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Brazil Through Foreign Eyes

September 28, 2007

Meet Mike Stricklin, from the USA, who has both worked and lived in Brazil. Read the following interview where he tells us about some of his most memorable experiences from Brazil and gives some useful advice to newcomers.

1. Tell us a little about yourself, where are you from, what do you do etc.?

Our history with Brazil and Brazilians spans four decades. Born and reared in Texas, I am an emeritus professor of journalism and mass communication studies at the University of Nebraska, with degrees from Baylor University, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Iowa. I had been a newspaper reporter, editor, and publisher before becoming a teacher for 31 years. Chere, born in Louisiana, is a retired blood-banker, having run the laboratory in Lincoln, Nebraska. We live, since January 2005, in Teresina, Piauí, where I am a visiting professor in the Department of Social Communication and Journalism at the Federal University of Piauí (UFPI). I write an occasional column for "O Diário do Povo" here. Chere works with educational exchanges, mostly as liaison between schools across the world and piauienses. It is not uncommon for her to telephone three or four countries every day! We have two adult children, Woods and Robin. Both studied Portuguese in Brazil. Woods Stricklin, 37, is a language and ESL teacher in Portland, Oregon, and father of Rubin and Penelope Jane. Rubin, 16, will arrive in Teresina in January to study Portuguese and Brazilian culture. Penelope, 9, proudly wears the colors of the Brazilian select team and plays soccer, along with other sports. Robin Stricklin, 30, an accomplished equestrian, lives in New Orleans and has a rock and roll trio with a very complicated name -- the Leah Quinella All Stars, Featuring Happy. Robin plays drums, guitar and sings (sometimes the music of Caetano!) Happy plays guitar, slide whistle, recorder and kazoo. Asia, the third member, sings, plays guitar, and writes most of their songs.

2. When did you arrive in Brazil and what brought you here?

My wife and I are, in a way, fulfilling a long-time dream. We arrived for the first time in Rio on December 8, 1966 as Peace Corps Volunteers. I was 22 and she 21. We lived for two years in Brejo Grande, Sergipe, a very old community at the mouth of the São Francisco river. At the time, there were about 2,500 inhabitants, no electricity, no treated water. I had been trained as a journalist and Chere as a biochemist, both of us at Baylor. I helped develop a vegetable garden for more than 250 elementary school children. She dispensed medication at the SESP health post, explaining to the mothers how to use them. We conducted a census (my minor area of study had been sociology), and were able to put together an analysis of the town that had direct impact, particularly in education. For example, the mayor funded a kindergarten and provided adult literacy classes. We learned a lot, but I must say that the people of Brejo Grande taught us much, much more than we taught them. Our lives were changed forever.

That was the 㣠s. We took time off for graduate school and for children in the 㣪s, returning for a visit to Brazil for the first time in 1981. (We flew on the inaugural American Airlines flight from DFW airport to Guarulhos.) The next visits came in 1989 and 1990 as Partners of the Americas exchanges. Then, in 1996, I was invited to lecture at UFPI, which I continued to do annually during my summer vacations. (I gave the first extension course about the Internet in Piauí in 1996, for more than 180 students.) I was a Senior Fulbright Scholar at UFPI in 1999, and helped start a graduate program in journalism.

The May 2003 day that I decided to take early retirement at Nebraska, I went home and asked "Vamos aposentar em Teresina?" Chere replied, "Embora!" It was an easy decision, to make a dream come true.

3. What were your first impressions of Brazil?

First impressions:

Rio is hot in December. (As hot as Teresina, although cariocas will never admit to this!)

Brazilians are amazingly hospitable and tolerant (Imagine twenty or so novice Peace Corps Volunteers boarding the same bus armed only with a vocabulary of about 2000 words and trying to pay the fare of old Cr$100 with Cr$5000 notes. It could have been a disaster, but the fare taker merely threw his hands up in surrender...)

Later impressions:

Brazilians are not troubled by disorganization, but too many Americans are, dangerously so (If the meeting was scheduled for 9:00 a.m., that means only that there is absolutely no possibility that will it start before then. Although there is no disrespect at all intended, the American too often gets miffed, then retreats into a defensive posture.)

