Monday, September 27, 2010

Brazil and I celebrate our two-month anniversary: reflections on our relationship

Last week marked the completion of two months in Brazil; the time is flying. As of now, I'm a little under the half-way point for the Brazilian leg of the trip and about a quarter of the way through my entire abroad experience.

Stay in a place long enough, and it becomes a part of you. Here are some of the habits I've picked up over the past two months, how I've affected this country since my arrival, and the subjects on which Brazil and I still just won't see eye-to-eye.

How Brazil has affected me:

1. Thumbs up and hang loose: Hand gestures and other non-verbal forms of communication constitute important parts of learning a language, and Portuguese is no exception. My favorite gesture thus far is for something that isn't just full, but REALLY full (ie. every bus I take to the university). This is done by opening and closing your hand, keeping you fingers straight and meeting your fingertips to your thumb. Another entertaining one is the gesture for sex, which for some reason is communicated by a movement that looks like knocking on an imaginary door with the tips of your four fingers. Try it; if it looks like your imitating a bird pecking at something, you're doing it correctly. It's beyond me how this became associated with the action it represents.

Just like any word, however, a gesture in one country may mean something totally different, and possibly offensive, in another. While one of our most common gestures, the "OK!" sign can be interpreted in other cultures as an less-than-polite reference to a particular bodily orifice. As a result, travelers to Brazil are often warned not to respond to someone in this manner regardless of their good intentions. I don't think I ever used the "ok" sign in the States, but for some reason, not being able to now has made me compensate by over-using other affirmative hand gestures; namely, the "thumbs up" and the "hang loose" (the one surfers use where you stick your pinky and thumb out like an imaginary telephone). Both of these are used here, though not exceedingly often, so I'm perplexed as to why I can't stop telling people to "hang loose" all the time.

2. Board shorts: One male fashion trend here is to wear board shorts like a normal piece of clothing, not just while surfing or hanging out on the beach. As a result, I've started wearing my bright blue and yellow floral Hawaiian-pattern swimming suit as I hang around the house, go to the grocery store and do other errands. The look is complemented well by my new "hang loose" habit.

My contributions to brazilian society:

1. Teaching American geography: The first time someone asked me if I knew that the Amazon was in Brazil before arriving, I laughed it off. The second time, I was worried about how ignorant I was actual coming across here. The third time, I knew something bigger was at play. After that, I stopped counting.

Apparently, there is a pervasive rumor that American schools teach students that the Amazon is actually politically international territory and have maps with that region excluded from Brazil's borders. As such, the other American students and I are frequently asked if this was the case in our education. At this point I'm getting ready to respond that it was, just to see the reaction. Until then, we've all just started cutting people off when the conversation goes in that direction:

"Let me ask you a question (all questions here start like that), in your school, did they teach you that...."

"NO! IT'S YOURS! I know it belongs to you!"

The sad part is that this rumor, albeit ridiculous, contains an element of truth. As many Americans do know, the region is vastly exploited by international companies and local power figures, and as a result is one of the least governable areas of the country.

2. Single-handedly raising the internal demand of bananas and cheese: In the Brazilian meal schedule, there is typically an afternoon "snack" or coffee break since dinner is eaten much later than it is in the States. One of the most common snacks here is the "misto quente", literally translated to a "hot mix", basically just a grilled cheese with ham. As a team, my roommate Felipe and I consume an obscene amount of certain staples and chief among them is the "hot mix". I actually don't feel comfortable offering an estimate of how many of these things we eat; but rest assured it's not just during the afternoon that our little electric grill is being put to use.

The other pillar of our diet consists of bananas; which are super cheap and Felipe's favorite fruit. Looking back I suppose it was only natural that our two principal food groups would be combined, but I was still surprised the first time I was offered a banana hot mix (sans ham, obviously, we do have standards). They are actually good, in the "I can't believe I'm eating this" way that only mozzarella and white bread can provide.

And my ongoing conflicts with this country:

Motoboys: Brazil is not unique in that it has much scarier traffic than what we're used to in the US. However, the specific danger in crossing the streets here is the veritable army of motorcycle delivery boys, "motoboys", in Juiz de Fora. These individuals feel compelled to disregard all traffic guidelines while going twice as fast as all other forms of transportation. Since I don't have a car and don't take the bus unless absolutely necessary, I spend much of my day trying not to get plowed over by some kid with a dirt bike loaded up with Chinese food.

The large quantity of motoboys is due to the fact that you can get almost anything delivered here: from arabic food, pasta, hamburgers, beer to even ice. People are always surprised when I tell them that we don't have delivery McDonald's in the US like they do here, and the more I think about it, I also am.

Air kissing: Similar to the hand gestures discussion, travelers in countries that greet with alternating kisses on the cheek should do some research beforehand to ascertain the appropriate quantities for given situations. Getting this wrong is unavoidably awkward.

