a portrait of brazil, by a homesick pessimist

I was at the bus stop one day when I saw an old woman who was walking her dog fall hard and hit her face on the pavement. I watched to make sure she got up, but she didn’t right away. The five people waiting with me at bus stop all saw, then turned back to their conversations. I ran across the street to help the woman up and ask if she was ok. People stepped over us as they passed us on the sidewalk.

Then there are the countless stories of friends or friends of friends who were robbed or beaten on the streets while Brazilians went about their merry ways, blatantly ignoring the violence right before them. I would call it the bystander effect, a term borrowed from psychology to describe the phenomenon of many people seeing something bad happening but assuming someone else will help, but I don’t think Brazilians even care enough to hope someone else will do something. I’m left to assume they won’t lift a finger to help you if you’re in trouble. I don’t want to test that theory.

Continuing on this lack of a sense of community consciousness, people are oblivious to their surroundings. They block sidewalks and stand in the middle of paths and can’t be bothered to move for anyone, even after increasingly less polite ‘excuse me”s. They just push past one another like cattle.

When I first heard that Brazilian men were more aggressive here, I thought, ‘Great, I like a man who knows what he wants.’ But, aggressive was a euphemism for grabby and chauvinistic. It works like this: if you’re a girl between the ages of 14 and 45 and you meet a guy at a party, a bar, or a get-together, and he will grab your arm a little too hard, pull you towards him, and try to kiss you by saying ‘beijo,’ or pointing at his mouth, or just putting his face on yours. Then he’ll run away. And if you happen to progress past this and think he’s interested in you because he’s so kind or flattering, whether obviously to get in your pants or done more skillfully by a true snake to foster trust and the idea of something real, think again. He’ll do anything he needs to do to use you for sex or to fill his temporary loneliness or boredom, then he’ll disappear, leaving way too many gringas I know confused and hurt.

And the women aren’t any better. They allow men to use them this way, allow themselves to be pushed around, used for sex, and cheated on. They’re the ones who play coy, telling guys they’re virgins and playing the ‘rule of three’–letting a guy try to kiss you three times before you give in, to show you’re not a slut. If a guy back home tried to kiss me after I already rejected him, I’d slap him in the face and think he was a creep. But it’s all expected here, this tangled, backwards game, this sloppy, uninterpretable dance.

This is a land of poor education, where stereotypes and old wives’ tales abound. You catch colds in weather colder than 80 degrees and should only drink hot beverages when you’re sick. Students aren’t prepared for college by public school, where 85% of English teachers are not proficient in English. Right now the students at the college I teach at are on strike, along with other branches of the same school, because they want cheaper and more plentiful food in the cafeteria, more tax-funded housing and more ‘scholarships’ for expenses other than college (because college is free), just for being poor and in school. There’s no such thing as work-study, teaching assistantships, or research assistantships. God forbid they should work for money to pay for a dime of school-related costs. So they’re spending their time sitting around in tents on campus, wasting their already spotty education.

Because of this vast divide between the haves and the have-nots, status is everything here, and America is king. In the U.S., everyone has iPhones, iPods, and laptops, so no one is impressed by it. Here, people will pay astronomical amounts of money (money they could be spending on school costs…) for an iPhone, and people will be impressed. It’s an entire nation with the mentality of high schoolers. 30-year-olds wear Hollister or Aeropostale (yeah, Aeropostale) clothes they bought for three times the amount they cost in the U.S. It’s not about how you look in the clothes, it’s about what brand is plastered across your chest, if it’s imported from the U.S., if it has English on it, and how much you paid for it. I guess, then, that we’re partially to blame.

I’m becoming uglier in adapting to Brazil. I wordlessly bump into and push past people. I’m doubting my romantic and platonic abilities with both men and women alike. I’ve learned from the ugly looks and stares that it’s strange to approach people at parties. As a girl, the men have to come to you first. If you approach a man, you’re a desperate slut. And girls just stay with the friends they came with. I’m losing my forward attitude. I look at guys and feel disgust and I distrust. As famous as Brazilians are for their warmth, I’ve encountered nothing but a farce when it comes to forging true relationships. Sure, they’re willing to make small talk with strangers on the subway, but they have gates and electric fences around everything they own, and are unwilling to call the police when their neighbor is getting mugged. I’ll take my ‘cold’ country’s silent subway rides any day, if that’s what warmth is.

Not even all the delicious açai and mangoes or sun and beaches can make up for these glaring cultural defects. On this roller coaster of my time abroad, the valleys are abysmal and the peaks are only barely hills. I miss my friends from home that I can tell secrets to and ask advice of and get rip-roaring drunk with. I miss having manners and rules in place that I can choose to break. I miss cheap, accessible clothing and technology. I miss organization and efficiency. I miss trust and believing in people. Books are a sore replacement for human companionship, but here they’re a hell of a lot more profound and reliable.

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Author: monix7

I am a traveler, reader, creator, editor, translator, learner, scholarship-earner, bonfire-burner, mess-maker, climber, faller, beautifier, and many other things, good and bad.

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