The World Cup created a lot of interest in Brazil, a country where, early in my career, I was a visiting professor for a couple of years. For me, that time was a transformative experience. I fell in love with the people, the culture, and the land, and developed an interest in languages and culture that has been with me ever since.
I go back every few years, to visit friends and matar saudades. (This untranslatable phrase means something like “overcoming an intense longing to relive memories and relationships from the past.”) And I usually go in January or February, when it is summer in the southern hemisphere, so I can spend some time on the beach.
I went again this past winter, and--as always happens--within a few days something occurred that couldn’t possibly happen here in the States. These events always cause a smile of recognition that--as Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz--“We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
I thought I’d share a few of these experiences and say something about differences they suggest between Brazilian and American culture. I’ll begin with two incidents that occurred this year in the beach town of Itanhaém.
A Brazilian fruit that I like--that wasn’t in season during my visit--is called jabuticaba. An ice cream parlor in town listed a variety of fruit-flavored ice pops (picolés), including jabuticaba, so I ordered one. When the server handed it to me, I saw that the wrapper said “chocolate chip ice cream” (flocos). I protested that I wanted a jabuticaba ice pop, not a chocolate chip ice cream pop, but he assured me that that was what he had given me. Sure enough, when I opened the wrapper, a jabuticaba ice pop was revealed.
Explanation? He made his products in the back room; and when he ran out of jabuticaba wrappers, he used some chocolate chip ice cream wrappers instead.
Another time, while I was in town, I sought out an internet café. During past visits, I had used such places to call home on Skype. This time it turned out, after visiting several different internet cafés, that the owners had decided to inactivate the microphones on their computers--apparently because the noise of occasional Skypers annoyed the majority of users, who were playing computer games. So I asked for suggestions of a place where I could get a Wi-Fi connection to Skype with my iPod, and was told that the best bet was the intercity bus terminal (rodoviária). I went to the rodoviária and didn’t find a general Wi-Fi connection there, but, as I wandered around, I discovered an open connection emanating from a parked inter-city bus. So I stood a short distance from the bus and Skyped home. In the middle of my call, the bus drove off, and I lost my connection. I have had experiences in the past of moving out of range of a Wi-Fi connection, but this was the first time I experienced it moving away from me
Here are two more examples from previous visits:
While in Campinas, the city where I used to live, I paid a visit to my former dean (Diretór do Instituto de Psicologia) in his office in a building that was new to me. At some point during our conversation, nature called, so I asked him where the Men’s Room was. He indicated the direction, and sure enough, I found it, clearly marked “Men.” Once inside, I encountered two rows of stalls with doors, one side marked “Men,” and the other marked “Women.”
When I got back to the office I asked for clarification. Apparently, the plumbing wasn’t working in the women’s bathroom, so the women were sharing with the men.
And finally, years ago, my wife and I paid an evening visit to a friend at her house in São Paulo. As we approached the house, we saw some prostitutes standing on the corner. When we got in, my wife asked, “Who are those women?”
The answer? “They’re not women.”
What do these examples tell us (or at least tell me) about Brazilian culture?
Brazilians value creativity and flexibility; and apart from any intrinsic virtues these qualities may have, they are practically a necessity in a society with fewer resources and more everyday difficulties than are found in the United States. So, while life in Brazil may sometimes appear chaotic to Americans, Americans seem rigid and inflexible to Brazilians.
After all, in the ice pop example, what difference does it make what the label says, as long as the customer gets the desired product?
In the internet café example–store owners have the right to modify their equipment, and customers are able to find alternatives by modifying their behavior.
What is wrong with women using the Men’s Room? Everyone’s privacy was guaranteed by the doors on the stalls.
And, finally, with regard to the prostitutes, even Americans recognize that, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Every visit to Brazil leads me to question assumptions and avoid “hardening of the categories.”
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