Fri 1 Aug 2008
I thought you might be interested in knowing about my experience so far in São Paulo, Brazil. On January 4, about 60 other students from U.S. universities and I arrived in Brazil to begin a semester of study. This semester, organized by CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange), began with a month-long intensive language and culture period, which included Portuguese language and Brazilian culture classes and various cultural activities to introduce us to Brazil. During the week of February 4-8, we had no classes as the Brazilians celebrated Carneval and some, but not all, had vacation days. After these five weeks, 37 of the students headed to Salvador, Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, where they will spend the rest of the semester.
Before I describe some of the other aspects of the experience, I’d like to talk about my host family. My hosts include a mother in her late thirties, Virginia, and her 18-year-old son, Frederico. My host mom is separated, but I am not sure if she and her (former?) husband are divorced. She and Frede have an interesting relationship that sometimes seems to match what it actually is, that between a mother and her teenage son, and at other times seems more like a brother-sister relationship. What I mean by this is that, for example, at times she will call him to do something and he won’t respond. However, at other times, such as when they are watching a program on television at night, they will share a laugh, and just to be funny, he might give her a playful shove, initiating a friendly pillow fight between the two. The two of them have been very helpful to me: my host mother helped me with directions to a couple meeting places in the city for activities we had at the beginning of the semester, and if there is a problem with my computer, Frede is the guy from whom to ask help. These are only a couple of examples, and I could name more; of course, by providing a home (and my host mom washing my clothes each week and providing breakfast and dinner each day), they are doing more than I could ask.
The cultural activities we have had have included visits to a samba school (in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, samba schools compete in a parade each year during Carnaval); to the historical center of São Paulo; to a few museums (an Afro-Brazilian museum; Pinacoteca, a Brazilian art museum; and a Portuguese language museum); and to Parati, a town in Rio de Janeiro. At the samba school of Mocidade Alegre, we got to witness (and participate in) the enthusiasm of paulistanos as they danced the samba and sang the same song about 20 straight times. A couple of the themes that have come up in regard to Brazilian culture have been the question of race (in Brazil, there is great racial diversity and, while some would say racial harmony exists, discrimination, even if not widely discussed, influences the jobs people have, not to mention how each individual thinks and how people of different races treat each other) and that of tradition vs. progress. Another aspect of the culture, exemplified somewhat by Carnaval, is that of the combination (syncretism) between the Catholic and African religions and cultures in general. On one hand, people have an outwardly passionate way of expressing themselves, which I think comes from their African influence (think of the samba dance in Carnaval), but there is also the humility and, at times, seriousness that comes from their Catholic roots (Carnaval comes right before Lent). By the way, I did not attend the São Paulo parade (I waited too long to buy tickets), but I did visit a small town in São Paulo with some other students to see their Carnaval festivities.
Two cultural differences that I see in Brazil are that Brazilians are more affectionate and that the concept of time is much more loose. It is the custom between two females and between a female and male to kiss on the cheek when they see each other. As this is a custom, one may ask whether it is truly a sign of more affection or just a formality. I think it is true that to some extent it is simply a formality, but also I think that it reflects more affection. Also, just by carrying out this custom, I think Brazilians promote more affection in their society. As for the concept of time, when an activity is to start at 2:00, for example, it probably won’t start, or shows signs of starting, until about 2:15. I think that the American values of punctuality and structure in schedules can be good, but I also think that sometimes they result in drawing the focus away from the purpose of the activity and instead onto the schedule. The Brazilian laxness in regard to time can frustrate me at times, but I think it also reflects a greater appreciation for the present moment because often the reason that Brazilians begin or arrive at a scheduled activity late is that they are thoroughly enjoying what they are doing so that starting such an activity on the dot is not that important.
As for the language experience, as all of you know, I am not a very talkative person, so imagine what I am like when I don’t know how to speak the language! At the same time, even though I don’t speak that much, I do want to learn so have communicated with my family (usually my host mom) to practice. The people of São Paulo (to speak generally) are friendly, but there is the hustle and bustle of getting things done that I guess goes along with living in a city, so they may not always appear to care about the presence of people they don’t know (whether Brazilian or foreign). Also, even though São Paulo feels full of life, poverty makes life very difficult for many people, so the experience of people who have to do the same thing day in and day out is probably different from that of a visitor.