I learned the Portuguese word for worm — minhoca — a few weeks ago from my 2-year-old son as he sat at the kitchen table rolling long strings of massinha between his little hands. That means play dough, and it’s another word I’ve picked up from my bilingual toddler.
When our family moved to Brazil last year, Alex started attending a local day-care center where they speak only Portuguese. Before long, his English and Portuguese vocabularies were growing apace and he began speaking in a sort of Luso-English pidgin. Before we leave home in the morning, we put on his socks and sapatos. Before bed, he gets one last drink of água. Seeing a cavalo clop-clopping down the street is cause for great excitement. Accompanying the process has been, by turns, amusing, mystifying and, compared with our own laborious adult language acquisition, amazing.
Next, Alex began bringing Portuguese songs and nursery rhymes home. Some have been familiar. “Brilha, Brilha, Estrelinha” is the Brazilian “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” “Dona Aranha” is, with a slightly reworked tune, “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” When Alex sang these at home, I would try my best to join in, humming along, straining to make sense of his adapted lyrics. These are, simultaneously, songs that I’ve known from my own cradle and songs that are brand new. That’s in keeping, actually, with much of my experience as a foreigner. Situations, landscapes, customs, whatever can at once be perfectly usual yet deeply weird. That opaque, cobwebbed feeling of waking from a bizarre dream is always near at hand.
Then, of course, there are the many entirely new songs that Alex has come home singing. One of the earliest we picked up was “Guarda, Guarda” (a chain gang chant of sorts, sung while picking up toys). There’s “O Sapo Não Lava o Pé” (concerning a stinky-footed frog) and “Borboletinha” (in which a butterfly bakes a chocolate cake). After we were able to make out a few words, we sought help from friends or his daycare teachers: Alex has been singing about a sapo. How does that one go?
Doing this once or twice feels like a fun cultural experience. Doing it a few more times begins to reinforce that sense of helplessness and shame that’s flown south with me to Brazil. From a practical standpoint, switching out my linguistic and cultural contexts has left me feeling a lot less like the independent self-starter I once fancied myself. Running errands is no longer a mere series of tasks to cross off the list. It’s a set of tribulations to endure. Bus routes must be learned (not to mention bus protocol: Do not, I repeat, do not frivolously spin the turnstile upon entering a Brazilian bus), needs must be communicated (my local hardware store — metric-based and strictly Portuguese — provided an early trial by fire), payments must be transacted (the grocery checkout situation of July ’15 is still a raw subject that I won’t be going into). This isn’t exactly stuff that builds up confidence in my ability to parent.
I signed up for all this, and I share these thoughts to contextualize, not complain. Parenting anywhere is, to some degree, an exercise in the blind leading the blind. Parenting a child who comes home singing something only later determined to be “Coelhinho de Páscoa” (an Easter number) simply adds to the slapstickery.
One of the great joys of raising Alex has been rediscovering forgotten details from my own childhood. When I read Dr. Seuss and “Where the Wild Things Are“ with him sitting in my lap, I look down and think about how, long ago on a continent far, far away, I was the child in pajamas, sitting in my father’s lap, receiving the most fundamental sort of education: how to talk, how to listen, how to relate, how to belong.
I have no doubt that the way Alex is growing up is enriching his life and future; I have no doubt that living abroad is already enriching my own. But now that it’s my turn to educate a child, in a far-off and unfamiliar place, I catch myself feeling unexpectedly protective of the role, as if Alex’s immersion in Brazilian culture and language threatens my ability to teach him my own. Sometimes, in my most irrational moments, I find myself worrying that he might speak English with an accent, or that he’ll prefer Portuguese, or that he and I won’t share a mother tongue.
And so I am getting acquainted with my inner nationalist, which has been awakened by paternal instinct. I don’t know what to do with this. It’s nothing more, I hope, than another ridiculous parenting preoccupation. Let’s call it another unbecoming entry in my ledger of self-discovery as a parent. (See also: modeling road rage en route to day care, regular surrender to the golden seduction of the iPad, etc.)
When Alex interacts with us, he mainly uses English. When he loses himself in play with his stuffed animals and puzzles, he often babbles in Portuguese. Because he splits time between languages, at home and at school, it’s clear what he’s learning from us. And it’s painfully clear how much he’s absorbing from the wide, confounding world beyond. Could it really be that my son, flesh of my flesh, is already drifting off in ways I don’t quite understand?
As an estrangeiro, sometimes I feel like I’m relating to others from across a great gulf. More and more, I’m glimpsing my son on the other side, at home in a place beyond my full comprehension. I feel a pride in this, and I feel a grief, yet I have no choice but to accept it. My comfortable, fantastical idea of myself as Superdad, as omnipotent provider, as molder-in-chief, lies in ruin. I have been laid bare as a finite, fallible father, incapable of teaching Alex everything that he’ll need to learn. Every father has this moment, right? I just never thought mine would come so soon.
I am happy to report, though, that I seem to still be of some use. Many nights before bed, Alex struggles up onto the couch and pats the empty space beside him. “Senta aqui, Daddy,” he says, and I sit and we read. Sometimes we read his Portuguese books, which I still don’t totally follow, full of obscure stuff like the personified animal verbs: purring, snorting, clucking, etc. Sometimes we read from the canon of American children’s literature. Whatever it is, as we sit there, this huge, strange world shrinks to the size of our living room, where nothing is odd or scary, and my son and I exist in perfect understanding.
Andrew Jenner is a journalist who lives in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He is also a newcomer to Twitter @_Andrew_Jenner_.
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