An American in Brazil

Posted on May 13, 2016, 10:00 am
27 mins


My junior year of college, I spent a semester in Glasgow, Scotland, where I met three life-long friends: Laura, Juliana and Victor. For a short, blissful time, we shared meals and cooked for each other. It was during that experience that I genuinely understood the meaning of home away from home, and it was a different feeling than I’d had with my American friends. Far away from everything we were used to, the four of us worked to discover what things we had in common. (All of us were used to wearing house shoes, for example. It’s a thing.) The more time we spent time together, the more we would laugh about how similar our Brazilian, Filipino and Indian cultures were. Cultural identity crisis is classic when the first thing you learn in Scotland is the samba.

Two years later, I decided to take the opportunity to finally see my soulmates again—and I got to travel to Brazil to do it. In a country that has countless issues regarding politics, religion, race, etc., Brazil also seems to be getting a lot right.

Business Meets Nightlife in São Paulo

Similar to the US, Brazil’s different states have adopted their own unique cultures. I started my trip in São Paulo, where I spent four days with Laura, a Brazilian who grew up in the state of Goiás (considered the ‘countryside’ in Brazil), moved to Rio with her family when she was fifteen and now works and resides in São Paulo. When I first met the Brazilians, they always joked that she never had a country accent until she started cooking. Right away, my initial expectations of Brazil’s culture began to breakdown as I jumped into my first nightlife experience. At seven o’clock on a Thursday night, the bars were bustling with massive crowds of young, beautiful people who, based on their attire, had come straight from their office to the bars. São Paulo’s heavy concentration of business and banking headquarters—including Bloomberg, Apple, Facebook and many more— has shaped its culture and society. As a result, “Paulistas” (people from São Paulo) are known to be more formal than other Brazilian cities. Their business mindset overlaps into their nightlife, as a bare minimum of dressing up is an expectation for nights out, and they didn’t let the warm weather stop them. I brought one pair of heels to Brazil, which I only wore in São Paulo. Laura told me there was no use in bringing them when I traveled to Rio…

The business environment also allowed for São Paulo to become reputable for international cuisine. With the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan, there were sushi restaurants everywhere. Not only was the sushi excellent, but every venue was as trendy as the young professionals that were taking over the city. With the Latin American culture of eating dinner very late, we went out to dinner one night around 9 pm. To my surprise, it was the busiest around 10:30, as people ate and drank in preparation for a long night out. A club singer sang American pop music with samba-inspired musical accompaniment. I loved the outward necessity of socialization and it’s equal importance to work and academia. The culture created around a business environment also translated into the way they acted socially, in a more positive way than what often happens in the US. In São Paulo, every day was a celebration, even if by formal definition there was not much to celebrate about.

Carnaval and Costumes

Over the weekend, Laura brought me to my first “bloco.” I was going to be in Brazil during “carnaval,” the country’s massive and world famous celebration of Mardi Gras, but little did I know that celebrations began long before the official four days. A bloco is a street party that is iconic to Brazilian carnaval. The biggest celebrations happen in Salvador, a city in the northeast, with Rio and São Paulo not too far behind in terms of celebration sizes. Most parties have a certain theme or title, so costumes can go accordingly. But honestly, if you wear anything relatively festive and throw on some glitter, you would blend right in. Regardless, you could probably find a bloco in most Brazilian cities at this time of year.

We arrived at a Bloco in Pinheiros, where the theme had to do with saying “I do,” so everyone was dressed in some sort of bride attire. Costumes were hilarious and in my opinion quite impressive considering the fact that I could already feel my own makeup melting off. At Pinheiros, I noticed a lot of effort put into costumes from both both genders. Men weren’t afraid of endangering their masculinity by having fun and dressing up, while women didn’t feel as if they were abandoning feminist movements by enhancing their beauty with costumes and makeup. I noticed this in Europe too after spending Halloween there. Coming from someone who has always loved the art and legitimacy of costumes, I’m disappointed year after year in the lack of interest or effort in festive celebrations in the states—especially in Seattle. In a country that has mastered the art of appearing as something they’re not, it’s ironic how terrible we are at dressing up, whether that be in costume or simply differentiating what we wear to work from what we wear to sleep.

We attended several blocos all over São Paulo, including one that primarily played pagode music. Pagode music is similar to pop music and is classified as a sort of samba genre. So naturally, the vast majority at this particular party would casually do the samba to the rhythm of the live pagode band while catching up with friends. It was such a beautiful thing to see young people collectively taking part in an artistic tradition that is old and iconic of Brazil.

Rhythm is a Dancer

During my whole trip, dancing proved to be very telling of the societal culture in Brazil. Samba, for example, is a very form driven dance. There are basic steps that you must learn in order to master and develop into your own interpretation. But samba, like many Latin American dance styles, is very rooted in rapid and expressive body movements, especially in the hips. To put it less technically: Samba is sexy. Samba looks best on those who are confident and passionate, two attributes common to many latin cultures.

