Hello, everyone! I’m currently back home in Indiana enjoying spring break, but for the past few weeks I’ve been hard at work in all my classes. A few days ago I finished revising my first major assignment for Writing Across Cultures – a feature story about a personal cross-cultural experience!
I chose to write about my friendship with Luísa, my roommate from last summer, and through that lens explore the similarities and differences between the food and festivals of our two cultures. Since I’ve talked about our relationship several times before on this blog and am really proud of how this piece turned out, I thought I’d share it with you this morning! Enjoy!
What is it about putting food on a stick that makes it taste better than food eaten any other way? As my roommate and I slowly made our way through the crowded streets of Iowa City during the town’s famous Jazz Festival, our conversation turned from how pretty the evening sky was to the surprising similarities between our cultures’ street food.
Luísa – at 21, two years my senior – was an international student from Brazil and had been assigned to share a room with me during the twelve weeks of the University of Iowa’s summer semester.
At the beginning of the summer, I had thought that there would be very little to do apart from going to class and then somewhat reluctantly doing my homework afterward. I soon learned I was completely wrong: Luísa was always eager to hang out. Over time, I found myself looking forward to even the most ordinary activities of my life here in Iowa because in doing them with my roommate, I would learn something new about a culture I claimed as my own and thought I knew.
Luísa may have spent the entire previous school year in my country finishing up a degree in biology, but there was still so much left to see and do in the summer months. She was remarkably enthusiastic about learning more about a state which she had randomly been placed in, since her study abroad program allowed students to specify the country in which they wished to attend school, but not the region. She could have ended up somewhere far more thrilling in the eyes of many, such as California or New York City!
But instead she was here, perfectly content to accompany me on little adventures.
On this particular day, we were set on exploring the Jazz Festival. Having grown up several states away, I had never spent the summer in Iowa City before either, so I was curious to see what this particular event would be like.
The sun had just begun to set, so the temperature still hovered just below 90 degrees. Unlike the Midwest, which fluctuates between extreme cold and extreme heat, the weather in Luísa’s hometown of Vassouras, which lies close to the Equator, doesn’t experience the same drastic seasonal changes. In the summer, the temperature rarely drops below 70 degrees.
Brazilian winters are comparable to the hot, humid summers of the Midwest, with temperatures in the 80s and 90s – something Luísa reminded me many times, since I kept forgetting that the order of the seasons is reversed in the Southern Hemisphere! All this heat meant that Luísa had never seen snow before she came to the United States.
As we walked by booth after booth selling junk food both salty and sweet, it surprised me to learn that people ate hot dogs in Brazil. Kebabs, sure – I knew that a lot of cultures had some variation of them, but hot dogs had always seemed uniquely American to me.
Chocolate-covered strawberries, caramel apples, enormous fluffy wads of cotton candy: Brazil had some variation on them all, and they all came on a stick. Luísa didn’t believe me at first when I told her that you could buy deep-fried butter on a stick, as well as deep-fried Coke on a stick, at places such as the state fair.
“How does that even work?” she demanded in the accent that I would come to miss constantly hearing in the background after she moved back home in August.
I didn’t know.
How could I not know how my own culture’s food was made, when I asked Luísa and her fellow international students from Brazil, Lucas and José, so many questions about the kind of food they ate back home and expected answers?
I bought a kebab for myself before wandering over to the Pentacrest to look for an open spot of grass on which to sit. True to the stereotype of the broke college student, we split a lemonade because $4 per cup seemed extravagant to us.
Luísa would later comment on how much less chaotic it was here than similar festivals in her hometown were.
Since over 50,000 people attend the three-day-long Jazz Festival every year, it was hard to believe that this could ever be considered less crowded. It’s true, though: In 2011, the number of festivalgoers during the six day of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval alone totaled some 4.9 million.
In the winter, during the six days of Carnaval – or Mardi Gras, as it is commonly referred to in the United States – small towns in Brazil hold blocos, which sounded to me like their version of block parties. Instead of creating massive parade floats that wind their way through the streets, towns such as Vassouras host smaller parades filled with dancing, drinking, singing, and “really noisy samba music,” as Luísa explained to me, giggling as she did so.
“In the states it’s more organized… people line up to get food,” she said. “We don’t do that at home. It’s super crowded and everyone is really drunk. The drug problems become really bad at that time and there are campaigns to give out free condoms to stop people from getting HIV because people have lots of sex with strangers.”
That sounded more like Iowa City Pride, which I had attended a few weeks before, than the Jazz Festival, since the latter’s relatively mild-mannered crowd of parents with young children, middle-aged couples, and a few solo elderly people here and there lent it an air of sleepiness even among so much music.
So if the Jazz Festival isn’t directly comparable to any Brazilian festivals, what celebrations do our two countries have in common? UI Professor Cristiane Lira, who teaches courses in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese, said the answer to that question is a tricky one because there isn’t any Brazilian holiday that is entirely analogous to one celebrated in America. Rather, it’s a matter of picking out bits and pieces of festivals from both cultures that are the same.
“The first thing I missed when I came here were the fireworks on véspera do Ano Novo, Brazilian New Year’s Eve,” she said. “They’re called queima de fogos and the only time you ever have that many fireworks here is on the Fourth of July, which makes sense, since both holidays are in the summer in both countries. To celebrate the New Year we go to the beach and have barbecues, usually.”
She added that in terms of summer celebrations, Brazilians have Junina, a festival that is traditionally a month long but which has slowly expanded to begin in late May and end in late July. However, unlike the Fourth of July, it is a religious holiday, not a patriotic one, and is a reminder of the country’s long history of Catholicism.
UI Professor Armando Duarte, who works in the School of Dance, has led groups of students on study abroad programs since 2008, introducing them to Brazil’s biggest festival.
A 2012 article about his work there, published on the UI International Program’s website, declared Carnaval to be “an interactive experience of art” and quoted Duarte as saying that he wants his students to immerse themselves in this new culture that is so colorful and so proud and in doing so reflect on themselves and their own life in the United States.” That sounds pretty similar to my own experience with Luísa, since that summer prompted me to rethink everything I knew about Midwestern and specifically Iowan culture.
In this way, the descriptions of Carnaval I heard from multiple Brazilians reminded me of what I saw right before my eyes that day at the Jazz Festival. To be sure, it wasn’t nearly as chaotic, and there was no religious motivation behind this gathering.
But as the sounds of multiple forms of jazz floated through the air, I was reminded of how intensely musical and artistic both of our little towns were – in two different hemispheres and thousands of miles apart – and how Luísa and I had improbably and irrevocably connected across all those miles.