Brazilians place family above all else, except God. (A hundred or more from one family will gather for Sunday lunch, representing three or four generations. The American has no hope of keeping the names straight.)

Brazilians never take a promise idly. (If the American says, yes, I will go with you to whatever, it appears to be taken as a solemn commitment. On the other hand, Brazilians hate to say no, so when the American invites someone to dinner, the response will always be yes. Disappointments abound because the American does not know that an invitation must always be confirmed. (In other words, it is the invitation itself that matters most. Rule: Never get your feelings hurt. And, always say yes, but expect confirmation to be required.)

One final observation in this regard: Culture shock is a process and not a label, i.e., it never ends yet merely changes over time. Of course the initial and superficial matters such as cuisine, the physical ambiance filled with another language, other noises and aromas, will be surmounted through experience. But, at deeper levels, I must say that I learn something new almost every day about how human nature can be so totally the same and at the same time be played out in such different ways. Amazing!

4. What do you miss most about home?

These days, very little, due in large part to broadband Internet and Skype. I have libraries at my fingertips, and can visit with family and friends daily. What‘s to miss?

5. What has been your most frustrating experience in Brazil?

It required more than a year to receive permanent visas.

6. What has been your most memorable experience in Brazil (specific incident)?

There are so many, but to choose only one, because I am the only non-Brazilian to have been so honored, I am reminded of the ceremony in 2005 when I was made a Citizen of Teresina, surrounded by friends. I ended my remarks that night with these words: "To think about having my name written down along with those who have been granted this title tightens the muscles in my throat and brings tears to my eyes. You see, I am a romantic and an idealist, perhaps a dreamer. Yet, I dream good dreams, and, more than even these, I am honored to have my name and that of my family recognized by the leadership of this city as being worthy of being called Teresinense, of formally joining the tens and hundreds and thousands who call Teresina home."

7. What do you most like about Brazil (in general)?

There is nothing better than a Brazilian festa (somehow, the word party just doesn‘t do!) Brazilians truly enjoy each other. (I love to say to my friends and family back in the States, "Well, last night, when we were at a birthday party with about 200 of our closest friends... By the way, what were you doing?")

8. What is your favorite restaurant/place to hang out here?

In Teresina there is the Santana‘s Bar, which has been in business almost 60 years. No sign outside, just a place on a downtown corner. There are about a 100 or so Amigos do Santana. On a given Saturday afternoon we have lunch together, with much cold beer, a little rum and Coke, and swap stories.

9. Do you have any funny stories/incidents to tell about your time in Brazil?

Chere and I have been active members of the Partners of the Americas for many years. Piauí and Nebraska are sister states, and we hosted many Brazilian visitors to Nebraska, so many that our home was christened "Hotel Chere"! One time we had two distinguished physicians from Teresina visiting us, one being the state secretary of health and the other a clinician (and later president of the Brazilian medical society). That first night, they watched me intensely for cues on what to do. After dinner, I rose from the table and carried my dinner things to the kitchen, rinsed them off and put them into the dishwasher. Both were gentlemen and on their very best behavior, so they, too stood, picked up plates, knives, and forks, and followed my lead perfectly, rinsing and stowing just as I had done. The future president smiled and said, "Your Maria never takes a day off, right?"

10. What difference between your homeland and Brazil do you find most striking?

Days of the same length -- being only 5 degrees from the equator -- and only having two seasons, wet and dry.

11. How is your Portuguese coming along? What words do you find most difficult to pronounce/remember or are there any words that you regularly confuse?

It is good to be a so-called "life-long learner." It comes in handy, particularly when I make a mistake in Portuguese. It is well for one to know that Brazilians delight in double and triple entendre. So many words have more than one meaning that an entire conversation can seem to be conducted in a sort of code. For example, the other night, at Santana‘s Bar, I asked a fellow for his email. Everybody laughed, but I didn‘t get the joke. I should have asked for his email ADDRESS, because the word email, when pronounced badly, has quite a different meaning, one that I cannot share on a family web site!

12. What advice do you have for newcomers to Brazil?

Relax, this is Brazil!

