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I'm a social worker from the UK who moved to São Paulo in February 2012. Blogging about the many humbling day-to-day episodes I am experiencing as I attempt to adjust to life here in Brazil. More Info

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The Book Is On The Table

The quirks and challenges of being a foreigner in Brazil.

January 25, 2013

Perhaps, to my eyes at least, the only distinguishable ‘outsiders’ are those from the city’s growing Bolivian community, whom are recognisable by their distinctive indigenous features. Maybe this is because I became familiar (not in that way) with Bolivia’s largely indigenous (55%) and mestiço (30%) population when I travelled there in 2007, although for the unknowing I’m guessing you could probably mistake them for belonging to Brazil’s own indigenous population.

Indigenous Bolivians on one of Lake Titicaca's Floating Villages (Photo by my good friend Maarten Smit).

Indigenous Bolivians on one of Lake Titicaca’s Floating Villages (Photo by my good friend Maarten Smit).

Nevertheless, as a relatively unremarkable looking guy in the UK (pasty white, short, weedy, etc), the novelty of being ‘found out’ in Brazil still retains its charm – even after almost a year of living here.

One of my favourite things is when I speak English in public, especially when I’m in a crowded place or answering the phone. However, it’s not the speaking bit I enjoy (especially on the phone, which as a very self-conscious Brit I actually despise), but the reaction of people around me when I do.

The inquisitive countenances I encounter in the centre of town, where foreigners are more common, typically become those of shock and concern when I’m in and around my local bairro (neighbourhood). Shock because, located north of the Rio Tietê, I’m pretty certain that no gringo lives within a mile or so radius of us – and probably never has. Concern, because most people are probably a little worried that this gringo has got himself very lost.

And this, I think, shows that the presence of migrants is a pretty unfamiliar experience for many Brazilians.

Such a statement, of course, probably sounds absurd given that Brazil’s diversity is itself entirely a result of the inward flow of people in the centuries following its colonialisation. However, the large numbers of people that came to Brazil (voluntarily and forcibly*) between the 16th and early 20th centuries slowed quite dramatically towards the latter part of the last century. As a result the Brazilian population, demographically at least, stabilised.

Brazilian unfamiliarity with estrangeiros can, I think, be highlighted in another way – actually it’s my wife’s theory, but I liked it so much we’re all going to pretend that it’s mine. Ok?

My wife’s theory evolved after hearing a number of gringos express difficulties in making themselves understood when speaking Portuguese. The obvious retort to this is that it’s probably because their Portuguese is shit. However, another explanation might be that Brazilians are unused to hearing anyone but themselves speaking Portuguese.

Obviously, there are many different accents in Brazil and I often hear Brazilians say that they sometimes struggle to understand people from different parts of the country (just like I had no idea what my housemate from Manchester was saying when I first went to university). In a similar way I think Brazilians are so unused to hearing non-Brazilians (especially gringos) speak Portuguese that even a slight mispronunciations can deem an entire sentence or interaction undecipherable.

My own example of this was when I recently visited Rio. Staying in Botafogo my friend and I decided to go to Ipanema and so I popped into a café to ask where the Metro station was:

Me: “Oi, bom dia” (Hi, good morning).

Waiter: “Bom dia” (Morning).

Me: “Senhor, onde fica o metro Botafogo?” (Sir, where is Botafogo Metro?).

Waiter: “O que?” (The what?).

Me: “Onde fica o metro Botafogo” (Where is Botafogo Metro?).

Waiter: “Desculpe, não entendi” (Sorry, I didn’t understand).

Me: “O metro, é perto daqui?” (The Metro, is it close to here?)

Waiter: “O que?” (The what?).

Me: “O metro” (The Metro).

Waiter: “O que?” (The what?)

Me: “O me-tro? Meeh-tro…? Me-tro?” (Turns to non-Portuguese speaking mate, shrugs shoulders). “Senhor, o trem…O meh-tro” (The train…The Metro).

Waiter: (Looks at my mate, laughs) “Ahhhh, o Meh-tro! É a primeira a esquerda.” (Ah, the Metro. It’s the first left).

Me: Obrigado ((Thanks) Turns to mate who can barely contain himself with laughter).

Looking back I should probably just have asked where the station was, but even so, I couldn’t believe that a slight nuance in pronouncing a word could make what I was saying so completely unintelligible.

Anyway, from what I’ve experienced, Brazilian attitudes towards immigrants, especially gringos, seem to consist of curiosity, a little confusion and lots of warmness (thanks Brazilians!) – something that seems to be supported by fairly recent polling. For example, a 2011 Ipsos MORI poll showed that 49% of Brazilians believed that immigrants make their country a more interesting place to live whilst 47% thought that immigration is good for its economy (the highest figure recorded for any country and in comparison to 33% and 27% in the UK).

However, I wonder if those attitudes will change if the levels of immigration continue to increase, as they have done inevitably, following the contrasting divergences of its economy with those in Europe in recent years. Can the differences in attitudes be explained by numbers?

For example, the 2011 UK census showed that 7.5 million or 13% of people in England and Wales (of a total population of 56 million) were foreign born. In Brazil, the government reports that there are 1.5 million regular foreign born residents as well as an estimated 600,000 illegal immigrants (2.1 million of Brazil’s 190 million(ish) population – or about 1%).

Personally, I’m pretty confident that Brazilians, given their history of immigration, will continue to be far more positive about the impact of immigrants than in Europe. However, whilst residents like myself might continue to be seen as a curiosity, given our origin, wealth and relatively few numbers, it will be interesting to see how the increasing number of low-skilled workers will be viewed if a perception develops that they are having an impact on the availability of jobs, housing and public services.

Undoubtedly though, you Brazilians might have to get a bit more used to us foreigners speaking dodgy Portuguese.

*The origin of Brazilian people can be traced back to its indigenous peoples and, following this, the arrival of the Portuguese – first as colonialists and subsequently as immigrants. Later other Europeans followed, including Germans, Italians, Russians, Polish, Spanish and even some Brits. Other diasporas in Brazil, like the the Japanese and Lebanese, are the largest outside their countries of origin, whilst an estimated 3-4 millions slaves were forcibly brought to Brazil between the 16th and 19th centuries.

by andyhpmartin. Find out more about andyhpmartin here.

Categories: Lessons Learnt



One Response to “The quirks and challenges of being a foreigner in Brazil.”

  1. Hi. I’m Brazilian and, unlike you said, I’ve thought of the impact the immigration might have on our economy. Of course Brazil keeps growing despite the recession in the US and Europe, but I guess it’s only because we pay very high taxes.

    Besides, the economy isn’t growing as much as expected, so I guess people will start worrying about it soon.
    Anyway, the average immigrant coming to Brazil is graduated in College, which is slightly rare for most adults here, so there’ll probably be no reduction in available jobs.

    And yes, we’re not much used to hearing strangers speaking Portuguese. It sounds odd but we usually can keep up with the conversation if the speaker’s pronunciation isn’t bad to the point of being incomprehensible.

    (Sorry if there’s any grammar mistake, I’m still studying English :) )