should have stayed in a hostel).
She was gorgeous. Like, everyone turned heads gorgeous. She called me sweetie and said I was too beautiful to be alone. I started talking to her, she asked me my story, I told it. I asked for hers. I was humbled.
She came here from Eritrea as a refugee when she was 3. We are the same age. Her family was harassed, her parents never recovered from the torment of not fully mastering English and returned back a few years ago.
A month ago, her family had to come up with $55,000USD to ransom her cousin’s life from Sudan. Her cousin had tried to escape through Sudan to get to family in Italy, but was caught by pirates and was being held captive. Family is still not sure about her physical condition, i.e. its quite possible she was raped, is with child, was beaten, amputated, etc. The pirates were threatening to sell her organs.
She calmly shared this story with me as she poured me a glass of wine as I browsed teaching jobs and handed her a credit card I am confident I can pay off in the next few years.
I don’t know what to do with it. She could tell I was dumbstruck but it, but it didn’t faze her. I said I would pray, I didn’t know anything to do but pray. She sat down and talked with me and we got along like peas in a pod and really I just wanted to get her number and make sure we could always be friends. I wanted to know about her cousin, to see her keep moving up in the world, pursuing her studies, fighting for the rest of her family to come over from Eritrea.
Is this another sign? Is this a go to somewhere difficult sign? Is that just making everything about me?
God – send me people to tell me what to do – make it obvious what I am supposed to do!
I’m glad that God’s made it easy for me to talk to people. I never met a stranger. I know that’s a gift I sometimes don’t use well enough. Or often enough.
I watched a youtube video of a small girl get into Santa’s lap at a mall. Off-camera, you can hear mom talking, shyly, saying that her daughter actually can’t speak much just yet. But the girl looks about four or five. Without missing a beat, Santa Claus asks if she signs. “Yeah!” says mom, more brightly now. Santa signs something to the girl, there are no subtitles, but her eyes light up, and Santa Claus and this young girl shared a special moment. The adult understood, without judgment, without hesitation, what the child needed. And without fanfare, without expectation, provided. And we watched a flower blossom.
I’m walking into this next season praying God makes it clear where he wants to land me – where I can be a person who makes a child’s eyes light up because they are finally understood. I think it’s something I’m good at and something I want to do, and wise people have always told me that when you align your talents with your desires, you find your God-given purpose.
If you haven’t heard it today and you need to – you matter more than you know.
Hey I am excited about everything. I like to sing and dance and eat and drink. I love costumes and clean jokes. And to write. i pretend to work out and be crafty. big fan of sweatpants and you bringing over wine and cupcakes.