5 Things I Learned Living In Brazil

(Photo Credit: Alejandro via Flickr)

I met my wifey a little over 10 years ago. I had been invited down for an old friend’s wedding where his Brazilian wife wanted to do a ceremony for her side of the family. So, I had some vacation time saved up and decided, what the hell? After the first week helping prep for and holding the wedding, I then had two more weeks on the side to travel around between Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro states. It was in Rio that I met my future love of my life, though of course I didn’t know it at the time!

Anyway, after a few years of long distance back and forth visits, Skype calls, and snot-filled emotional separations, we finally decided to make a go of it as I was soon to finish grad school. One of us had to make the move to other person’s country, or the relationship would just not last. At first, my wife said she would come to San Francisco where I lived. Then, as all good plans have unintended twists, the financial crisis of 2008 basically obliterated any and all potential job opportunities I might have wanted to pursue. And there was no way my wife (even though she already spoke English) was going to find a new job in the US either.

So, the decision was made to migrate down to the land of tropical beaches, samba and pineapples. The economy at that time was red hot, and I knew that as a native speaker, I could at least start teaching English right off the plane. I ended up living and working in Sao Paulo for 4 years. I wasn’t just another tourist either, passing through for a hedonistic spree during Carnival. I learned about another culture, learned to speak Portuguese, learned how to navigate the worlds largest bus system in a city of 20 Million, and saw some pretty damn incredible places.

Welcome to the Jungle…

Although, I’m back in the Bay Area (for now), I like to reflect back on my time in Brazil and what influenced me and how I now see the world in a different light. Travel of course always changes us, both mentally and spiritually. Living abroad can do it even more. Of course, nowhere is Utopia, and Brazil has it’s own set of challenges to overcome as it continues to develop. There are positives and negatives everywhere. But I think there are some important things us First Worlders could stand to learn from our bronze-skinned cousins down South:

1. Family Comes First:

Brazilians are big on family and their families are usually big. As one of my friends there once jokingly told me, “Greg, you can’t understand how family is for us. Its like this giant communal village that surrounds you from the minute you are born, and then accompanies you along for every single moment of your entire life, right into the grave.” He was saying it in a funny way, and I while I could tell that this kind of relationship was of course very supportive, it could also be constricting and complicated too.

But, I hardly ever met a Brazilian who was alone in this life. You never saw an old person, sitting home alone with nobody to talk to. For most senior Brazilians, there’s always family around to take care of you, and plenty of grandkids and grand nephews to play with and bring you joy. I think most Latin Countries have very low suicide rate as compared to the West, probably the large supportive family structures in these societies play a large part in this.

It’s also a social backup network too. If you lose your job, get sick, have a string of bad luck etc, there always room for you back at of the family compound. You’ll never be left out on the street, not as long as mom has a breath in her body and a pot of beans on the stove. American culture can be so harsh many ways: parents kick their kids out at 18: “Well son, you’re on your own now!”

2. Racism:

Though I will never deny that there’s also racism in Brazil, I guess it manifests itself differently. Of course, the color of the faces of the majority of the people in the favelas are black and brown, and slavery only ended in 1888! But I never felt that distinct separation between the races that you find in the US. There were never the types of Jim Crow laws enacted in Brazil to keep people of African descent officially locked out of society. I always saw groups of young people of all colors: Italian, Japanese, Lebanese et al. hanging out in big groups together and partying. Even in terms of love, so many marriages are intermixed. People are proud of having mixed children, it was almost like a point of patriotic pride.

As a white gringo walking down the street, strangers would sometimes call me “Alemão” (Big Kraut/German). An Asian person would be called “Japa” (it wouldn’t matter if you were Korean or Taiwanese), someone of African descent would affectionately be called “Negão” (Big Black Guy). Although I kind of got irked at these terms at first (I’m Jewish, don’t #$%@ call me German!), I realized that Brazilians haven’t adopted this knee jerk PC culture we find at home. Calling someone “Alemão” is just meant as light, humorous nickname. It’s like calling a bald man “Curly”. Nobody intends it as offense, and none is taken.

It seemed to me that most folks in Brazil identify with being Brazilian first, and then at some point recognize that they have an ethnic/immigrant identity somewhere in there down the line. Culturally, at least to me as an outsider, there’s no divide between the races and their foods, slang, music and interests. Everyone’s just…well, Brazilian.

3. Learn How To Relax:

Brazilians do work hard. It’s a still developing country, and life is not always easy for most people. Contrary to many foreigner’s imagined stereotypes about Brazil, people are not all laying around in hammocks all day, drinking tropical cocktails and dancing in tiny bikinis. It’s not Carnaval 24/7. In fact, as an English tutor in Sao Paulo to lawyers and executives, I was often shocked at their working hours. Their working day could sometimes end at 1 in the morning😵 Then they’d be up at 7am for our English lesson before getting back to their desk.

