Two Years in Brazil

Well, it’s been exactly two years ago that I came to Brazil with my husband and we got my residence process started. I only say, I haven’t been bored. Last year I wrote this about my initial stages of the journey. At the time I was waiting for the documents to arrive so I could travel to see my relatives.

I have a lot more to say now, and I can understand Portuguese much better. Some things have remained the same and some things have changed. Thank God we are out of the family home. I am still waiting for the honeymoon, and we are still out of tune with each other, Brasil and I.

Brazil- 2012

His arms sweep through the air and his hands gesture emphatically, as he announces “after hours on the phone, I am standing here as your husband, telling you that your lasse passé has arrived, you are officially free to leave Brazil. Let’s book the tickets. You will be in Europe in three days.”

He is proud of himself and a wave of relief washes over me and the niggling anxiety I have been carrying around for the better part of two months slowly abates until I realize the reality of booking airplane tickets at the last minute.

My lovely, well intentioned husband wonders why I am not sweeping my arms through the air and shouting enthusiastic jubilations at the joy of being allowed to go to Europe.
I love him. He is trying so incredibly hard. He keeps trying to make Canadian promises in a Brazilian context.

I cannot complain. I have had the advantage of his “Brazilian-ness” for the better part of a year now. It is the Brazilian-ness that made him get on a plane and fly all the way around the world to be with me. Five months later it is the same thing that keeps him awake late at night, and urges him to wake me on my sickbed with pneumonia, heavily drugged and desperate for sleep, to ask me to marry him. I am destined to always be the one who says, “Of course I will marry you, but can’t you ask me at a more appropriate time?”

It is also the passionate emotional person who traveled back and forth between Canada and Brazil in order to spend the most amount of time with my mother before she died. The same person who had the foresight and sanity to keep making last minute extensions to our honeymoon plans in order to bring home a sane, emotionally balanced and well rested daughter– not the hysterical one he had to suffer through for three weeks. Take it from me, you don’t ever want to move to a foreign country in such emotionally turbulent times.

Yes, Brazilians are emotional and passionate. I feel like the soul crusher, and he is desperately trying to show me a world in which we can place our dreams. I really wanted to come to Brazil. I was, with all my heart, looking forward to coming to a new place, to start my life with my husband.

But Brazil and I are just out of tune with each other.

To be fair, it is not exactly Brazil’s fault. It was supposed to be a grand adventure. As it happened, moving to a new country, the death of a parent, getting married and moving in with your husband’s entire immediate family turned out to be less of a grand adventure and more of a grand folly. When we came to Brazil the first time, it was for a visit, so when we stayed at his grandmother’s house, I thought it was sweet, and knew we were going back to Canada. But when we arrived again permanently, and the realization that we were going to be living with them sunk in, is where my problems all began with Brazil.

I feel I have entered a labyrinth, that is very small and constricting, and the turns I need to take to maneuver through it are small and short, very hard for an independent Canadian used to wide open spaces- psychologically speaking. “Como faço para sair deste lugar?” How do I get out of this?

Our plans, to put it lightly have all gone out the window. I can put my cute little Canadian pen to paper and make as many lists and plans as possible, but in the Brazilian context, they are nothing but wishful thinking, until the very last second when everything will work out. I have been planning our trip to Europe for months. I have a neat and tidy little plan, a document that I’ve been sticking faithfully too. I am always a bit shocked and hurt when my husband mocks me for making plans with my friends well in advance of an event.

I admit, with a bit of injured pride and the disappointment of a dream that hasn’t quite gone as planned, that among the steps of culture shock, I never had a honeymoon phase with Brazil.

In fact, the first time we left Brazil to go back to Canada I remember sitting in an airport with tears rolling uncontrollably down my face, turning to my husband and saying, “I never want to come back to this place again”.

Expressing it only made me cry harder because I knew I had injured his feelings. I knew of course several minutes later I had to apologize.

My husband repeats a phrase a lot these days which is “It’s my fault.” and I am repeating “I’m sorry” far more often than ever these days. We are in a sort of a situation right now.

The situations keep demanding, “aumentar a tensão!!!” Increase the tension.

