That Time I Tattooed My Way To A Fulbright Scholarship
by Phillip Wenturine
So one time I got a tattoo in Portugal, on my inner arm, written in Portuguese, in the handwriting of my Airbnb host. Yeah, that's how much I fell in love with the country. The tattoo reads, "Perder-me para me encontrar" which translates to "To lose myself is to find myself." I was getting my MFA in creative writing through Eastern Kentucky University at the time, and the program called for summer residencies in Lisbon, Portugal. I was fortunate enough to study there during the 2014 and 2015 summers. After I graduated with my Master's, I decided to take a chance and apply for a Fulbright Scholarship to go back and teach there. This, of course, led to another tattoo. At this point, having traveled all over the world, it was time for one of those up-and-coming-and-soon-to-be-clichéd world map tattoos. But I didn't want it to be a cliché, just another outline sketched on another shoulder. So, I decided to add a solid plane to pop with the outline.
"Which way would you like the plane to face?" the artist asked.
"Um. I guess let's make it face from Florida to Portugal, like going from American to Europe."
"Any particular reason?"
"I just applied for a job there. Good luck I guess."
"Let's hope you get that job," he said, dipping the needle into the container of black ink and into my skin, the buzzing noise numbing my ears as the sting numbed my skin. He was outlining a map of the world onto my back, with a plane in the middle, facing my hopefully new home.
Call it luck, or perhaps it was that my studying and hard work and all those resume boosters throughout the years, but I got selected for the Fulbright Scholarship to Portugal. Being that the plane is large, I could have blamed it on my love for the European continent and my desire to get back there one day, but honestly, had I not gotten the Fulbright, it would have been a stinging reminder carved onto my back.
And the Fulbright has been the greatest experience of my life thus far. I am literally paid to be a Cultural Ambassador between the United States and Portugal. It may sound super prestigious, and it is, but it's also a mix of insanely cool projects. Being a Fulbright comes with its fair share of meetings and lunches at the embassy; election parties filled with classy cocktails and world-wide networking; flying to other countries to give lectures and attend seminars; traveling up and down Portugal for research; and even having pastel de natas and ginginha shots with the mayor. I get to teach English, journalism, and media production to Portuguese college students. I host movie nights where we watch ridiculous American reality television like Orange is the New Black, as well as classic dramas, all with Portuguese subtitles as students better their English listening skills. I have weekly conversation classes where students get to practice talking in English while learning how to play Yahtzee, Monopoly, and Catch Phrase. I teach yoga and creative writing and host spelling bees for the embassy, and help students with applications to study in the United States over espresso and pastries. The list is endless because the possibilities are endless. All around it is a dream.
However, the best part of being a cultural ambassador is being able to create projects as you see fit in order to better promote cultural exchange. Being a writer, and loving Humans of New York, I created the Portuguese equivalent, called "Pessoas of Portugal." I started this project on my own, but then in order to help facilitate English learning, I involved my students, teaching them journalism and working on Portuguese to English translation. Each story is a random stranger found walking along the cobblestones, or a barista at a coffee shop, or a couch surfing host, or a student at the Instituto Politecnico de Santarém where I work, or a musician on the street. Some of these people love Portugal; some detest it; some have left it only to come running back; others have never left at all. Each person, each pessoa, has a special connection to Portugal, and deeper than that, they have a sacred story they may not even be aware they should share. I take the time to get to know them and draw it out of them. And then, with my mediocre photography skills, I take their photo. My students also write some of the stories, and they help me translate them so they we collect them in both Portuguese and English. They are then posted to Instagram, Facebook, and soon to a website that we are all working to create.
I've met a girl fighting cancer who will tell you she is not a fighter, but a normal girl. I've met a tattoo artist who began covering his 12-year-old brother in ink when he himself was only 14. I've met a Chinese immigrant who actually learned Portuguese before she learned Mandarin. I've met a surfer from Bulgaria who came to Portugal for a surfing weekend and just never caught his flight home. I've met a Brazilian who fled poverty to come to Portugal and still struggle; a girl whose mother abused her and her siblings, each who have a different father; a flight attendant who travels the world but stays grounded back in Portugal; a transgendered boy who tells his story in hopes to help others—and I've gotten emails that it has helped others, and that is the coolest thing ever; and the list goes on and on, because the stories are not finished, nor will they ever really be finished. It is my job to discover as many as I can during my time here, but they will always be here for people to unravel. And I hope after seeing my work, people in the United States will want to travel here and discover these treasures, not just the beautiful sites, but the people themselves. I discovered Portugal by happenstance, but it's become my life for the past three years. And it's been an absolute treasure.
It's crazy how the choices we make all seem to have a purpose, even when we are blissfully unaware of the itinerary they pave for our feet. If I had never done a study abroad to China, where I got to teach English in an orphanage, I would have never decided to become a teacher. If I had never struggled with the education system in America, and questioning if teaching really was for me, I would have never pursued a Master's Degree in writing at Eastern Kentucky University. If I had never attended EKU, I would not have traveled to Portugal for my residencies. If I had never studied in Portugal, I may not have heard about the Fulbright Program. And if I had never accepted my Fulbright, I would not be sitting here, in my small town of Santarém, Portugal, overlooking Portas do Sol with a glass of sangria while writing this blog. And it's absolutely crazy how everything, every struggle, seems to work out in the end, even if it is a gamble of getting a plane tattooed in the right direction of the job you just applied for.
Check out the project on Instagram and Facebook, @PessoasOfPortugal, and read more on PhillipWrites.com.
Published on December 06, 2016