Five Things I’ve Learned in Brazil

The past few months in the United States has given me some time to reflect on my experiences in Brazil over the last year. When I talk to friends about my time there, the reactions range from “That must be so cool!” to “Um, you don’t really sound like you like it.” 

While I sometimes make from of Brazil as much as New Yorkers make fun of New Jersey, it’s with a sense of endearment. There are many things I don’t understand, but instead of writing it off, I find myself drawn back there, much like poking at a bruise. It presses buttons in me, and while that can drive me crazy, it’s also proven to be the most powerful way to see the struggles and obstacles I put in place for myself, in my mind.  In a way, I want to understand Brazil so I can understand the parts of myself that I struggle to see.

Here are some things I’ve learned.

1. Time is flexible.

I’ve been working from home for six years. And yet I still work roughly the same hours every day. Office hours. The same hours I worked when I commuted to work.

Over the past few months, the process of applying for my visa and, basically, dealing with anything else in Brazil, taught me to value my time very differently. In Brazil, a given task can take anywhere from five minutes to five hours, which makes it very hard to plan out your day. As someone who thrives on lists and schedules, this proved to be particularly challenging.

After quite a few arguments about it with Gustavo, he consistently reminded me that time isn’t something you can control. Instead, when someone is late, see it as an opportunity to do something else. Rather than feeling like you’ve lost time, you’ve gained an unexpected moment where you can read, finish a task at work, or complete an errand.

It’s still annoying 95% of the time, but I like looking at time as a gift. When something doesn’t go according to plan, adapt, don’t fight it.

2. Small talk isn’t so small.

Small talk makes me nervous. I never know what to talk about and it always seems so painfully boring. After a few minutes, I tend to get quiet, my mind goes blank, and I, quite literally, cannot think of what else to say. When people ask me, “Why are you quiet?” it’s hard to not respond with “Because I have no idea what else to say to you and I’m currently going through a rolodex of acceptable topics in my mind.”

In the US, I can generally get away with this. People who don’t enjoy small talk can typically respond with a quiet, “Please leave me alone” smile, or hide in their phones while waiting anywhere in a public place. In Brazil, even when it’s obvious that I’ve 100% lost my place in the conversation, people will just continue to speak. And it’s terrifying.

Yet small talk, in most places, and especially Brazil, is how people get to know each other. I’ve often been amazed by how Brazilians are simultaneously extremely friendly, and extremely distrustful. You can have an hour long conversation about your family over a beer with someone, but it doesn’t mean anything until you’ve gathered enough information, and shared experience, to determine if that person is actually a friend. In which case, they will likely be a very close friend, for a very long time.

Because I struggle so much with small talk, I’ve struggled to make more substantial friendships. How can anyone tell if it’s worth spending time with me if they can’t get the shortened, TL;DR version? As my Portuguese vocabulary advances, I also find myself adopting a different persona: the person who asks questions, just for the sake of knowing, just for the sake of seeing where a conversation goes.

3. Gratitude.

At my company meetup this year, I gave a talk to a very small room about Brazil as a metaphor for playing video games on hard mode, and the US being easy mode. It’s the best way I’ve found to describe why I get so easily frustrated by life in Brazil.

Coming from the US, I have expectations for how things work. There are rules, there are requirements, there are schedules, and there are services. If you follow the rules, pay the fees, provide the necessary, you will get what you need. It’s a linear process.

In Brazil, the process is conversational. It’s circular. You find some information, you talk to someone, you get more information. You bring the needed paperwork, you have some things you don’t need and you’re missing others. You talk to someone else. You pay some fees. You get more information. And then, in the end, it all works out — either because you finally got everything you needed, or because someone was willing to work with you, or because you found a different way to do it.

It takes so much more time to do things this way!

During my visa application process, I seemed to be the only one complaining about how long things took and how much of the process of was duplicated over and over. In the grocery store, I would find half of what I needed, and then go to the other grocery store to get the rest (and maybe one more if I was really unlucky that week). At the bank, I had my boletos in hand and wondered why PayPal wasn’t really more of a thing and who even goes to the bank any more?

Switching from easy mode to hard mode is a culture shock. Switching back from hard mode to easy makes everything magical. I never knew how much gratitude I had for Amazon Prime and Shop Rite and even the DMV until I came back from Brazil. We’ve got it good here.

4. If at first you don’t succeed, try until you do.

Related to the circular/non-linear process of so many things in Brazil, I noticed a shift in myself over time. I’m not one to shy away from hard work, but I’ve always believed that if something doesn’t work out the first two, three, and maybe four times, it’s just not meant to be.

The more I watched Gustavo navigate Brazil, the more I realized that something not working as planned isn’t necessarily an indication that it won’t happen or that you’ve done something wrong. Instead, you’re just going about it the wrong way. Ask someone else. Try a different method.

This philosophy started to infiltrate other parts of my life. At work, if something didn’t go as planned, I didn’t beat myself up for it. Instead, I tried again. I tried someone else. I tried a different way. “No” doesn’t mean never. It just means “not right now” or “not this way.”

5. You’re in charge of where you belong. 

Sometimes it’s hard to know where you fit in. As a kid, I never liked where I lived and blamed it on South Jersey being boring, small, and suburban. As I grew older, I still never liked where I lived — the common denominator being, of course, my self.

As a foreigner in a country that doesn’t get nearly as many immigrants as the US, I’ve struggled. I can recognize the cultural differences as just that, cultural differences. But when it comes to how I relate to people, whether that’s a cashier at the grocery store or a friend of a friend, I’m finding a block in understanding how I need to relate differently. All of this leads into my favorite habitual thinking of “well, I just don’t belong here.”

It’s hard to power through, and yet I’ve started to realize one thing: I’m the only person who can make myself belong. Brazil isn’t going to adapt to me — and why should it? That doesn’t mean I need to change who I am, but it is up to me to make my presence known, to explain my differences, and to learn from the differences of others. I will never belong but I will always have the capacity to find myself at home.

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