Here is where the creative tension starts to increase. The torque, the moment of force where things turn on their access, I can see this moment in time, the one I am transitioning through. My past experiences tell me that this great transition will change me, for the rest of my life. I know there is a place of static equilibrium in my future, and the tension is created by the transculturation that is occurring. I am not going through a process of complete acculturation, by taking my husband’s Brazilian (and sub-cultures) culture as my own, and I am not going through a complete deculturation by leaving behind my Canadian (and sub-cultures) culture, rather going through a process in which together we create our own culture. If I were labeling it, it would be a Brazilian-Canadian-Italian-Swedish-Lebanese-British culture. Our highest commonality in terms of identity is that we both hold Canadian passports, and soon we will both hold Brazilian passports. Here is where the tension seems to be, is the place that I am interceding in the system, like so many other immigrants before me.

I am a third generation Canadian, so my family and I are fully assimilated into the Canadian culture. Little remains of our Swedish culture. On occasion my husband will remark about my colder, analytical and more organized culture. My husband is also a third generation of immigrants, though his Italian and Lebanese culture is much more evident. He is expressive to a tee. I do not, and I don’t think I will ever understand the nuances, or the psyche behind his Italian family.

Coming from Canada, and being familiar with the effects of colonization, I am acutely aware of my deliberate choice to enter a system as a foreigner. I am interceding in a national system, in fact successfully obtaining residency and the right to live and be a part of the society. So too am I interceding in society and the class system here in Brazil, something very different from my Canadian culture.

I am aware that when I am fully able to function in society, I will begin participating in the economic system, in the greater community. When we implement our farming system, we will be intersecting in the agricultural system and influencing food systems. Because I have awareness about the effects of colonization, I don’t want to repeat destructive patterns that were carried out in the past history of the Americas. I cannot change anything my ancestors have done, but I can be conscious about my actions here in the present time. Sometimes however, when I want to tell my Brazilian husband to get his shit together and follow my plan, I am acutely aware that imposing my “order” on his system is not all that copasetic. When I ask if the hotel is booked and he says yes, and I invariably find myself sitting in the car outside the hotel frantically searching websites to make a booking, I have to take a moment and pause.

It always seems my real work is to surrender. I rally against discord, disorganization and dissonance- only to come to the same conclusion: Surrender. Often what my expectations are, do not match up with reality. Here in Brazil, I must surrender. Immersed in chaos the response cannot be order, the response can only be, go with it.

The creative tension is intense here, and I just get a small glimpse into a cultural norm that has been emerging lately for me, a Brazilian ethos or mores ascribed to “Gerson’s Law”, the act of taking advantage of a situation for personal gain. It is the concept of being “smart” by using “connections” and “pulling strings” to get something done.
Associated with this is the “Jeitinho Brasileiro”, a person who uses this behaves in a manner that allows him to come up with a creative way to solve a problem or outsmart someone, in order to gain advantage and get what you want, even at the expense of others. It’s somewhat sneaky, although I’ve seen it described as “creative”.

The two concepts seem similar to me although I am still learning there are nuances. In part I cannot criticize this behavior as in fact, my husband has used this in many circumstances that have come out in our favor. Until I learned this I just thought my husband was incredibly rude and I felt extremely uncomfortable in the situations as we were going through them. I can understand why people use this behavior. The country is a nightmare for bureaucracy without meaning, and change is hard to make without coming through some sort of creative channel.

Brazilians never say no, I am told. But the actions in many situations are “no” actions. I say no all the time, they must think I am incredibly rude. I don’t doubt that they think I am cold because I almost never make small talk. I want communication to be quick and efficient. I never watch the Novellas and I never want to talk about them.

When I arrived, my whole system was overwhelmed with an information overload, experiencing a new language, a new family, new food. I went through a very methodical, clinical case of transition shock. I feel as though I may still be there, in this place. Excessive concern over cleanliness? Check, and please remove eggs, cheese, milk and fish and anything pickled from my diet. Feelings of helplessness? Oh yes. Physiological stress reactions? Well, every time I approach the cashier in the grocery store I get a hot flash, I feel as though I am going to pass out and I begin to sweat. My heart races and I feel a constriction come across my chest. Why? Because she might ask me if I have the right change, if I want a boy to bring the groceries to the car, do I want anything else? And I might not know what to say except, “Eu não falo português.”

