“A little more povilho” my coworker said. I reached for the bag and poured a little more manioc flour into the strainer in her hand. She shook it gently to sift the flour into the bowl on the counter, where she was mixing the dough for pão de queijo. (Cheese bread rolls). We were making a Saturday evening snack for our two families to share.
I turned my back momentarily to rub a little oil in the baking sheets, and when I looked back at Cris, she was sitting on the floor. “Licença,” she excused her un-conventional behavior, “I have to sit on the ground to mix the dough with my hands.”
I have only been in Brazil for a year and a half, but I have spent a lot of that time with women in the kitchen. Their kitchen, my kitchen, big shared kitchens, and little family kitchens – all kinds of kitchens. And I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that sitting on the floor in the kitchen is not super normal here. Actually, the ground itself is avoided much more carefully than it is in the States, probably because it is much more difficult to keep the ground perfectly clean here, and Brazilians in general value cleanliness very highly. I actually sort of miss the ground sometimes…because in my own culture back home I never stopped to think if it was normal or not – I just plopped on the ground whenever I felt like it. Here, we do stop to think about what’s normal and what’s not, in order to avoid making huge cultural waves where they are unnecessary. So I haven’t done much sitting on the floor lately. Especially in kitchens.
But there sat my born-and-raised-Brazilian coworker Cris, on the floor of the shared kitchen in the guest house. So I picked up the baking sheets and sat down beside her. The two of us oiled our hands and started rolling the dough into little balls and placing them on the sheets. While we worked, she explained to me that the indigenous women always sit on the ground to work. She said that when she first came, and the women started teaching her how to cook their foods, they would always sit down on the ground and indicate for her to do the same. At first, it felt very awkward to her to work in that position. Now, it feels so right to her that she sits on the floor in her own kitchen to work dough with her hands.
I know what she is talking about…that change of nature that occurs in you, where the norms of someone else’s lifestyle begin to make sense to you. Such good sense, in fact, that you start to do certain things their way even when you are alone in your own house, and don’t have to be doing it that way to make them comfortable. You might even start to do things their way when you are with other people of your own culture. Because…their way just works for you. And because that other person’s lifestyle has become a part of you. Or because you have become part of them.
I know, because we’ve spent the last year and a half intentionally becoming something more like Brazilians than we were before. “Becoming” has become a very significant word in our vocabulary. And it can mean anything from changing the clothes we choose to wear, to what we consider “clean” or not clean, to the manner in which we demonstrate “welcome” to a friend at our own table.
But I have felt a little apprehensive, trying to fathom what it means to “become” in an indigenous context. I’m guessing it doesn’t have half as much to do with clothes and outward appearance as it does here in the city. I know it won’t mean adopting their beliefs about the spirit world. So what does it mean?
As we sat on the floor rolling balls of pão de queijo dough, Cris talked about the indigenous women. She talked about the first time that they took her fishing with them. She talked about how they accompanied her while she was trying to tip-toe across a log. She talked about how much she has come to appreciate the care that the women show for the other women in their family. She talked about the lady who adopted her as her daughter in the culture, and how much she has come to love this dear woman. As she talked, it was clear to me that she genuinely appreciates the women she lives and works among. She doesn’t just love them; she likes them, too.
It’s not the first time she’s told me stories about them, or talked about things of their culture that she appreciates. She has told me about their fish-and-cooking-banana soup that she likes so much. “You don’t have to like everything they eat;” she says, “because they are the same as we are. There are some things they like to eat, and some things they don’t. But you will learn to really like certain foods, and ask for more. They will know that you really like it.” She has told me about the way the women teach their daughters how to sit and how to reach for their food. “It’s not just any old way you sit and grab food,” she explained, “There is a way that you are supposed to do it.” And the way Cris talked, I perceived that she finds these women gracious and feminine in their cultural way.
She has told me about how they feel when it rains, too. Cris loves rain, and at first she thought that their distaste for it had to do with fear of the spirits. So she played happily with the indigenous school kids in the rain, demonstrating, in her mind, that there was nothing to fear. Later she found out that grey weather and rain reminds them of their loved ones that have died. So now, when she sees the melancholy faces on a cloudy day, she understands why they are so somber. “I still like rain,” she said, “but I try not to have a big party in front of them.”
Listening to my coworker talk encourages me. I can see that she is becoming. And this kind of becoming is not about learning to use the right clothes at the right times, as we were expected to learn when we came to Manaus. Brazilians, and especially Manauaras, have a pretty high standard of dress and expect others to follow it, too. But dress is not a big deal to every culture. Nor does this kind of becoming mean adopting their religious beliefs, because we believe the one Truth that supersedes all cultures. We believe that there is only One Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one can come to God except through Him. But this becoming is about finding out what matters to them, and what makes them feel at home with you, and what makes them know that you like them. It’s about capitalizing on the things that you like and appreciate in their culture. It’s about recognizing when some of the cultural values they hold are the same as your cultural values, but demonstrated in a different way, and when they feel the same as you feel, but express it differently. And it’s about understanding, too, when their values truly are different than what your culture values, and when they really feel very differently about things than the way you feel about them.
And it’s not just about becoming friends. It’s about becoming meaningful in their lives. So that in time, we can become instruments of peace and hope in their lives. Vessels of light. Vessels of truth. It’s so that we can follow Jesus into proclaiming freedom for the captives and opening the eyes of the blind, bringing good news to the spiritually impoverished, turning mourning into dancing, and clothing people with a robe of joy. A figurative robe of joy, that is – a condition of the heart, which has nothing to do with either our culture or theirs, but which is a gift from God to whomever will receive it.
I am glad to have a coworker who is becoming. And who has a heart to become. The humility needed to learn, and the willingness to like, another culture. She also has true desire to see a mature church grow up among this precious people. That is our desire, also. We are here because we believe that that is, first of all, God’s desire. And, with the existing team that is here, we are following His heart into the midst of a people that were not our own, to become theirs.