A stranger in my own country?

Well, it’s that time of year again, time for the holidays, and for me, that means taking a break from tropical Brasil, and heading up north to the good ol’ USA. I’ve been here for a few days, so now I am almost sufficiently readjusted, but the first few days are always interesting, and I find it humorous how I can feel like a stranger in my own patria (homeland). Here are just some of the ways that I’ve felt uncomfortable or made a fool out of myself in Uncle Sam’s territory.

  1. Not being able to speak English. Feeling the urge to say obrigada (thank you), desculpa (excuse me), oi (hello), ciao (goodbye)…”  are common occurrences during my first post-arrival days. At times in stores or in public areas such as the metro, I have to restrain myself from speaking Portuguese. Bumped into someone? “Desculpa! Err, excuse me…”This same thing always happened when returning home from Spain, where “Gracias, hola, perdona…” and many more phrases were always at the tip of my tongue. This usually subsides after a few days, when the standard “Hello, thank you, goodbye, and excuse me,” return to my daily vocabulary.

2. We don’t hug and kiss people in the USA.  This, unfortunately has put me in many awkward situations. In Brasil and Spain, it’s normal to hug and kiss people when you greet them or say goodbye. While in Spain you kiss people on both cheeks, in Brasil and Latin America, it is only on one side, the left. (That was also uncomfortable when I first arrived in Brasil and kissed people on both sides. I soon realized that only one cheek suffices…) Everytime I return to the USA, I have to force myself not to kiss people hello or goodbye, but it usually happens, as it is something natural for me now, after living out of the country for four years. The worst was when my friend introduced me to her boyfriend, and, fresh off the plane from Spain, I gave him the standard hug and kiss, but then realized my mistake as I stepped back, and saw his face, bright red, uncomfortable, and not sure what to do. Embarrassed, I quickly explained that it was a mistake–I had forgotten that we don’t do that here. He shook it off, and no harm was done, but now I try to put more effort into remembering this social taboo, but of course sometimes it can’t be helped! Latinos are warm and friendly people…maybe Americans should be more open, and hug instead of giving cold handshakes!

3. Confusion when purchasing or ordering things. Brasil may not be a first world country, but when it comes to banking and security, it is much more advanced than the USA. In Brasil, banks require people to have multiple passwords—one for online banking, one for extracting money, and one for making debit or credit transactions in stores and restaurants. Without fail, I always forget that this is not the case in the USA, and have gone through some embarrassing situations in retail stores where I’ve forgotten that we sometimes don’t need the debit card pin. Often, in USA stores, the clerks just swipe your card as credit without asking. This happened once, and I kept typing in my pin number. After a long 30 seconds, the clerk kindly reminded me that I just needed to sign my name on the electronic machine. Oops. I’m not an idiot, I promise!

4.    Problems in restaurants. Going out to eat in the USA is usually a wonderful event when returning home. Where else in the world can you get free water, free refills, free bread/chips/dip, etc.? NOWHERE! While I love dining out in the USA, sometimes I forget about standard US restaurant customs, namely tipping. In Spain and Brasil, tipping is usually an option, and when people tip, they definitely don’t leave the typical 15-20% that is expected in the US.  Once, I forgot to leave a tip in an American restaurant, left and after about five minutes realized what had happened. AHHH! Panicked, I ran back to the restaurant as fast as I could, and handed the tip to the waitress. “I’m sorry, I’ve been living out of the country and forgot,” I explained to her. She was friendly, and forgave me, but I felt horrible, especially considering I used to work in restaurants!

Returning home to the USA is always something I look forward to, but these situations often force me to realize how much I’ve changed, and that other cultures are now a part of “my culture.” In a way, it’s nice to see how living in different parts of the world can change how we act, including our views, but it is always important to remember the daily etiquette and norms in the country in which we are present. So, Merry Christmas, and here’s to more hilarious situations involving the mixture of cultural norms!

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