My husband bears the brunt of this stress as I take my frustrations out on him. I hate it here. I hate the food. I hate the stores. I hate the family. I hate the way people talk to each other. I hate everything about this place. I hate the way they drive. I hate learning Portuguese. I don’t want to make friends. I don’t want to talk to people. I have no support system. I can’t do anything myself.

On the journey through tension I am in a place of reacting and it leaves little time for any creative thinking. It is never more evident here than our housing situation. I am desperate to have my own space. It was hard enough to merge my life with my husbands after being independent for the better part of my life, but merging my life with his family was the last thing I wanted to do.

We end up spinning in circles, desperate for a solution to our housing crisis.

My husband is going through the reverse process of culture shock. He has been away for the better part of twenty years. Coming home occasionally, but not permanently, and definitely not with a wife and intentions of staying put in Brazil. His process in fact is much more emotional and intense. He speaks the language but people don’t always understand him, and he uses words that are from the time he left Brazil. He is frustrated and angry in much the same way I am.
I did what any self-respecting, organized Canadian would do and I went through my list of friends and identified a few who could give me some advice on integrating into a new country. My dear friends sent wonderful suggestions to help with the integration process.

Then came the discussion about attitude. I was on the phone with my dear friend in Japan and I was telling her about my bad attitude, the dislike of most things Brazilian. Somehow by talking it through I came to acknowledge that my bad attitude was in fact making the situation worse. That I was only harming myself by continuing to see things in such a negative light, that it didn’t matter what was going on for me, I would have to just grow up and get over my emotional problems and deal with the situation. No one was going to save me or fix the situation for me.

The moment just before this was the moment when the tension compounded and compressed everything so tightly, and changing my attitude released the tension so that it began to fall apart.

The creative solution began to spontaneously emerge. Not long after a language break-through arrived.
It was a Saturday and we were visiting a friend and once again going over house plans, trying to find ways to get things done. I was sitting quietly, not speaking much and thinking that this was going to be yet another afternoon wasted, spent chatting away and getting no real work done. All of a sudden we were being whisked off to his farm to see the house his parents built. I remember getting in the car, elated, thinking “finally, some action”. We arrived to the farm, embers from a fire were glowing in the yard, the stars were coming out and two little old people poked heads out the front door.

Something happened. An internal switch, the language light came on. I wanted to talk to them and we wandered around the yard and the house and we talked all night. About the cinnamon tree, the Angola chickens, about the bitter pith in an orange, about being neighbors.

Everything happened. It seemed the situation was a turning point for me. A major unlearning in the language barriers for me was to be really interested in the subjects. Of course, that made sense then. I know all kinds of words for food, cooking and taste. I know plants, vegetables and fruit.

Social responses are not my strong suit. I sat and read ten pages of the medicinal plant book out loud to Sergio one night and could understand everything. Complex words and ideas like adaptogen and vassodialation, contraindication and all the plant names.

But finding the things I can talk about and making the language connection had to happen hand in hand before I felt comfortable in the other realms. It didn’t just stop there, and I was able to make it to Sao Paulo and stay with a woman who didn’t speak English, and we communicated very well. So then the momentum builds, the tension winds up and is then released.

This is a very complex place, I underestimated it.

Actually, I am glad Brazil and I never had a honeymoon phase. Too much honeymoon makes for a bad marriage. I will wait until after all the shock is over, and the language sorts itself out, and we are happily ensconced on the farm. I would rather go through all the hating and growing pains now and then get to the falling in love part. Then, I am sure Brazil and I can be in tune with each other.

2 thoughts on “Two Years in Brazil

  1. Wow. I was captivated by your words! I can relate to so, so much of what you wrote. When I lived in Brazil for 2.5 months as a pregnant married person living with my in-laws, I totally experienced a lot of the same feelings you did. I hope things are going better now? Have you fallen in love with Brazil yet? Glad you have your own place now. I can’t wait to hear more about this farm idea. Looking forward to talking with you 🙂

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