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My 20 Years as a Brazilian Gringo


My 20 Years as a Brazilian Gringo

I’ve become much less American and much more Brazilian.
Take my anti-U.S. imperialist
sentiments, which have grown
enormously since coming to Brazil. It’s easier to feel America’s

omnipotence—be it cultural, economic, political or military—
when you’re living in a country that is suffocated by it.

by:
Mike Kepp

 

Most Brazilians, upon hearing that I, an American, have been living in their country for nearly two decades, most of
that time married to a Brazilian, say "Well, you’ve already become a Brazilian." And I always disappoint them when I
define myself as an American-Brasileiro, a hybrid of two distinct cultures. Given the length of time I’ve spent outside my
country and my not being "an insider" within this one, I can hardly claim to be a connoisseur of either culture. But this
"outsider’s" seat has made me a critic of both of them.

My cultural aims in 1983 when I moved from Berkeley, California to Rio de Janeiro, a place I’d never been, were
far less ambitious. This voluntary exile was not an attempt to reinvent myself. My main objective was to distance myself
from everything that was American.

Then 33 years old, I had, for some time, been at odds with a my success-obsessed, time-is-money culture, when the
"Me" Decade" dawned in the 1970s. The sense of complacency and superiority with which Americans regarded the rest of the
world was still in full swing in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan vowed to extend U.S. imperialism to, as yet, untested extremes.

So why Brazil? What beckoned me here were siren songs of Tom Jobim, the Carnaval scenes of
Orfeu Negro, and the Bahia of Jorge Amado. These entreaties promised me a new home with more
ginga, generosity and joie de vivre than
the Puritan in me could imagine. And why Rio de Janeiro? I escaped to this
Cidade Maravilhosa simply because that’s
where the fugitives in Hollywood movies inevitably end up.

Once I arrived, it didn’t take my long to join into the country’s rhythms and adopt its easily assimilated
customs—arriving late to all social encounters, driving with a death wish and rooting against the Argentine soccer team, no matter whom
they played against.

Alone and anxious to shed some of my American individualism, I began looking for a
turma into which I could dissolve. When I went to the beach, I didn’t head for the far end of Leme with a book, but became the
gregarious gringo intent upon nuzzling up to
some—any—Posto Nove social circle.

And despite having made carioca friends, I never became part of any
turma because, down deep, I was never much
of a joiner. In fact, the last organization I joined (and left soon after) was the Boy Scouts.

The private me also had a more difficult time in becoming the Brazilian individualist: the one who leaves his car
triple parked in front of restaurants and "in" clubs, the one who uses the streets and sidewalks as depositories for garbage and
dog poop, the one who turns his home into a noise machine, even though neighbors show their annoyance.

Nor could I become the homem cordial, (cordial man) the Brazilian who gets around awkward social encounters
with pode ser (could be), vamos ver (let’s see), or
se der (if possible).

I was also unable to become a member of that hybrid species—half
malandro (con man), half diplomat—who could
be called the morde-e-assopra brasiliensis. (bite and sooth) This species communicates via phrases like
eu fico devendo, (to avoid honoring a debt) and
fica para a próxima (to avoid honoring a promise).

To this day, what still makes me most American is my ability to confront a person or an issue directly and to, when
forced to, use the word "no." When I do so, Brazilians call me
objetivo, though this is simply how an homem
cordial euphemistic avoids telling me that I am being
curto e grosso. (short and gross).

And there was some Puritan part of me I didn’t want to expunge. Shortly after I married a Brazilian with two teenage
kids, I told her that it was important to instill the value of the "Protestant work ethic" in her kids by having them help me
wash the dishes. In a culture where kids are incredibly spoiled not just by the parents, but by the "live-in maid," both she and
her children vetoed my suggestion.

But in other ways, I’ve become much less American and much more Brazilian. Take my anti-U.S. imperialist
sentiments, which have grown enormously since coming to Brazil. It’s easier to feel America’s omnipotence—be it cultural,
economic, political or military—when you’re living in a country that is suffocated by it.

So, when the terrorist attacks occurred in New York and Washington, I understood what drove some here to say
Bem Feito, (you deserve this) even though I found such a reaction unfair and unfortunate. Neither I, nor most Brazilians I
know, believe that U.S. imperialism is a valid justification for the mass murder of American civilians.

Those attacks also left me in tears because, despite my misgivings about America, it was my homeland that was
being attacked. And that’s when I realized what a strong emotional bond still existed between me and America.

That bond comes not from simply having grown up there, but from what I love about America, everything from
the pragmatism and creative energies of its people to the freedom of expression and other civil liberties that flourish there.
That bond is strengthened by America’s being a place whose front door will swing open whenever I knock on it. Is there a
better definition for "home?"

Still, Brazil is where I feel most at home because of those here who have opened their arms to me and showed me
other equally-admirable virtues. The part of me that is Brazilian has soaked up some of this people’s tolerant and generous
nature. Just get a flat tire on any Brazilian back road and watch how many people will rush to your aid, refusing any financial
reward for doing so. This may be because Brazilians, especially the poor and working-class ones, can more easily give what
those in a time-is-money culture can not—their time and sense of collectivity.

I believe that being married to a woman who came from a modest family in the state of Piauí, a woman for whom
giving comes as naturally as breathing, has forced me to be a bit more giving. Not having made this change would have made
our marriage lack reciprocity. Her kids also accepted me with remarkably open arms, something every stepfather prays for.
This made the giving that went along with helping to raise them simply part of the process of growing to love them.

To this extent, I’m happy with the hybrid I’ve become. And even if I decided to try to more completely
me abrasileirar, (Brazilianize) I couldn’t do more than add a few superficial touches. I could try to soften my accent or learn to pull on
my earlobe to praise a tasty dish. But wouldn’t this be mimicry, rather than assimilation?

I think that truly becoming more Brazilian would mean having to adopt attitudes and actions that don’t necessarily
suit me. The economic and cultural forces that created the
homem cordial are not those that molded me. Any doomed
attempt to become such a man, would mean sacrificing much of what I like about myself, someone largely shaped by America.

Being Brazilian, like being American, is a state of mind. And because I’ve soaked up so much from both places, I
carry both states of mind around with me all the time. This hasn’t made me schizophrenic. But it has forced me to walk a
tightrope between my homeland and my adopted land, one on which cultural winds from both countries help me keep my
balance.

Originally published in Rio’s daily O Globo, on Nov. 13, 2001.

 

Michael Kepp is an American journalist who has lived in Brazil
for the last 20 years and who has written for
Time, Newsweek and many other U.S. publications. Editora Record
will, in late August/early September publish a collection of his
crônicas Sonhando com sotaque—confissões e desabafos de
um gringo brasileiro. 244 pages, R$ 25. For more information on the author and book consult
www.michaelkepp.com.br. The author welcomes your comments at
mkepp@terra.com.br

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