In addition to samba, you have the dancing that accompanies Brazilian funk, which originated in the Rio favelas (slums) years ago as a reaction to the American funk phase. Brazilian funk is a genre of music in Brazil that is best analogous to American hip-hop, in that it’s expression born out of oppression and hard hitting beats. Apparently, whenever Snoop Dogg spends time in Rio, he stays in the favelas. The distinctive beat of Brazilian funk leads to hard hip movements and an emphasis on the female derrière. Again, in less technical terms, this was a part of the origin of ‘twerking,’ in partnership with even older dancing traditions of the Afro-Brazilian culture.

One of the many stereotypes of Brazil that I had heard so many times—either passively communicated through media portrayals or from people I spoke with—was the open sexuality of the country. I definitely felt like people were more open about sexual expression, but to me it was more that people were more in tune with their humanity, and were more willing to embrace their own femininity/masculinity. There’s a stigma in a lot of the Western world that has resulted in high sensitivity and restricted exposure—but that’s a whole conversation in itself. For me, the openness I experienced in Brazil and other countries I’ve visited suggests an understanding of the self that’s both freeing and liberating. Interestingly, when talking to Brazilians about North and South American differences, something they always brought up was dancing. It was brought to my awareness that in a country that virtually has no singular dance or style that everyone in the country is unified by, the result is over-sexualized movements that can barely pass as “dancing” in any other country in the world—it can at times end up being more inappropriate and objectifying than a lot of the South American dance traditions. Obviously, a generalization that every Brazilian is an amazing dancing is absurd. But the importance they place on dancing says a lot about how they develop generally, in terms of social skills and self expression. This then translates into their social settings from a big picture standpoint. Dancing in the Brazilian culture taught a deeper lesson of learning how to be comfortable with your body, and expression in general. Confrontation is not something Brazilians seem to struggle with, and that I admired.

Her Name is Rio

After five days in São Paulo, I traveled to Rio where I met my friend Victor, a full blooded Carioca (someone from Rio). Victor lives in the Rio neighborhood of Leblon, just two blocks away from the beach. Differences between São Paulo and Rio hit me instantaneously: I learned the hard way that you kiss both cheeks upon greeting someone in Rio (its only one cheek in São Paulo FYI), Havaianas were a closet staple to all Cariocas, general attire was much more casual and the accent was hilariously different. Even when I spent time with my friends in Scotland, I remember picking up on sounds that Victor made that Laura and Juliana—who was also from São Paulo—didn’t.

I spent the first days in Rio enjoying the beach. We swam in Leblon where we spent time catching up from the past two years. We then walked down the beach until we crossed into the Ipanema neighborhood *cue Girl From Ipanema stuck in my head until the end of time* and then arrived at Arpoador, which is a jutted rock peninsula between Ipanema and Copacabana. Stunning and sublime.

While making our way back, I noticed a massive crowd gathering on the beach, while many people threw flowers into the ocean. Victor explained that it happened to be the day of Iemanjá, a goddess of the Candomblé religion. Candomblé is a religion that originated among West African slaves that were brought to Brazil by the Portuguese. With creole influence, Candomblé included the worship of several gods and goddesses, including Iemanjá who was the “Queen of the Sea.” Her attributes strongly connote feminism as well as maternity, proving her to be a strong motherly figure. As the slaves were not allowed to practice their religion under the reign of a heavily Catholic Portuguese presence, the only way they could safely worship her was to create images of her that closely resembled the Virgin Mary. Victor explained this all to me, with a strong but unspoken acknowledgment that this history is a part of every Brazilian. The result was this hauntingly beautiful image of a Mother Mary figure, but with African ethnicity.

Candomblé is still practiced by some, but not the majority, as Brazil is still very strongly Christian. So I was surprised to see so many people gathered on the beach to celebrate this day. Victor explained how it didn’t matter if you were Catholic or Atheist; all that mattered was that the people gathered on the beach were Brazilian and shared the same Brazilian history, whether their skin color was indicative of their strong European, African or Hispanic descent. The practice of the tradition was more about the expression of Brazilian identity than religion. In addition, many people who may identify as one religious title had the flexibility and open-mindedness to appreciate and meditate upon something from another religious practice. People often get caught up in the political correctness of everything, that they forget to acknowledge what different faiths have in common. The ability to identify mirrored concepts in totally different practices is a truly beautiful thing. To witness this was not only touching, but in a way it was slightly heartbreaking to think that something like this could not happen in the states the way it did in Brazil. For a couple hours on a few days a year, people are able to overlook petty, oversensitive things in order to appreciate bigger representations. I thought about the shallowness of “Happy Holidays” in the states and resisted the urge to jump off the boardwalk.

