Between Worlds: Reflections of an Exchange Student in Brazil

24th June 2023. I find myself seated at the gate, moments away from boarding my flight to Chile. It’s the final leg of a gruelling fifteen-hour journey back to Auckland. Earlier in February, my partner and I embarked on a 360 international exchange, venturing to São Paulo to study Brazilian Portuguese at the esteemed Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado.

As I glance back at the city, I ponder whether I am the same young man who arrived five short months earlier. I think so. 

I’ll be the first to admit, penning these words feels somewhat clichéd. However, moments like this, when transitioning from one chapter to the next, prompt introspection. It’s a time to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned. This being my third experience living abroad, it hasn’t been the earth-shattering revelation I remember from my initial exchange. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned an awful lot.

I vividly recall feeling a mixture of nerves and uncertainty before my arrival. It wasn’t the nail-biting kind of anxiety but rather a subtle doubt that occasionally creeps up during long car rides—or flights. As a slew of students walked the well-trodden paths to study in Europe, the US, Asia, and even Colombia, Mexico and Chile, my partner and I were the only ones who opted to study in Brazil this semester. I began to question whether there was something I had missed. Was there a good reason nobody is going to Brazil?

That’s a question I’m yet to answer. Suppose we set aside the tropical climate, rich culture, and fascinating history, São Paulo alone stands as the largest city in the Americas, with nearby Rio de Janeiro comfortably ranking within the top ten. Moreover, Portuguese is the most widely spoken language in the Southern Hemisphere. It baffles me why more Kiwis don’t seriously consider Brazil as a destination.

São Paulo’s skyline.

Still, I can’t fault my past self for being nervous. Growing up in Christchurch, whose population pales in comparison with São Paulo, I was worried the size of the city would overwhelm me. And what about crime? Most of the things I’d heard about Brazil before coming had been negative. These fears were overblown on both counts.

For one, living in São Paulo doesn’t feel like residing in a city of 23 million people. Rather, it’s akin to living in a small city that happens to border several others, which in turn connect to even more cities. Neighbourhoods in São Paulo exist quite independently. Attempt to traverse the city during rush hour, and you’ll quickly grasp why Paulistas (São Paulo residents) tend to confine themselves to their respective pockets of the city. Within my own little pocket of Consolação, with an HDI on par with Auckland, I never felt in danger, while just 6 km to the east in Brás, the homicide rate is 16 times higher than New Zealand’s average.

Perhaps these extreme contrasts explain why Brazilians don’t seem to share the same sense of national unity that us Kiwis do. You won’t find a Brazilian equivalent of our “team of five million,” as Brazilians tend to identify more strongly with their state or region of origin. This diversity is also why, even after nearly half a year here, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything Brazil has to offer.

These are merely a few of the observations I’ve made. But I haven’t just learned a lot about Brazil; I believe I’ve also learned a lot about myself. For one, I’ve discovered—or rather, rediscovered—my love for language learning. After completing my first year abroad back in 2017, I vowed never to study another language. Spanish proved to be such a challenge that I couldn’t bear the thought of starting the learning process from scratch. It was only due to my mistaken belief that Portuguese was essentially Spanish with a funny accent (spoiler alert: it isn’t) that I decided to pick it up. Yet, I’ve come to realize that learning languages can be an incredibly rewarding endeavour. I now intend to continue learning languages for life.

Another aspect I’ve discovered about myself is my profound appreciation for nature. São Paulo’s sprawling urban landscape often felt inescapable. While Iberapuera Park, São Paulo’s equivalent of Central Park, was beautiful, it didn’t quite do it for me. Thankfully, during a week-long trip to Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, I managed to quench my thirst for untamed spaces. 

As I prepare to return home, I can’t ignore the growing list of things I’ll miss. The warm weather, the beaches, the vibrant samba music. Every Sunday, Paulista Avenue, São Paulo’s counterpart to Auckland’s Queen St, closes to traffic and transforms into an exuberant mix of street market and party. I’ll miss that. I’ll also miss Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado, with its intimate classes, usually comprised of no more than ten students. But above all, I’ll miss my friends.

That’s the trouble of studying abroad. You might find yourself enjoying it so much that you’re forever yearning for something left behind. Yet, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

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