When you stop air kissing too soon, the other person leans in, realizes you've had enough, then quickly moves their head back. However, by this time, you're now trying to compensate, so you're all puckered-up and moving back in to make things right. But wait, they've already retracted, so you snap back to your original position. If things are really going poorly, they've taken this as a cue that you actually do want to reach that magic number of air kisses that makes this greeting culturally legitimate. And so it goes on... When you air kiss too many times, the same scenario is triggered with the roles reversed. Though these situations are uncomfortable for all parties, since you are a foreigner and have no idea what the hell you're doing, the fault is always 100% yours.

For American men, the sensation is more or less like when you greet a distant male relative after a period of time, shake hands, can't decide if hugging is ok, and just end up squeezing each others' elbows or something comparably uncomfortable.

Enter Brazil, where from what I can tell the magic number is "less than or equal to 2." When you meet someone new, you need to quickly size them up as a "onesie" or a "twosie;" err at the risk of starting your new friendship off on a uncomfortable note. I've developed a few loose guidelines at this point that seem to help: you're more likely to kiss twice when meeting someone for the first time, while you usually kiss once and give a side-hug for friends. When saying goodbye, just one farewell kiss will do the trick, unless you didn't kiss when you met each other, in which case you should probably go with two. Older women are also more two-kiss material, while younger women typically are just fine with a single, yet you'll eventually run into the friend's aunt who just isn't into what you're offering in the air kiss department and will have one peck to-go thankyouverymuch. I also have no idea what this is like for newcomers who aren't twenty-one year old males; for all I know two kisses are always exchanged between women and people over forty-five. So until I get the hang of this a little more, a part of me wishes everyone was as awkward about touching as Americans are.

I've put up pictures and videos from this weekend. I went to my friend Lucas' godmother's dairy farm (I will you have you know that I guessed correctly with two kisses for this greeting). Highlights included:

Two wonderful nights of sleep
Horse racing
Cow milking
Finding the best tree for climbing ever
Hanging out with friends
Playing with Great Dane puppies

You can access my pictures here, and my video page on the right border of the blog. I've put up a video of me dominating at the horse racing, and me doing an absolutely terrible job milking a cow. The latter video confirms the fact that this activity is about unflattering for the milker as it is for the animal.

Hope all is well,


1 comment:

  1. Hello there. I ended up finding your blog here by searching the words "hang loose", I am brazilian from São Paulo. Nice reading such a different experience, it's usually the opposite what we hear lol, people leaving Brazil and telling how good they feel abroad.
    I would like to wish u a very nice stay in my country, and that you enjoy every single moment here.
    nontheless, I would like to make some comments related to the brazilian habits you mentioned, in order to help you study brazilian culture:
    Brazil is AS juge as the US, what means it's very difficult, or better, it's just IMPOSSIBLE to describe the culture as one, for instance I never cow-milked in my life, lol there are no farms in São Paulo, which is the economical center of the country. Also, the hangloose symble is never used in SP, maybe, very specifically the real surfers that live in coast cities. The usual standard greeting is a 'thumbs-up'.
    The airkissing is also something very peculiar:
    - In RIO DE JANEIRO they ALWAYS kiss twice.
    - In SÃO PAULO we ALWAYS kiss just once.
    Don't feel embarassed if you do not know how many kisses, but the average is ONE. If u don't know, just ask someone born there, it's ok to ask. Here in SP we also kiss male friends and relatives. The close friends, I mean. No embarassement at all.
    btw, we from são paulo always leave people from Rio hanging because they kiss 2x and we just 1x.. it's embarassing, as you said, but we don't do it on purpose. It's just our culture.
    I know just a few states in which people kiss 2x.
    Hugging is also very common and considered friendly and warm. I myself kiss and hug my closest male friends and relatives, and this is the average standard in Brazil (not much the kissin between male friends - in SP yes -, but relatives it's just ok)
    You must have realized our personal space is also smaller than in most european countries AND the US, which can cause impact at first, but you will understand there is no sexual connotation in having a female friend close to you or huggin you harder than in the US, it's just the way we were raised.
    And YES, we love misto quente, lol, but as we love many other types of snacks. the deal with the misto quente is that it is quick and easy to prepare. As we are not much into eating fattening food as you guys are, it's also a way to avoid fried things all the time. The average breackfast here is composed of fruits, bread and cheese, ham etc. Lunch is eaten as salad, and a main dish as pasta or rice/ beans. Normally followed by a nice delicious steak (hmmm I'm gettin hungry) or chicken or fish. French fries or potato dishes are also welcome as side dishes, but we don't vary much from this.
    Unfortunately, some people have heard about the amazon story, so YES, some more people will ask you that again.
    Well, I was supposed to just send you a note and I ended up writing all this, lol.
    I hope you have a great time and, whenever you can, pass by SP, it's just a great city, apart from the traffic lol.
    If you want to add my email, feel free to do it, we can keep up.
    See you later pal, luck here in Brazil!

    Fabio "Skubba" (