By Erin Perry
GUEST BLOGGER When my engineer-husband said: “We may have to move to Brazil for my next assignment,” the journalist in me bombarded him with questions. “Who? What? When? Where? Can the dog go?”
The dog’s flights were covered, so I told my husband I needed a new bikini. A life abroad on a global company’s dime often comes with perks to offset the hardships that may include terrible roads, blazing heat, and to be frank, roaches. My favorite bonus was the maid. I adored her – not just because she cooked and cleaned, though I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy that. Having a maid was a blessing in another, more significant way. She taught me more in my 18 months in Brazil (near Salvador) than I envisioned I would learn.
In Brazil, maid is not a disparaging title. It is a noble career. The moral people in this line of work take great pride in establishing and preserving everyday order for families. Lecia was a single mother in her early 30s (a few years older than me), and she had been a maid since age 11. She took classes at night until she earned her diploma at age 20. College never was an option; for the daughter of a farmer and a homemaker, it was just too expensive. She considers herself as mixed race, as does about 43% of Brazil’s population. Lecia is among the 90% of literate people in Brazil. We often exchanged stories in the kitchen about our lives I learned just how unaware she was of the disparities in opportunities that continue to plague Northeast Brazil as well as women, and black, mixed race and indigenous populations throughout that country. She was oblivious to the unfairness that allowed my husband and I to sit in a restaurant in our neighborhood and be the only non-white people in the establishment who were not on the clock. (For context, Brazil has more than 202 million people, and non-whit
e people make up the majority of the country’s population.) Lecia supposed that brown-skinned Brazilians don’t have all the opportunities that people with brown skin in America have, but she could not identify Ground Zero for the inequality among her people. She was not fully sold on my rationalization that access to education directly affects opportunities for growth, employment and the right of entry into a life that would allow her to sit down and enjoy a meal in a nice restaurant. In that same kitchen conversation, she said something I will never forget. I asked her what else she would want to be in life besides a maid, and she essentially said: “I am a maid, Erin. I cannot be anything else.” See, I grew up in a two-parent, middle-class household in Detroit. I went to private schools until I enrolled at Cass Tech, arguably the city’s No. 1 high school at the time for academic achievement. I earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Hampton University, a private college where the incremental cost for me to attend was $63,000. And then, when I decided I wanted pursue a teaching career, I earned a master’s degree from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. So, to hear our maid tell me what she could not be reminded me of all that I can be because of my education, earned opportunities and sheer desire. At 11 years old, her life’s work was virtually tattooed across her forehead. In America, we have the freedom to pursue happiness, and that includes changing our schools, our majors and our professions. But there are variations of her story all over the world because everyone doesn’t have access to a high-quality education. We can change that landscape, but only if we are courageous enough to leave this country to see how people live elsewhere. When you put an ocean between you and the people you already know well, you make unexpected connections with new people. In Brazil, I met people from Australia, Puerto Rico, Argentina, England, Mexico, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Colombia. Together, this diverse group of ex-pats banded together to provide opportunities for the people of Brazil, from hiring them for services to patronizing their businesses, to buying mattresses and building beds for children at an orphanage. We changed perceptions and debunked myths and prejudices about our countries and nationalities. Our experiences with each other also compelled us to be reflective about what actually may be true about our countries and nationalities. Surely, we became more accepting of our differences. There’s no such thing as a foreign country. If you embrace the world, you will consider it home. You can make your home anywhere. You’ve done it many times before: You found home in the one you grew up in and the one you cried about having to move to when your parents sold the one you knew best. You’ve moved from dorm rooms, first apartments and hotel rooms. Home away from home is just beyond your comfort zone. And when you accept that, you’ll think to yourself: “What a wonderful world!” AND “There’s no place like home.” Erin Perry is an editor and ghostwriter living in metro Detroit. She operates www.ieditnred.com. She’s @iEditNRed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.