When I first came to Brazil in 2011, I was an arrogant kid who knew everything and I made sure everyone knew it. With time I’ve come to realize just how little I know about anything, thanks in a large part to the positive influence of the people around me.
I came to Brazil due in part to a long held fascination with how Brazilians lived. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was just something special about the Brazilian people I had met. It seemed to me as if Brazilians had figured out some secret about life that was missing in the US.
Over the past three years of living and traveling through Brazil, I’ve sought to immerse myself in Brazilian life in an attempt to figure out what makes Brazil so special. In this time I’ve gone through an intense transformative process, whereby I shed my American self and attempted to develop a Brazilian persona. Many positive changes have occurred as a result, and I give credit to the culture I was surrounded by for catalyzing these changes.
A few days ago I turned 24, and in this moment of reflection I’d like to share some lessons I’ve learned during my time in Brazil.
1. Confidence leads to better communication
When I first started learning Portuguese I had a hard time being understood by people. Even though I could construct intelligent sentences people didn’t understand me because I was insecure about my use of the language. I spoke softly, without much emotion or conviction, which made it hard for people to understand me. My friends had patience and understood me, but I was always frustrated when I talked with strangers. It didn’t make sense that they couldn’t understand what I was saying, even when it was the same thing I had just said to my friends.
The funny thing is that once I started becoming more confident when I spoke, people started understanding me better. Even though I made mistakes and had a strong accent, people understood me. The only thing that changed was my belief that they would, and should understand me.
2. You can’t become fluent in a language without becoming like the people who speak it
People often ask me how I learned Portuguese so quickly. The simple answer is because my goal was to one day convince people I was Brazilian. Learning Portuguese was made easier because of my connection with Brazilian culture.
Knowing Portuguese pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary wasn’t enough to convince people I was Brazilian when I spoke. I had to stop translating from my American brain and start speaking from my Brazilian heart before people started thinking I was Brazilian.
Most language schools ignore the human element and teach languages the same way they would teach geometry. Learning a language should be less about knowing words and rules and should be more about knowing people and culture.
3. Brazilian Portuguese isn’t a language: it’s music
I found Portuguese an easy language to learn because of how musical it is. One strategy I used when learning Portuguese was to learn it the same way I would learn the lyrics to a song. Whenever I heard a word I wanted to remember, I would repeat it out loud and try to match the way I had just heard it spoken.
After 2 months in Brazil my level of Portuguese was higher than the Spanish I had after 5 years of study in high school as a result of this strategy.
4. God is in the details
Brazilians taught me that I can show my friends I care about them by paying attention to detail. I’m often surprised at specific that people remember about conversations we had 2 years ago. Or they engage me about something I posted on Facebook recently. Or that people go out of their way to prepare a vegetarian dish when they invite me to a party at their house. Little things often matter more than the big things.
5. Steer conversations away from controversy
Brazilians taught me that it is best to avoid controversy. If the conversation heads towards controversial topics like politics or religion, I should change the subject. Brazilians taught me to look for common ground when making new friends, instead of looking for reasons to divide us.
The only time I’ve talked about politics with Brazilians are times when I forced a conversation about politics or I was at a political event. Coming from a country where people often form their identity around their politics, it’s nice to know that in Brazil I can meet people without being forced into an ‘us vs them’ dynamic.
6. Enjoy this moment
Once during the first month I was in Brazil, I was hanging out with some friends at a boteco, I got distracted and I pulled out my cell phone. I wasn’t on the phone for more than a few seconds before someone shamed me for being antisocial, and I put the phone away.
Other times I’ve left a conversation and stared off into space to think about an idea I just had for a blog post. Usually when this happens someone snaps their fingers and brings me back to reality.
Brazilians taught me that living in the present moment means that you focus your attention on what is happening in that moment, not on the past, future or what is going on in facebooklândia. They showed me that when you’re with your friends, you should be with your friends.
7. Enjoy the journey
Brazil is often portrayed as an unserious country because of how long it takes to get things done here. I disagree with the notion that Brazilians aren’t serious people; they just prioritize things differently than the rest of the world. In my experience Brazilians take their overall life satisfaction very seriously and prioritize a healthy work-life balance. It might take them a little longer to get somewhere, but when they get there they’ll be able to look back and say, “That was one heck of a ride.”
8. Care more about people
The way I converse has changed after meeting thousands of Brazilians and adapting to their style of communication. I learned that I should approach new relationships by being genuinely curious and interested in learning more about the other person.
At first I thought it was strange that Brazilians wanted to know my life story after I had just met them. Now I find it strange that I can talk to some Americans for an hour without them even asking what my name is.
9. Know when to be direct and indirect
From Brazilian men I learned that it pays to be more direct with my intentions when talking to females. When it comes to business negotiations, giving feedback, sharing negative information, or any situation in which someone’s feelings are involved, it’s better to be indirect. It took me a while to learn that if I wanted the same results I’d get back home, I’d have to approach situations at a different pace than I would in the US.
10. There’s always a creative solution to be found in difficult situations
Brazilians are very creative when it comes to finding solutions to complex problems. Since there is so much bureaucracy and inefficiency in Brazil, sometimes the only way to get something done is to look outside official channels. Some look at the jeitinho brasileiro as a negative institution in Brazilian society, but I don’t see how you can get anything done in Brazil without having an open mind when solving problems.
11. Don’t talk about why your country sucks
Some Brazilians suffer from what’s known as the complexo de vira-lata (mongrel complex), which means that they feel inferior to the rest of the world and must tell everyone why. After being sucked into dozens of conversations with these people and after reading hundreds of comments left on my Youtube videos by them, I’m pretty annoyed with the whole thing.
