Day (???) – a note on adaptation and language

And then it happens. You stop keeping track of each new day that was initially bursting with new sights, experiences, and moments. Each day starts to unfold into the next with less of a ‘bang’ — you wake up to a world that feels a lot more predictable: there’s less untapped wonder about the unknown, less of that sharp exhilaration of discovering new poles of sensations simply from stepping outside and realizing that you’re now part of a whole new landscape.

Telephone booth in Sao Paulo

Telephone booth in Sao Paulo

The growing sense of stability is comforting after living abroad for longer than a minute: step by step, you are more aware of what to expect at every turn, you go about everyday life without pausing to figure out every single thing, you navigate the streets effortlessly (rather than with crisp alertness to the newness), and you feel steadier even while you are enveloped by a whirl of foreign elements – as they soon acquire their own sense of stable familiarity. You feel more anchored.

What this meant for my research was dread. I began my fieldwork bubbling with enthusiasm, boldly entering stores and asking to speak with the owner. When the success rate became apparent (and despairing) after a few days, it took a lot more courage and motivation to repeat the same thing, day after day. The predictability was not in my favor, yet, this was my purpose in the city: to speak with business owners.

Coming down with a gritty cold forced me to stay indoors and reflect. This is critical in fieldwork: to honestly admit what’s working, what’s not working, what needs to be adapted and improved. I didn’t want to stop the streetwork even for a day, but the ardor did me in, so I ended up chilling in the apartment to recover for an entire week.

The other issue is language. I have a basic grasp of Portuguese, but I’m not fluent. Mastery over language lends itself to more astute manipulation over people’s impressions, so you can work your descriptions with a nuance that can win them over to you. On the other hand, I am sure I sound very blunt when I speak Portuguese – using raw sentences, and I feel myself losing the business owners when I can’t sway their impressions to an exact tune while we’re conversing.

Skyscraper 'lighthouse' downtown

Skyscraper ‘lighthouse’ downtown

Language skills get better in time. I’ve met people from all walks of life who invariably pick up a new language simply from participating in the world they have joined. To speed up the process, I had to acquire vocabulary in huge gulps to understand what people were saying. But, words are not enough. I also had to enter the flow and sounds of the grammatical syntax to pick up the nuances that people were expressing (I now appreciate how thoughtlessly faaast and imprecisely we tend to speak in everyday conversation!). To improve, I had to read voraciously: magazines, novels, news. Finally, I simply had to plunge into live dialogue: listening, speaking, and getting along with people in the new language.

I think I’m a lot more conversant now than two weeks ago. I’ll attribute this to reading and spending social time with Brazilians. It’s a slow, plodding process, but I see it as a song: if you listen to a song a lot, belt it out, and groove with it, that song will become a part of your natural rhythm. To me, language is one long song.

Today, I had an interview with a manager at SEBRAE which turned out to be extremely useful. We spoke entirely in Portuguese, and I understood almost everything, and could explain my position almost precisely. This felt great, but it’s the almost bit that gets me, because it never feels good enough, even if we communicated well. Nonetheless, he offered to act as my local contact in the city, and sent me his PhD thesis which is on the social networks of business incubators.

Street corner with ‘graffiti’

I have an interview scheduled on Thursday morning with a Chinese shopkeeper. Meanwhile, tomorrow, I’d like to approach a Korean shopkeeper in this neighborhood, call the owner of an Indian restaurant, and perhaps return to Bom Retiro (a merchant area) to hustle for more business owners to talk to me.

Update on today’s tasks: the Korean shopkeeper (or his wife, probably) didn’t speak Portuguese very well and wasn’t enthusiastic about talking, the Indian restaurant owner wasn’t around, and it was too cold to go to Bom Retiro — 50 degrees — so I spend the afternoon getting a winter jacket to enable me to be outside for more than 5mins without freezing over.




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