History, Family and a Healthy Dose of Culture Shock

I kept feeling like I was visiting a weird sort of alternate reality, and in a way, I was. Victor and I spent hours talking about how North and South American history share a lot of similarities, on the surface. We laughed as we realized that in both Brazil and the US, the further east you go the less structured the borders of the states are, since original settlement borders left by the first colonial arrivals never really changed. But the differences in the English and the Portuguese obviously differed in ways so strong that they are still present in the ways both cultures developed over time. We talked about Dom John VI, the Portuguese King who was the first royal to come to Brazil. Dom John VI actually came to Brazil in flight of Napoleon Bonaparte. He had no intention of staying, but rather was scared and needed refuge. It’s no surprise that to many Brazilians, Dom John VI is remembered as a coward—he is a literal joke to the Brazilian people.

I had a quick daydream about Donald Trump. Dom John’s son, Pedro I, came to love Brazil and in turn was loved by the Brazilian people. When it was once again safe to return to Portugal, Pedro declared that he wanted to stay in Brazil. So when I asked Victor when their Independence Day was, he was not really sure. Instead, he said that one of the most celebrated political days in Brazil is Dia do Fico, which translates from Portuguese as the “I’ll Stay Day.” Even in their initial history of a conquered people, Brazil is fully aware of their completely muddled cultural background—they sought leadership from someone born in the country of their original captors.

The issue of cultural identity was a major factor to me, in terms of social behavior in Brazil. My mother grew up in the Philippines and knows four different dialects. She met my father in Saudi Arabia after she moved there to be a nurse during the Gulf War. My father was from India and spoke several Indian dialects, but he had impeccable English because he studied at an Irish boarding school in the mountainous parts of India. He was able to communicate well since the company he worked for was in fact American (Are you confused yet?) To top it off, they both knew a lot of Arabic from their time in Saudi Arabia.

Growing up in Seattle, we initially lived in a neighborhood right by the original Microsoft campus, where nearly 90% of us were newly immigrated families. My friends growing up were French, Italian, Japanese, New Zealand Kiwis, Indian, Filipino and Korean. It wasn’t until I moved to a Catholic school that was predominantly white and consisted of a lot of families who’d been in the states since what seems like the Mayflower that I realized I was, in fact, the minority. I spent a lot of my young years in cultural confusion. When I went to Brazil, I found solace in finding people like me who have ethnic backgrounds to throw them into cultural panic. But to my surprise, no one I talked to seemed to lose much sleep over it. I would talk to beautiful people with perfectly brown skin, light curly hair and big, almond shaped green eyes and wonder, “How were you created and how can I do it?” But they could not be bothered with knowing every part of their background; they simply identified as Brazilian. I was jealous of the freedom they had from an overdeveloped need to self-identify.

When I met the Brazilians in Scotland, bonds were instantaneous—not only because in an ironically weird way, foreigners are familiar to me, but also because historically, my ancestors were conquered by the same countries. Thus, the cultural similarities were uncanny: Same dishes with different names, similar words in Portuguese and Tagalog (the national Filipino dialect), random expressions and even the way we were brought up. Families elsewhere function with a warmth that I often miss in the US—most especially Seattle. It became clear to me why so many social settings in the US felt as if they were going against what was natural. There are a lot of countries in the world that thrive on hospitality– ironically enough, a lot of these said countries also get a significant amount of Vitamin D. The manner of hosting a guest is something that becomes so deeply rooted in the development of a person that it begins to show merely in the way they generally treat other people. I loved that we could go to parties and not feel bad about turning guys away. It was empowering and made me not resent being a woman. Not to say that there are not issues with feminism in Brazil, because that is in fact a hot topic at the moment, but the trouble there is not as rooted in an incapability of communication as it is here.

It’s fascinating and exhausting to pick apart everything that goes into the development of a social climate. The celebration of carnival in Rio was a heightened experience of Brazil, with the population of Rio doubling or tripling to some absurd number. I was so flattered when people would come up to me and speak Portuguese right away. And I was endlessly fascinated by stories of how states differed in terms of food and accents. A country so rich in culture with the subtle distinction that they chose to hold on to it for as long as they could. Of course Western influence was everywhere, as it is in many countries. But to my satisfaction, nights out were soundtracked with primarily Brazilian music and the occasional American top 40 every now and again. On my last night, we stayed out until 7:30am. We danced to songs that I could only semi sing along to, right along with favorite hits. The constant celebration revived me; it was a celebration of culture and history and just generally being alive. I even started to wear more color…

Brazil is in a time of political unrest and major economic downturn, and people are struggling, a lot. The state of public hospitals is abhorrent in the face of millions of dollars being allocated to the preparation of the Olympic games—something not one Brazilian is excited about. Yet, their general attitude of perseverance and hope was inspiring. The humidity and fresh food had me feeling healthy and fit. But I also somehow gained a sort of moral health that I think is often lost in a social setting suffocated by things that may be insignificant in the long run. Hopefully, cities like Seattle can eventually reach their highest potential and nurture social settings that encourage people to grow mentally, intellectually and emotionally.