My Brazilian niece, Luiza, is getting ready for her first semester in university. I imagine she's filled with nervous excitement. Beginning with her first day, her future will be laid out before her.
In Brazil, because of the entrance exam system, the vestibular, every student must declare his/her program of study months before beginning college. When her classes begin, Luiza's entire academic program and career will be set in motion.
In the US, it's different. There, it's possible to attend university without choosing which area to focus in, known as a student's "major." In the US, even Luiza is different because in American terminology, she isn't my niece, she's my wife's niece. However, in Brazil, she's considered to be my niece, too.
When I asked my "niece" when her first day of school would be, she confessed she didn't know. I jumped to the conclusion that she was a typically disorganized teenager not to know such an important date. My wife came to her niece's rescue, explaining that the university had not yet posted its calendar, so in fact nobody knows when the first day of classes is.
It was a surprise to discover that a large university didn't know its own schedule with the new school year starting soon. My wife commented that the school calendars this year in Brazil - universities, high schools, grammar schools - are a mess because of the World Cup. The schools are changing their 2014 calendars because they want to have the usual "winter break" (July) between semesters coincide with the World Cup, June 12 - July 13.
For me, the most interesting aspect of Luiza's university schedule is how Brazil is more focused on the present than the future. For example, FIFA has been critical of Brazil's inability to have the 12 stadiums ready for World Cup, missing FIFA's December 31 deadline.
Yet rather than express surprise that the stadium in Curitiba, for example, will not be completed until April at the earliest, even without the originally planned roof, a more common reaction among Brazilians is, "Why did FIFA set the deadline so early? As long as the stadiums are ready the night before the first game, isn't that enough?"
Are Brazilians right? Is it critical that the stadiums be ready six months before the World Cup? Perhaps it's better to be focused on today rather than worrying about tomorrow. Perhaps some countries, like the US, are obsessed with productivity, so that getting a project done on time becomes the most important element, rather than taking time off at the beach with one's family and completing the project a little late.
Americans and Europeans and the Japanese cannot understand why when they arrange meetings with Brazilian business people, the Brazilians arrive late. Perhaps Brazilians are the ones who actually appreciate the value of time more than others. Is being on time the most important goal in life?
There are numerous examples of the Brazilian attitude to living for today. For instance, in Curitiba where I live, it's common to drive to work on Monday morning and find one street you always drive to your office has changed direction. It was a two-way street, but over the weekend it became one way. It is rare to change traffic patterns in an American or European city because it alters our everyday working world unexpectedly.
Living in the present, like a Brazilian, encourages flexibility because there is less focus on the future. Since we cannot predict the future with any accuracy, why attempt to? Why not allow for change in daily life as it is the natural course of the universe. Brazilians are more resilient and flexible because the future is not fixed in their plans.
This is not to say that the Brazilian lifestyle of living in the present is flawless; problems arise. One Brazilian family intended to travel to Disney World, but it didn't happen. After the parents secured the vacation time from their jobs, they didn't plan adequately in advance to secure passports and tourist visas in time for their travel dates.
When Brazilian culture mixes with other cultures, like the US, where schedules are more strict, there can be conflicts. However, when Brazilians are inside their own country and plans aren't successful, it's not a crisis. Another Brazilian family was expecting to take a trip to the beach but they forgot to have the mechanic check their car.
On the day they were leaving, the car wouldn't start. Instead, they took a tourist train through the mountains from Curitiba to Morretes and had a new adventure, rather than returning to the same beach they'd been to many times. No one was disappointed about the change in plans.
In this way, Brazilians are like children, affable and supple, the way a child can be crying and then laughing a minute later. A Brazilian can tell the same story to the same person several times, and both the storyteller and the listener will enjoy it each time.
Brazilians take delight in the simplest of pleasures; they appreciate what they are fortunate enough to have. They are not as spoiled or demanding as Americans because they are accustomed to having less. Brazilians have lower expectations than Americans.
Brazilians live for today and try to avoid the anxiety of worrying about the future. It's the same approach to life that has been the basis for Eastern religious philosophy for thousands of years. As the British Zen Buddhism expert Alan Watts wrote:
"The future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements - inferences, guesses, deductions - it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead."
If my wife's niece doesn't know when her university classes begin, she is probably happier because there's less reason to be anxious. When her friends are sending her text messages about classes starting tomorrow, she will know it's time.
Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Brazil. He is the editor of the online magazine, Curitiba in English. (www.curitibainenglish.com.br)