But, people also recognize the importance of slowing down and smelling the roses. Time is always made for family, leisure and relationships- not the other way around. Brazilians have 30 days off per year, to rest or to travel, and usually they love to go the beach (where they lie around in hammocks all day, drinking tropical cocktails and dancing in tiny bikinis). Vacation means vacation: where you disconnect your stupid smartphone, chill the fuck out, and have a beer in a laid back fishing village. Life is about having fun and being in love. Enjoy it before you drop dead of a heart attack in your cubicle at age 50.

(Photo Credit: Silveira Neto via Flickr)
4. Have A Positive Attitude:

One thing that struck me about Brazilians, even if they were spending their days dragging a wooden cart full of recycling through the city streets, was that they always had a smile on their faces. Always a positive attitude, a thumbs up sign and a belief that things were going to get better in the future. There was always an optimism in the spirit of the people you’d meet. Never sure where that came from, but it stood in marked contrast to us Americans and Europeans: we’re the richest people on Earth, but we’re all somehow strung out on anti-depressants.

Maybe it was because as a developing country, things are always on the up-and-up, always on the move. Life might be tough now, but 10 years from now, it will be better than before- and it will be even better for your kids. Perhaps in the Industrialized world, we’re seeing that our societies reached a peak where things were great, and now they’re invariably pulling back into a long slow, decline. I think again too, it comes back to being emerged in a large, caring family unit. It probably just gives you a better sense of happiness about yourself.

5. Work Is Not Your Identity:

One thing that confused the hell out of my spouse when she moved with me to the Bay Area was everybody always asked her (as Americans tend to do): “What Do You Do?” I know, the most annoying question in the world. I realize that most people are just trying to break the ice, or learn more about you, but for her as a Brazilian, that was the most irritating, nonsensical, boring-ass question you could ever ask someone. Why? Who cares, really?

For Brazilians, your job is just basically something you do, whether it be as a doctor or a beach vendor: something to pay the bills and take care of your family. It’s not your life. Your job doesn’t define your sense of identity or self-importance in this universe. In a country where so many jobs are just basic and don’t have a lot of potential to make you rich or successful, perhaps Brazilians prefer to simply not define themselves this way.  Americans on the other hand, because we’re supposed to always be aspiring to be an astronaut, a millionaire businessman or famous singer on MTV, our jobs are supposed to define us. What you do is who you are. Why? Most of us are never going to be rich and famous anyways, let’s drop the bullcrap and live our real lives when the working day is done.

Anyways, I ramble on. If there’s any Brazilians out there reading this: please forgive my naivety if any of the previous point seem incorrect to you. I know these are some very broad generalizations of a huge and complex country of 200 Million people. But as an Gringo in your country, these were just some of the observations I had…

What about you: Has traveling given a you a unique or different perspective on your own culture that you never had before? Has visiting or living somewhere else shown you fresh ways of existence that have changed your life for the better?

3 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned Living In Brazil

  1. I spent a month there, and slot of what you say rings true to me. Especially the smiles, and the lack of racial awareness…? For lack of a better way to put it. I travled from Manus to Belem down the coast to Rio and São Paulo to the Falls of Iguazu. I observed there were people of darker complexion in the north then the south. Also more money in the south. As I traveled people were friendly and there was no stigma of color as we, unfortunately, still carry here in the states. When I traveled Europe I fell in love with Spain. The people there of Sevilla and the south were very open, friendly, carefree. So you can imagine my feelings being in Brazil. I’d add both countries have an abundance of beautiful women which I can’t deny influenced my opinion. The aspect of family I could not know as a gringo on my tour (only one month thus no more then a a few days per city)but it makes sense of Latino culture. As for the “what do you do?” I’ve noticed that among Europeans as well. Let’s talk music, or books, etc. it was usually after that that question might come up. And I feel strongly about that. Let our ideas and actions define us. One of my favorite quotes of Jesus when they asked him if they should pay taxes, he replied ” give to Caesar what is his, and give to me what is mine.”
    Which links to one of my favorite quotes of Zorba…the Greek. ” Grocers and merchants are always weighing things in their minds. When does a man ever just do something. Without asking why.”
    Let is not be grocers of our friendship nor merchants with our love. As you say. Life is for enjoying and falling in love.

  2. Post Author Greg Goldblatt

    That sounds like quite a trip. I never made it as far North as Manaus and Belem, but would like to see those cites as well. There’s definitely a big economic divide between the North and South in Brazil. Most Southern cities are crammed with migrants from the “Nordeste” as they call it, coming down for more opportunities in the big cities of Sao Paul and Rio.

    I loved Spain too, beautiful country, great food, enviable lifestyle. Why can’t the whole world shut down and take a nap every day at 3pm?

    “When does a man ever just do something. Without asking why?” Good question, maybe its better just to let the chips fall sometimes without analyzing why. I have to rewatch Zorba the Greek again, it’s been a while!

  3. leaving the usa – i felt a part of ‘all of the usa’ … whereas before traveling outside i felt more specific simply to my home town and parental cultural myths that were established in our time.

    getting out of your ‘normal’ is enlightening and liberating. i stand in my own shoes but perspective is your shoes locational POV. _ IE. here i stand & here i see outward.

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