Li, Zhelun

Name: Zhelun Li
Location of Study: Salvador, Bahia (Brazil)
Program of Study: Salvador da Bahia, Brazil – summer intensive language + culture
Sponsor(s): Bruce Broillet


A brief personal bio:

I regard my life as an experience. At school, I love to pop up at my writing professor’s office to discuss creative writing, to join my roommates family during Thanksgiving, and to take pictures with various Notre Dame football players. During the winter break, I took a bus from Boston, going through eight cities, all the way down to Orlando and talked with people from various backgrounds. A Serbian traveler explained to me the cause of WW II, a French student taught me the difference between European and American education, and a pastor told me the story of Benjamin Franklin.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me: 

Very interested in the deforestation problem in the Amazon, I want to do undergraduate research on sustainable forest products. To study an area, I have to understand the local language, and in this case, I need to know Portuguese to talk with the Brazilians. The SLA Grant gives me the chance to apply the grammar rule, sentence patterns, vocabularies that I have learned at Notre Dame to real life and polish my real-life language skills. Moreover, it also allows me to take classes in a local university in Salvador, Brazil to learn about Brazilian culture, which is very important for those who want to approach the local problems. In addition to a language and culture learning process, the SLA Grant also provides me an opportunity to observe the environmental problems, people’s needs and government efforts in Brazil. It is fairly important for a researcher to immerse herself into the real situation to better understand the social problem.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

Firstly, I want to improve my language skills. I still remember the huge progress I made when I first came to the US. Without a language environment, it is hard to know many habitual usages of words, and I believe it is the same for every language. At Notre Dame, I have accumulated Portuguese sentence patterns, vocabularies and grammars and it is time for me to immerse into a native environment to learn how to organically combine all these language elements together and think in Portuguese. Secondly, I want to know more about the Brazilian culture. Arriving in June, I would be able to attend several traditional holidays and staying with a host family, I could learn the Brazilian family structure and the relationship between family members. Thirdly, I also plan to visit some local environment protection organizations and meet with several ecology specialists. They may introduce me to more programs open to undergraduate students in the Amazonian area and also teach me the current government support to related issues.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. By the end of the program, I will be able to speak Portuguese more fluently.
  2. By the end of the program, I will be able to create more precise sentence structure to express my feelings.
  3. By the end of the program, I will be able to use more accurate vocabularies.
  4. By the end of the program, I will be able to understand some idioms and slang.
  5. By the end of the program, I will be able to tell the specialty of the Brazilian culture.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

In order to hit the ground running, I should first prepare myself with solid language skills. Since I am now still at school, I will go to my professors office hours more often to make sure I understand every grammar and sentence structure. In addition, I will also use the language tutors recourses in the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures. With the tutors, I will practice my speaking and listening skills as well as revising my papers and learn to use words like the native speakers. Moreover, I will order a beginning level Portuguese novel online and practice my reading skills. From my experience learning English, I understand the importance to guess the word meaning because it gives me a feeling of the language rather than simply remember every word. Last but not least, I joined the Brazilian club, in which there are many international students from Brazil as well as many American students who are fluent in Portuguese. Chatting with them in Portuguese during club activities help me improve my language skills on a daily basis.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: Local Food

Feijoada is considered as the national food of Brazil and based on my observation, is served mostly at important occasion or for respected guests. Unlike most other dishes, feijoada takes a long time to cook (usually several hours). My first contact with it was in the Pelourinho, which is the preserved old city of Salvador. A mixture of stewed sausage, pork, beef and black beans was served in a clay pot with white rice and a small vegetable salad. Local people normally add a lot of farofa (which is a kind of flour) too. For me, it was a little bit heavy and salty at first but I kept trying it until I fall in love with it. Later, I was also treated with a huge pot of it during a friend’s birthday party in Salvador. I only heard about the cultural background of feijoada, that is, during the plantation times, slaves mixed the black beans (which is used to feed animals) with the leftover meat from their masters. Gradually, this mixture developed into a dish and the Portuguese added sausage and then the Indians added the farofa. People call feijoada the national dish both to reflect its populace and its cultural representation of Brazil as a “mixed country”.

