Personal Histories: Larissa Gessner

I am delighted to officially begin the Personal History series with Larissa Gessner. Larissa was one of the first women to contact me when I put out the call for submissions, and it was clear from the start that she was basically a dream interviewee – warm, funny, prompt, and detailed! Her enthusiasm is infectious in the best way possible.

Larissa arrived in Texas from São Paulo, Brazil when she was five years old – just a few years later, her family moved again to Canada, where she lives today. Larissa shares her experiences as an immigrant to North America with humour and thoughtful observations on the differences between Brazilian and Canadian culture as she grew up. Say hello to Larissa, and don’t be shy about sharing your own thoughts in the comments (and/or send me a line at peaksandharbours@gmail.com if you’re interested in sharing your own story with us).

Larissa at 4 years old, her mother, and grandmother – living in Brazil.

What is your background? Where do you live today, and what do you do?

My parents and I were born in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil. We moved to Texas in 2000, when I was 5. My brother was born there. We moved to the U.S. because of my father’s work as a missionary for our church. We were transferred to Toronto in 2005, then to Abbotsford, BC, in 2011. I’ve been here ever since.

I’m currently a piano teacher at a studio in Old Downtown Abbotsford (something I started doing to get through school, but ended up really loving and just never had the heart to quit on ‘my kids’). I’m also the social media and web editor for my church’s online presence. Using my skills to promote businesses or organizations I’m passionate about is also kind of my passion project, so I’m beginning to implement my social media marketing skills at the music studio and a local furniture shop.

Did your bi-cultural background inform your childhood? How did you navigate life as an immigrant?

Forgive me for doing this, but for the purposes of this interview, I’m going to lump Canadian and American culture together to fit into the ‘bi-cultural’ aspect. So, I’m a Brazilian who grew up in North America.

Larissa and her brother in Texas

Growing up, I often felt too closed off and ‘cold’ for one culture, and too happy, exotic (actual words I’ve been described as) for the other. I struggled with that a lot. Brazilians get in each other’s personal space, they’re nosy, they hug, they greet each other with cheek kisses. It’s wonderful, warm, loud, and there’s plenty of love to go around. It still takes me a while to get into the rhythm when we visit Brazil.

When we returned from visits, I often reminded myself we don’t do much touch or PDA here. But I think putting up those blocks just got in the way of allowing myself to be me. I love hugs. But I bet if you asked any of my classmates from my 4-year program at university, they would never know.

Train Tracks in Brazil

Sometimes at university, I’d be stunned by how far “behind” I was in certain aspects. I was the first in my family to go to a North American university (the process is quite different) so navigating through all that was already a task. My program was heavy in literature and writing, and while my peers could converse comfortably about authors their parents had read to them, or they’d learned about in school, I had never heard about them (having done my elementary education in the US). By the end of my program, I also began to feel the limits of my English as a Second Language. It came as a cruel shock. I feel most at home in the English language, yet to realize I was limited was difficult.

Pinpointing the good in being bi-cultural is something I’m working on. I think the main thing is that it forces you to create room in your mind – to open it. You make room for more perspectives, to understand and view things from more than one side. Your concept of things changes. Things like “time” and “affection” have different nuances in respective cultures. In that sense, you have more sources to draw from to understand others and other cultures.

Which cultural traditions do you hope to pass on?

I don’t have kids yet, so much of this might change; but I’d like to pass on to them the importance of family. For instance, Brazilian children aren’t expected to move out when they turn 18. They leave home when they get married, or in more recent years, when their job takes them away, etc. I moved out when I got married at 22. Before then, I was still living at home, expected to help with chores, ate with the family, made sure to let them know where I was late at night. You stay together not because you’re dependent, but because it’s family.

Cerimônia: Larissa’s Wedding, where she felt the tug of two cultures, but ultimately the combined result was beautiful.

I’ve also never heard people in Brazil say, “just wait until they become teenagers!” Growing up, we were never expected to act out, so we didn’t. I think many Brazilian parents treat their children as friends; but, as a kid you also knew to never cross a Brazilian parent. They’re not above using a flip-flop to the behind.

Brazilian kids don’t ever really complain with “I’m bored”. I tried once. My mother provided a list of chores so fast, with so many reprimands about boredom being a sin, that I never tried again.

Brazilian warmth, consideration, and hospitality is something I want to pass on to my children. Brazilians are accommodating and respectful of other people’s beliefs, dietary restrictions, habits, etc. Growing up, I had an American friend who was vegan. Whenever she was over during meal time, the entire family would abstain from anything non-vegan to make sure she wasn’t uncomfortable or maybe wanted something she wasn’t allowed to have. At her house, if you didn’t like what was on the table, you could go home or go without. It wasn’t a mean thing, it was just the American way.

Pamonhas: Traditional Brazilian food. A corn paste that’s prepared, and boiled in the corn husk.

As much as I love how warm Brazilians are, I think it’s becoming more and more important for parents to teach their children that they don’t have to hug or kiss or be touched in any way or form by anyone. This is something I’m embracing from a North American perspective, and I expect a lot of backlash from relatives on this. I’ve witnessed Brazilian children hesitantly meet a stranger (often a relative they’re meeting for the first time), and the parent makes the kid, “give him/her a hug!”, “give him/her a kiss!”. Naah, leave my kid alone.

What cultural traditions have you kept, or not kept?

One thing I miss here is making New Year’s a big deal. In Brazil, there are fireworks, people wear white, resolutions are taken seriously. It’s an emblem of hope. We also do two Thanksgivings every year.

What does being bi-cultural mean to you today? Has it influenced your connections with other?

I view it as enrichment. I think it makes connecting with others easier. You’re less affronted by differences and more adapting. I think it makes you gravitate to others who know different ways of life, and have created their own within that, borrowing from left and right.

We’re so preoccupied with finding planets. That’s great and all, but you don’t really have to go far to know another world. It’s often just another country – or sometimes just a state line – away.

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You can read more about Larissa over at The Girl Writes, and connect with her on Instagram!

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