I’m not saying you have to love your country, I’m just saying that you should refrain from telling foreigners why you hate your place of birth. Whenever someone tells my why Brazil sucks, all I hear them say is “I’m a weak minded fool and I’m going to poison you with my negativity.”
I used to be guilty of this myself. I thought that the US was the worst country in the world and would tell everybody I met why I felt that way. While I have my criticisms of the US political system, I don’t see how getting drunk and complaining is going to make the world better. If I see a problem in the world I’ll either work on solving it, support someone else who is dedicated to solving it, or I’ll put it out of my mind until I’m able to do something about it.
12. Don’t waste your time with negative people
When some Brazilians meet an American they see this as an opportunity to complain about their country, American foreign policy, or whatever issue is on their mind. I used to indulge these types of conversations, but now I’ll quickly change the subject. If they persist then I’ll just turn around and walk away. I’ve found that negative people reliably attract negativity in to their lives, and the more time that I spend around these people the more I’m inviting negativity into my life. Why wouldn’t you attract positive forces into your life?
13. A fearful mind will see a snake on the path where only a stick lies
If you ask enough Brazilians to map out areas of the country that are unsafe to visit, it wouldn’t take long before you’ve covered all of Brazil. While living in Brazil – or any country for that matter – comes with it’s risks, it’s not as dangerous as most people would lead you to believe. People give too much power to their fears and color their experience negatively when they could just as easily have a positive experience. Life is a lot easier when you look at strangers as potential allies instead of potential threats.
14. Heaven and Hell Are States of Mind
I used to think that it was hell to live in the US and that any other place would be better. Many Brazilians think that living in Brazil is hell and that all of their problems would be solved if they moved to the US.
How can two people be in the same place and have such different experiences?
It all comes down to your attitude. You can’t control what happens to you in life but you can choose how you respond to it. You can choose to be overwhelmed by the obstacles you face or you can choose to rise beyond them.
15. Be nice to your future self
When I was younger I was invincible and nothing could possibly harm me. I did things without regard for how they might affect my life later down the line. Now that I’m older the bill has started to come in for decisions I made in the past.
I own all of the choices that I’ve made in my life and am at peace with where I am. That being said, I’m much careful today about making choices that are in line with my values and will expand future possibilities.
16. Normal is a relative term
It’s always interesting for me to see the way that foreigners act after they’ve just arrived in Brazil. Some find it strange that Brazilians party in the streets, that you can drink in public, and that police will only talk to you if you commit a serious crime. On the other hand, Brazilians would find some American habits strange, like eating pizza with your hands, or ordering food and drinks individually when out at a bar with friends.
No matter what you do, somebody is going to think it’s strange. It’s can be useful to know the effect you’re having on people around you, but if you care too much about what people think then you can end up hurting yourself.
17. Love your body
The first time I walked down the beach in Rio de Janeiro and saw overweight women and hairy old guys wearing almost no clothing, I was confused. It seemed to me like they had no business being so confident about their bodies.
Brazilians taught me how to be more comfortable with myself. If people want to look at you, let them, but don’t let it effect your self esteem.
And let’s be honest here, it just makes more sense to wear a speedo at the beach than board shorts.
18. Life is better when shared
While I enjoy spending time by myself, living in Brazil has pushed me to be more social than I was when I first moved here.
The most fun I’ve had over the last few years were experiences that were shared with my friends. Memories like riding a boat down the Amazon River, filming Gringo Style and hosting Real Life English parties stand out because I was doing these things with good friends.
19. You get what you give
Brazilians taught me to seek out more ways that I can give, instead of ways that I can get. I’ve found Brazilians to be extremely generous with their time, even to complete strangers. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been lost and someone has gone out of their way to guide me to where I’m going.
20. Include everybody
Brazilians taught me that you should do your best to make everyone feel included. If a person walks up to a group of people standing in a circle, the group should open up to include the newcomer. If someone isn’t saying very much then I should ask that person a question to get them more involved. If the conversation drifts towards something obscure, I might apologize for talking about something that excludes others and bring the conversation back to something that everyone can talk about.
21. Appearances matter
Brazilians spend a lot of time on their appearances because they want to be treated a certain way. If you dress for success, people will treat you like you’re successful. If you dress like a slob, people will treat you like a slob.
22. Call your mother more
I used to think it was weird that Brazilians call their parents several times a day. Coming from a culture that values independence it seemed strange to me that Brazilians couldn’t do anything without letting their parents know about it. When I came to Brazil I only called my parents once every couple of weeks. Now I’m starting to see that I’m the strange one for not calling home more often.
23. People don’t like complicated stories
I have a hard time explaining my life story in a way that people understand. I pave my own path as I go, which is not always easy to explain to people who follow traditional career paths.
Instead of telling people that I run an online business that allows me the freedom to live anywhere in the world, and that I alternate between living in Brazil half of the year and being nomadic in other parts of the world the other half, usually I simplify the story to fit their reality.
Sometimes people refuse to believe that an American would move to Brazil and could speak Portuguese the way I do after 3 years. Sometimes they express their lack of belief with hostility. Sometimes I make everyones lives easier by simplifying the story and saying I’m half Brazilian.
If people really care about the truth, they’ll ask better questions. But most people want a simple story that fits into a model of the world that they understand.
24. Turning 24 has a special meaning in Brazil
In Brazil the number 24 is associated with being gay. Apparently the association comes from a game called jogo do bicho, in which the number 24 is associated with deer (veado), which is similar to the word for gay (viado).
So if you turn 24 while in Brazil, don’t be surprised if your friends make jokes about you coming out of the closet.
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