“Mama, I’m going to spend the rest of the day making cards for my friends, aren’t I, mama?”
I heard this sentence the other day, on the way home from school. Two things caught my attention: the fact that she considered making cards – birthday cards, thank you cards, christmas cards, have a good day cards, you name it – an activity important enough to consume the rest of a free afternoon; and the way she phrased it, ending with “aren’t I.”
Then the strangest thing occurred to me: I’ve given birth to an English girl.
I do speak her language – badly, with an accent, and quite a lot of grammar mistakes, even after 12 years of ‘immersion’ – but I don’t sound like her. I can’t replicate her intonation, even if I try. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a sentence with “aren’t I” (I probably say “right?”, in the American way I learned so long ago and can’t never shake off).
She speaks my language too. With an accent, and quite a lot of grammar mistakes, but lately, out of the blue, she started sounding like me. Or like a Brazilian girl, except she’s never spent more than a few months in the country, spread out in short holiday trips.
How’s that possible? How can she become English and Brazilian in such an effortless way, while I’ll never become both, no matter how long I live in London? Will she ever look at her acquired habits and customs, and experience a sense of achievement for having mastered them, like I do? Will she ever need to leave old habits and customs behind because she needs to master new ones, then feel a strange sense of displacement for no longer recognising them as her own – like I do?
For instance, writing cards.
Card-making is a very British habit. Brazilians very rarely send cards out, maybe only if they’re abroad on holiday during Christmas time. Then it’s more of a showing off thing, a proof that you’ve managed to escape the wretched weather. We don’t normally give them to people either, even if the occasion requires a present – the present is generally given on it’s own. There are no cards lining up mantelpieces during the holidays, because no one gets them (and mantelpieces don’t exist either, because tropical countries don’t normally have fireplaces. Although rich Brazilians like to show off and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a fireplace in a 30th floor 1000 sq foot duplex belonging to the son of a soya tycoon.) Thank you notes, well, they’re thoroughly foreign artefacts. Brazilians are not very good at saying thank you in any form, much less written by hand on a piece of illustrated paper. People don’t expect them, and so they don’t get upset or disappointed if cards don’t materialise over the year, as they do in British tradition. Hallmark’s wouldn’t last a season in Brazil.
But Olivia doesn’t know any of that yet. She probably thinks the whole world likes to make and write cards to give to their friends and loved ones (because honestly, it’s such a nice thing to do, why wouldn’t they). She also doesn’t know Brazilians find beans on toast an utterly bizarre idea, as the British do when presented with barbecued chicken hearts. She doesn’t think it’s strange to say sorry hundreds of times a day (Brits), or to start conversations with total strangers in lifts and supermarkets (Bra). She still hasn’t registered the weather as this metaphorical presence in her life, the sun being either an elusive God-like benefactor (Brits) or this all-imposing, at points oppressive, lifestyle despot (Brazilians). And even if she notices I don’t speak English like her or her native speaker friends and teachers, she probably thinks everybody in the world speaks at least two languages, or have family members that were born in different parts of the world.
There are endless little things that will become part of the fabric of her being naturally, while for me culture will be forever an ongoing paradoxical learning process: the more I understand one, the bigger is my (mostly reverse) cultural shock in the other. She won’t ever truly understand that becoming bilingual – acquiring two different, almost opposite cultures from birth as if they’re made from the same material – can be a strange thing for some people, not least her own mother. Unless she chooses another culture, another language, in her adult years, she won’t know what’s like to feel permanently displaced, a product of both cultures but belonging to none.
She’s one lucky little girl.