13. What are some things that you would recommend for a visitor to do in São Paulo (or anywhere else in Brazil)?

The Northeast coast of Brazil, from Fortaleza to São Luis is (as yet) little known. Take a plane to Fortaleza, book a stay at the Boa Vista Resort in Camocim, continue on to the delta of the River Parnaiba, unique in the world, and stay the night in Luis Correira, finish up in the Lençõis in Barreirinhas, Maranhão. Unforgettable beaches, sea food, steadiest sea breezes in the world
(really!) and hospitality. Fly home from São Luis. Hurry! Before it becomes "discovered".

Are you a foreigner who has lived in, or is living or travelling in Brazil? Are you a Brazilian who has a lot of contact with foreigners and/or lived outside of Brazil? Are you interested in telling your story? If you would like to volunteer for our interview series, or if you would like to recommend someone, please send a blank email to gringoes@gringoes.com with "Interview" in the subject. We will send you the interview questions by return email.

To read previous interviews in the Brazil Through Foreign Eyes series click below:

Edward Gowing - Australia
Adrian Woods - USA
Kevin Raub - USA
Pierpaolo Ciarcianelli - Italy
Zachary Heilman - USA
David Johnson - Bermuda
Cipriana Leme - Argentina
Timothy Bell - USA
Patti Beckert - USA
Timothy Bell - USA
Paul James - USA
David McLoughlin - Ireland
Pat Moraes - USA
Richard Dougherty - USA
James Weeds - USA
Tom Sluberski - USA
Peter Kefalas - USA
Sylvie Campbell - UK
Kathleen Haynes - USA
Matt Bowlby - USA
Alan Longbottom - UK
Eric Karukin - USA
Eddie Soto - USA
Kieran Gartlan - Ireland
Bryan Thomas Scmidt - USA
Emile Myburgh - South Africa
Bob Chapman - USA
David Barnes - USA
John Milan - USA
Chris Coates - UK
Matthew Ward - UK
Allison Glick - USA
Drake Smith - USA
Jim Jones - USA
Philip Wigan - UK
Atlanta Foresyth - USA
Lee Gordon - USA
Carmen Naidoo - South Africa
Lee Safian - USA
Laurie Carneiro - USA
Dana De Lise - USA
Richard Gant - USA
Robin Hoffman - USA
Wayne Wright - UK
Walt Kirspel - USA
Priya Guyadeen - Guyana
Caitlin McQuilling - USA
Nicole Rombach - Holland
Steven Engler - Canada
Richard Conti - USA
Zak Burkons - USA
Ann White - USA
Monde Ngqumeya - South Africa
Johnny Sweeney - USA
David Harty - Canada
Bill McCrossen - USA
Peter Berner - Switzerland/Brazil
Ethan Munson - USA
Solveig Skadhauge - Denmark
Sean McGown - USA
Condrad Downes - UK
Jennifer Silva - Australian
Justin Mounts - USA
Elliott Zussman - USA
Jonathan Abernathy - USA
Steve Koenig - USA
Kyron Gibbs - USA
Stephanie Early - USA
Martin Raw - UK
Sean Coady - UK
Hugo Delgado - Mexico
Sean Terrillon - Canada
Jessie Simon - USA
Michael Meehan - USA
Thales Panagides - Cyprus
Tammy Montagna - USA
Samantha Tennant - England
Ron Finely - United States
Bob Duprez - United States
Peter Baines - England
Youssef Bouguerra - Tunisia
Van Wallach - USA
Lesley Cushing - England
Alexander von Brincken - Germany
Hank Avellar - USA
Ed Catchpole - England
Penny Freeland - England
Yasemin de Pinto - Turkey
Amy Williams Lima - USA
John Naumann - England
Marsye Schouella - Eygpt
Rita Shannon Koeser - USA
John Fitzpatrick - Scotland
Liam Gallagher - Northern Ireland
Lorelei Jones - England
Adam Glensy - England
Tommie C.B. DeAssis - Japan
Aaron Day - Canada
Graham Debney - New Zealand
Silke Tina Tischendorf - Germany
Tanya Keshavjee Macedo - Canada
Frank de Meijer - Holland
Carl Emberson - Australia
Kim Buarque - Wales
Damiano Pak - South Korea
Jonas Helding - Denmark
Pari Seeber - Iran
John Milton - England
Ken Marshall - Australia

9/28/2007


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