Reflective Journal Entry 2: The Minority in Society-Maid

“Empregada” is how people call a maid in Brazil. Although the word, translated directly into English, is employee, it does not help with maid’s status in a family. First, they do not eat with the family. The procedure of a meal is roughly as follows: the maid cooks the meal and calls the family members to eat. Then the maid begins to clean the pot and the kitchen. After the family eats up, she (as most maids are female) come to the table to take the plates away and then clean the table. After all these have done, she starts to eat herself in the kitchen. At night, she sleeps in a special maid-room, which has a single bed and a mini-bathroom inside. During the day, she needs to clean every corner of the house. I have interviewed some local people about maid’s condition. First about their salary: a maid in Salvador normally gets few hundreds a month while one in Sao Paulo can get up to few thousands. Second, although people don’t directly say this, I can feel that the house owners do not commonly treat maid equally as a person. I heard some of my friends saying that they think the maid is the nicest person in the family, modest and hard-working. Once during the study program, we went to countryside next to Salvador, which is home to the family of maids. The bus fare there is just 0.5 R$ while that in Salvador is 2.8 R$. I also noticed that when the maids come into the bus, conductors usually let them ride for free because of their financial hardship. Another problem associated with maids is that they are mostly black people. Like what happens to the US. Black people, although legally equal as a human, occupy the bottom of the Brazilian society because of historical inequalities.

Reflective Journal Entry 3: Brazilian’s Thoughts about The US

It is never a good idea to generalize a huge country like Brazil so I just want to present what I have observed on the US in Brazilians’ eyes. There are two main trends going on and they conflict with each other. On one side, there is a group of Brazilian people who love the US. During the first weeks I arrived in Salvador, I heard my friends saying that some Brazilians asked to take pictures with them for the sake that they are American. In addition, in the “shoppings” in Brazil, there are lots of local cloth brands but there is something strange with their names — they are all named in English although some of them does not make any sense in English. From these two observations, Brazilians have a fancy impression of the United States. However, there is another group of Brazilians who are anti-US. I met a lot of people from the south of Brazil, which is heavily influenced by European immigration after the WWII. Many of them told me that they thought American people are too confident in themselves. One of them, who is an engineer told me that many of his classmates had the chance to go to either the US or Germany after college to do a master degree. However, most of his friends chose to go to Europe. He thought it was partly because they were unhappy to be called Latinos in the United States. On this note, some Brazilian people are also anti-US.

Reflective Journal Entry 4: “Football” (soccer)

I thought Germans are already very enthusiastic about ‘football’. Now I realized how terribly wrong I was after coming to Brazil.” A Germany girl told me this when we were hiking together. ‘Football’ is a huge part of the Brazilian culture. A country with huge income gap, football seems to be the best, if not the only, sport national wide. Children in the favelas (the term for a shanty town in Brazil) and people live in gated communities are all able to play football, which only requests a ball and two easily-marked gates. On the streets, there are lots of pubs where people can drink beer (which is also part of the Brazilian culture) and watch “football” matches together. I also noticed that when two Brazilians meet, they are more than likely to talk about their favorite “football” teams and how is their performance in this season. “Football” connects all Brazilians together.

Reflective Journal Entry 5: The Rich and The Poor

In the United States, we always hear “the wealthiest one percent of U.S. citizens control 40 percent of the American wealth “. In Brazil, however, this rate is pushed to even more extreme: the wealthiest five percent control more than 95 percent of the wealth of Brazil. In Salvador, the rich own coastline properties, hire maids, and drive Land Rovers. The poor, under extreme poverty, suffer from water shortage, search food in garbage, die from disease. Almost everyday, news report newly found corpse in the favelas (slums). Once in a fancy touristy area, I saw a homeless person with dark skin, swollen stomach and herpes all over her arm. Things are no better in Rio de Janeiro, a city famous for the beaches but infamous for the slums. Like most tourists to Rio, I stayed in the South Zone of the city, which is touristy, expensive and safe. However, not until the day I visit Christ the Redeemer that I saw a complete Rio. High up in the mountains, I first looked along Christ’s sight, and I saw the marvelous beaches, elegant Sugar Loaf Mountain and the well-lighted streets. However, Jesus seems to only bless this side of Rio. Soon as I turned back to see the North Zone, I realized that Rio is not that luxurious on average. Later that day, I caught a bus going into this “new-found” land and felt I was back to Salvador. Buses were crowded with people, houses looked like being used for centuries, and homeless people slept in bus stations or on the streets. Then I understand why Brazil is a developing country: the middle class is so tiny, which symbolizes the immense gap between the rich and the poor.

