On this Father’s Day, I reflect on how travel and language learning changed my own father’s life and provided an example for me.
The first time I really traveled abroad, my father and I went to Brazil. It was the fall of 2000, I was a junior in high school, and my first passport photo featured frosted tips. It was a different time.
That first trip together involved a whole lot of experiences including a flight cancellation that unexpectedly overnighted us in Chicago, attempting to sleep in coach (and failing) but more importantly seeing the beauty of something foreign and new for the first time. During that trip, we stayed and worked at an orphanage in the blistering sun together outside of São Paulo.
He and I have had just two trips together across an ocean, this trip to Brazil was over 20 years ago.
While at the orphanage, my father struggled to communicate (as many of us did) with the children there. They had a lasting impression on him and he returned to Brazil on subsequent trips without me but lamented his lack of ability to speak with the kids.
Upon our return to the US, he went to the library, checked out a Pimsleur (Brazilian) Portuguese course, and began to “listen and repeat”, a phrase I would hear all the time when riding in his vehicle. I’ll never forget the binder of cassette tapes he’d bring home as he advanced through the course. On Saturdays, my family would clean our house and as he vacuumed with a walkman on his hip he could be heard repeating Portuguese phrases far too loudly.
Over time, his Portuguese comprehension evolved and we were able to speak conversationally using Spanish and Portuguese (not always similar enough to understand, but often close enough to make it work.) What was so much more impressive, however, was that a 50-year-old man who had never taken a language course in his life, could listen and repeat his way to a new language and accomplish a new goal.
His passion for the orphanage, its mission, and the Brazilian people he met along the way completely changed his life. My parents’ closest friends are Brazilian, they came to know and support some of the children he met at the orphanage throughout their lives, and his appreciation for the country and its customs remains to this day.
That first trip completely changed his life and subsequently the lives of others. It was, however, his persistence in learning a new language without any formal training that still inspires me today. It’s a lesson that we are never too old to learn something new, too late to start, or beyond changing our lives. It’s a lesson that I hope to instill in my daughter. His persistence demonstrated just what we are all capable of if we have the tenacity to pursue it.
As I reflect on my father and the impact he has made on my life, and now my daughter’s, this particular glimpse underscores who he is and what I aspire to become. I only hope that I will be able to instill in my daughter the confidence he instilled in me that there is plenty of time to learn something new, change who you are, and focus your life on positive outcomes for yourself and others.
Happy Father’s Day.