Low: Hit by a Bus, Literally

by Kerry Nappi

High: 3,973 words

The small language achievements continue to be my high this month, a month in which it was hard to find a high. According to Memrise, a user-made and free online language-learning program, I have learned 3,973 words in my long-term memory in the ten months since I’ve been in Brazil. I strongly recommend it for anyone who wants to use repetition, reading, writing, and listening as the path to a new language. Ironically, I am now studying two languages every day: Portuguese, because I am still here and enjoy communicating with people around me, and Mandarin, because it still seems the most likely of moves for us.

The big language test this month was when I took my daughter to the dentist for an emergency appointment. Although my Portuguese teacher came with us for translation purposes, he sat back and relaxed for the initial consultation when I began understanding and answering the dentist’s questions on my own. Later, not surprisingly, he had to help out; you just don’t want to be guessing meaning when your child’s health is at stake!

Low:  Hit by a bus

I jinxed myself. I take full responsibility for that. I didn’t do it aloud, but I did think it. I thought, we are almost leaving this place, and we are the only expatriates I know here who haven’t gotten one speeding ticket, one flat tire, one accident. None.

One day in May, though, as I drove my own child and two others to school, the lucky streak ended. We were driving in the left lane to avoid more frequent bus activity in the right. Beside us, a huge tourist bus loomed. Suddenly, a city bus in the right moved suddenly into the path of the tour bus, so it moved into us without notice or slowing. Sometimes, I can avoid a bus hitting us by speeding past it, but this was too fast and I was too far back; instead, I slowed quickly so he wouldn’t hit the whole right side. He careened past, smashing into the passenger mirror and side front panel and continuing on in front of us.

The adrenalin surged and I cried in relief that we were all okay and still moving in traffic. My daughter and I looked at each other and exclaimed over the close call. Then I pulled over to the right lanes behind him, thinking we would stop and exchange information. But as soon as we got over to the right lane, he took off again. The buses don’t stop. The drivers don’t care. They’re bigger and they take what space they need. By the time we got to school 25 minutes later, I wasn’t shaken so much as angry. My mirror looked like an amputated cyborg, but the kids were okay and the day continued. Such is the daily commute in Brazil.

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Glitter:  Star student

Brunilda was a young Albanian woman in my Beginner ESL class two years ago. She was sullen, uncommunicative, and superior. She worked full time at a McDonald’s after attending a 3-hour English class four days a week. I couldn’t figure out why she was there if she was so unhappy studying English, yet she continued to come.

The more I paid attention to her work and her efforts, the more potential I could see. I spoke to her as I walked through the class helping individuals, and asked to see her after class. I said nothing about her attitude, but I did tell her I thought her English was great and she was a very fast learner. It only took a few times of getting that message across before she began to believe it herself. She started coming into class happy and working diligently; she helped the older Albanian couple in front of her and the young Macedonian woman next to her. She became a star. She progressed so quickly that when it came time to administer the end-of-semester tests, I checked her answers in front of her and asked her to do not one but two levels higher in the time most of her classmates were completing one exam. In the end, I lost her to the Intermediate class, but that, of course, was the goal.

That spring, I invited the whole class to my house for a baby shower to welcome Brunilda’s first child. Surprised, she walked through the door and began crying. When her son was born, we smiled at the connection between her first son, Alex, and mine, Alex. We saw each other when school let out, and became friends on Facebook.

Last week, I got a message from Brunilda: “I became an American citizen, Teacher Kerry.”  What glittered for her that day in Michigan also glittered for me way down here in Brazil.

Kerry Nappi was born, raised, and attended Smith College in Massachusetts. In fact, she had rarely left Massachusetts by the age of 22 when she decided she could both expand her horizons and help others by joining the Peace Corps. Thus, she landed in Tunisia for an amazing two year stint that, still, might have proven to be the end of her travel. At 24, she was back in Massachusetts, teaching at a laboratory school at Smith College, and starting to forget her Tunisian Arabic skills already. When she married a New Yorker at 28, it seemed New York would be her only culture shock. Her new husband, Steve, had spent 6 years in a Navy nuclear sub and wanted nothing more than to settle down on Long Island, where he had been raised.

As often happens when you make plans, though, life changes them without much notice.

Between forced job changes and new desires to see other parts of the world, Kerry and Steve moved across the country to Arizona with their 2-year-old for grad school, spent a semester in Tokyo while pregnant with their second child, and then started a new life in Michigan. Since 2000, their family of four has lived in Michigan, Hiroshima, Bangkok, back in Michigan, and are now beginning their newest assignment with Ford Motor in Bahia, Brazil. The kids, now 14 and 18, are considered Third Culture Kids, and Kerry is a Trailing Spouse. For the most part, it doesn’t seem like “trailing” as she is the one who has to forge forward in each new host country, learning the language and making new connections, from friends to doctors to schools, while Steve goes to work and the kids to school.

The life of an expatriate cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs. Volumes have been written about the experience. Perhaps a blog that allows her to focus on a High, a Low, and a Glitter each month is one way to steady that rollercoaster ride that is her current life.

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