Reflective Journal Entry 6: Crack the Obstacles of Language Learning

Because I look foreign, Brazilians usually suspect I speak Portuguese (very often also English). What they do is just not to speak with me or try to speak English with me (and in an extreme case began to speak Japanese with me given that there are many Japanese people in Brazil). Due to this “stereotype”, I always start the conversation myself and tell others that I am learning Portuguese so I want to practice my language. This method usually works. Another important discovery I have learned this summer is that in the language environment, I should not speak very fast at the beginning of the conversation even when I can. I encountered some cases when I spoke too fluently at first (some everyday sentences), locals would assume that I was good at Portuguese so they, in return, replied very fast and with idioms that I did not understand. When I spoke slowly at first, they would realize that I was new to Portuguese and would likely to reply with words and sentences of my level.

Reflective Journal Entry 7: A Very European Brazil

Colonization ended almost two hundred years ago in Brazil. However, this European influence is still very obvious in Brazil today. Culturally speaking, Brazilians keep the lifestyle of Europeans: do things very slowly, like to drink afternoon tea and eat cakes in the café and dance and sing a lot. Of course, paulistas (people from Sao Paulo state) have also integrated a metropolitan lifestyle like anyone else in mega cities in the world. Economically, European brands dominate the market: Nestle from Switzerland in food industry, Fiat from Italy, Volkswagen from Germany, Renault from France in automobile industry, and Santander from Spain in banking.

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

I have learned a lot from this summer experience and my language skills are greatly improved. The most apparent progress happens to my listening and speaking: I can now understand locals’ conversations and express far more opinions of mine, which I have never done so before. Moreover, I have also get into contact with Brazilians from various social backgrounds. They further introduced me to the local industries and organizations, which are solid basis for me to go back to volunteer or work. However, I harvested more than I had anticipated. Besides all the locals, I also made many European friends. Many of them are from German, Austria and Italy and they all welcome me to visit them when I have the chance. I am pretty confident that with the junior year study abroad, I would be able to connect with them very soon and they will be the “private tour guides” who would open up the door of Europe for me. In addition, my English is also improved. I think it is because I am learning a third language on the basis of my second language. So English is been pushed up to almost the level of my primary language.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

There are several advices I want to give to the prospective students.1. Be courageous to talk with the locals.This is one of the only ways for you to learn the local culture and make connections. Especially in Latin America where people have the culture to be welcoming, you can even just throw yourself out there, open your doors and there will be people coming to chat and joke with you. But keep an open mind to how they speak. Most people don’t mean to hurt you. It might be some cultural differences and you can talk that out.2. Tell locals that you are learning a new language.If you feel unconfident about your language skills, tell the locals that you are a beginner. This would remind them to keep speaking slowly and to give your time and even help you to form sentences.3. Although it is a different culture, as humans, we actually have a lot in common. It is just so easy for one to consider people of different races or cultures to be really different. However, it is just not true. We are all concerned about the high living expenses, we all care for our families and we all tend to defend our beliefs. This also generates the easiest way to get help and protect yourself: to smile. Smiling is such a universal language that you can basically get everything out of it. I smiled to people on the airplane and they bought food to me; I smiled to strangers and it turned out they were very willing to help me with directions; I smiled to a waitress in the restaurant and she ended up offering me 50% discount for my food and even helped me to plan out my trip. So keep in mind to respect others and appreciate their help as you do in your home country.4. It is safe as long as you stay alert and don’t show your worries. Do as the Romance do. So many people say Brazil is dangerous but it is actually not as what people think. Partly it is because the government is trying to clean it up for the World Cup and Olympics. But more is because of your skills to protect yourself. I once got into a dangerous situation to the extent that I really knew the guy is going to rob me. But I did not show my worries and kept walking towards the crowd. Finally I got on a bus (I did not know where it was going to but at least it was taking me away) and I just waited until the last stop and told the conductor that I was on the wrong direction and the bus took me back. Also kind of following from the third point. You can smile to strangers and (as most people are kind people) there will be someone to help you out when you really get into trouble.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

I am now taking Intermediate I and next semester, I will take Intermediate II, which is the highest level Portuguese offered at Notre Dame. Now, I keep chatting with the Brazilian friends (there are more than 50 of them) I made during the trip in Portuguese on Facebook and it certainly helps with my language skills. I also bought many children’s books in Brazil, which are actually great learning resources for my level now. Later on when I become more proficient in Portuguese, I will begin to buy Portuguese books on Amazon, which are mostly for higher-level learners. I am now planning on going back to Brazil one winter break to do some volunteering work in Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo so I would have another language immersion experience. Speaking of my career, I have the intention to work or intern in Brazil but I haven’t decided on that. What is for sure is that learning Portuguese well has become one of my priorities for my college experience and I am confident that I can do it well.