International Student: Brazilians Know How to Live
Melike Kalkan is a social anthropology master degree student at VMU from the northern part of Cyprus. She shared some of her indelible memories from Brazil, where she spent a semester as a bilateral exchange student at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais (PUC Minas).
“I love travelling and eating, and it could be my main motivation for life, along with learning”, the charming Cypriot smiled and provided a glimpse of this magical corner of the world, encouraging students to discover the world, because now is the best time to do it.
How did you come up with the idea to study in Brazil?
I was an Erasmus Voluntary Service (EVS) volunteer in Lisbon, Portugal for a year in 2012. There I had a chance to meet people from Brazil, which made me curious about the culture on the other side of the Atlantic. I have always had an interest in travelling around Latin America and Brazil was apparently the one I was supposed to start with. Also, I was planning to do my research on Brazilian migrants in Portugal with some connection to Capoeira. I am really interested in this martial art because of its deep cultural aspect.
When I checked the list of 140 universities in 40 countries which have bilateral exchange studies agreements with VMU, there was PUC Minas in the third largest city of Brazil – Belo Horizonte. I said to myself: “I do speak some Portuguese, so why not spend a semester studying there?”. The idea of experiencing a new culture while studying was enough of a reason for a future anthropologist.
Brazil is presented in the public space as a very colourful country whose people exude energy and temperament. What was your impression of it?
Let me start with a stereotype! Even as a Mediterranean, I felt like a “cold” person in Brazil. I felt that when people smile, they truly do it. When they celebrate (elections, graduation, wedding, religious days etc.), they do it until they are not able to move anymore! I really felt that Brazilians know how to “live”. It is amazing how they deal with such a huge country with unbelievable social, economic, financial, political problems. Brazil is a beautiful country not only because of its rich nature but also its history, culture and ethnic diversity. However, it is absolutely sad that they are struggling with systematic problems.
What should the students expect when they visit a university in Brazil? What is the added value aside from the acquired professional knowledge and skills?
First of all, future exchange students should expect that they will experience a completely different way of education which is a unique experience and an absolutely interesting semester. One of the most impressive aspects of my faculty was the solidarity and the active structure of the student club called DACS Ubuntu. I participated in many events, activities and seminars organized by the club and it added great value to my experience.
On the other hand, the perspective from literally the other side of the world is interesting. Since it was a completely different region, it was very interesting to hear the people’s discussions while sharing my own experience from another part of the world, which is western for them.
I had a chance to learn many things about Brazilian history, since there is still an effect of post-colonialism mixed with post-dictatorship trauma. I felt lucky to study at such a professionally active university: seminars, conferences and all the events that PUC Minas organized gave me a possibility to meet many people mainly from Latin America and improve myself by learning new things every day.
As you mentioned, you are studying anthropology at VMU. What study programme did you choose at PUC Minas?
Since there was no anthropology programme, I had to register into the Faculty of Social Sciences and choose subjects related to my curriculum at VMU. It was difficult, but not impossible. Also, I didn’t have an option to choose from Master classes, so I took all my courses with Bachelor students. It has pros and cons; since I was not an advanced speaker of Portuguese language, it helped me a lot to keep studying without too many difficulties. However, I wish I had a chance to take at least a couple of courses with master students.
I know that you have studied at universities in Turkey, Lithuania and now also Brazil. What are the main differences you have noticed?
Weather. It’s an amazing feeling to study in a sunny place without too much cold, like in Lithuania or too much heat, like in Cyprus, almost all around the year. Also, the periods of studies are different, for example my studies started in mid-July and lasted till late November, so future exchange students should take it into consideration while planning their summer holidays.
I have to admit that, unfortunately, BA classes at PUC Minas are not very open to discussions, just like in Turkey. However, what was amazing is that the students have the power to act and change things at the university in Brazil. I didn’t have this possibility during my BA studies in Turkey, but the VMU education system is also student-friendly and flexible. VMU and PUC Minas have great systems of mentors for exchange students, which helped me a lot. Both sides supported me a lot whenever I needed something.
You mentioned that the people there are active and temperamental. What was it like to communicate with them?
Do not ever expect that people will speak to you in English. Seriously, no way! However, know that even if you have a very poor level of Portuguese, people will do anything to understand what you need and help you. And they won’t do it because they would expect something from you; they will do it because they truly want to be helpful. Only in very touristy parts of Brazil you will be able to speak English, but I hope you will improve your language till then so you won’t need it. It has a huge positive impression on Brazilians if you just try to speak Portuguese.
I accepted the fact that I won’t be able to speak English after the very first minutes at the airport. But there was still a problem that I needed to learn to speak Brazilian Portuguese, which is completely different in the sense of pronunciation and accent. So, in the first weeks I had to change my existing Portuguese-Portuguese into Brazilian-Portuguese, which became easier because of the support of the people around me.
At first, I had some problems in the academic life, especially because I had to spend too much time reading and understanding the studying material. However, with the help of professors and students, I was able to adapt and develop my own way of studying. Still, I would not recommend someone who doesn’t speak Portuguese to study in Brazil. I was lucky to live with four Brazilians who helped me a lot to improve my daily language skills.
What cultural experiences made the biggest impression to you? What are the main differences between Brazilians, Lithuanians and Cypriots?
I would like to emphasize the impressive richness and diversity of Brazilian culture. I had a chance to learn Capoeira from a Brazilian master (mestre) who taught me a lot about the Afro-Brazilian history, Lusophone (community culturally and linguistically linked to Portugal – Ed.) culture and Candomble (Afro-American religion practiced mainly in Brazil by the povo de santo, people of the saint – Ed.) traditions.
Brazil is one of the most religious countries in the Latin America; but I should mention that being “religious” in Brazil means something different than in Lithuania. One of the highlights of my life happened also during my exchange studies in Brazil. I participated in a religious celebration of the Candomble people which happens once a year, and the feeling of solidarity, respect and gratitude to their African ancestors was amazing.
Could you share the best and most precious experience from your visit in Brazil?
It is impossible to choose one from the many experiences and moments I’ve collected in Brazil. I would say that the nature, animals, plants, food, music, rhythms, language, joy, real feelings of people impressed me a lot. For example, it was amazing to have mango trees everywhere and to be able to just pick up juicy fruit and eat, or to see the tropical birds all of a sudden in the middle of the city. Also to swim in crystal clear waters while observing nature, to prepare churrasco (grilled meat – Ed.) with your friends in nature, to cool down under the cold water of beautiful waterfalls, to get into roda de samba with Brazilians and dance. Anything else? To be able to feel the history of Afro-Brazilian culture in a capoeira rodas, to eat amazing food from “self-service” (you pay for the weight of your plate) etc. Did I mention enough?
I believe that understanding is one of the key points of knowing and feeling a culture; therefore I can easily say it was not difficult to manage this with the help of great open-hearted Brazilians in four months, which are a very precious memory to me.