Crash Course

Crash Course

My wife assures me that there are rules, but I just don’t understand
them yet. The first rule is: Don’t stop at stop signs. I have so many more to learn.
By Joseph K. Young

Think of sandy beaches, lush jungles, hot tropical sun, and coconuts galore. This is
most Americans initial conception of life in Brazil. However, moving to Brazil was the
hardest thing that I have ever done. Living in a culture where you don’t speak the
language, and you are an eternity away from all that is comfortable is what some people
call "culture shock." From paying bills to ordering in a restaurant, nothing is
easy in another language. The biggest and most important differences are often in the

For example, like most Americans I am quite fond of pizza. In Brazil, all pizzerias
have been ordered not to put sauce on their pizzas. I cannot say for sure who is giving
the order (I am a believer in conspiracy theories), but every pizzeria must be afraid to
put sauce on your pizza because it never happens. Although I diligently tried many
pizzerias and frozen options, I could not find anything remotely similar to a sauced

Finally, I tried ordering from O Rei da Pizza, "The King of Pizza." To shift
the sauce in my favor I asked for muito molho, which means "much sauce."
In addition, I ordered another medium pizza with bananas, sugar, and cinnamon (a local
specialty). When the pizza came, I had one medium pizza, half with bananas and sweet stuff
and half with a huge mound of corn (the Portuguese word for corn is milho). Once
again there was complete pizza chaos. In addition, to supplement the glaring lack of
sauce, most pizza places generously supply you with mayo and mustard packages which
Brazilians generously smear on their mounds of mozzarella cheese, dough, and corn.

Part of the confusion is that Brazilians are not used to other people speaking their
language—especially in Brasília, the capital city. Because Brazil is such a mammoth
country (roughly the same size as the continental US), people can spend their whole lives
inside the borders. They can see mountains, rivers, wetlands, beaches, dark people, light
people, tall people, short people, huge metropolises, and small towns, without even
venturing out to Bolívia.

Because Brasília does not have a reputation for being a tourist destination, many
locals do not encounter people who speak Portuguese as a foreign language (Many locals
quip that "Brasília is a nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit.").
The other source of confusion is that their notion of what is pizza is completely
different than mine. Who’s right?

I ponder this question often. When my wife and I first arrived in Brasília, we were
given an article written by a principal of an American school in Africa. The crux of the
article was that culture shock is a real phenomenon. Moreover, you are not right and a
whole country cannot be wrong. That is, a country and its people have survived for
generations doing things their way. They can and will survive without you. But pizza
really is better with sauce. If you do not believe me, go buy some crust, throw some
mozzarella cheese on top, bake for a short period of time and taste. Sauce is a key
ingredient. Pizza without sauce is like cereal without milk, salad without dressing, or PB
and J with no jelly.

These issues of right and wrong are much more divisive as the importance of the issue
is increased. We rented a car to drive to Pirenópolis, a small getaway for the Brasília
elite. On the approximately 140-kilometer trip we witnessed half a dozen accidents,
blatant disregard for human safety, and simply insane behavior. It seems that normally
congenial Brazilian folks behind the wheel of a car turn into stock car racers. My wife
teased me incessantly when a barely breathing, 80-year-old woman, tailgated me, flipped
her lights, then passed me flashing a face of disgust in my general direction.

When the speed limit read 80 kilometers per hour, I went 100. However, I was clearly
the slowest car on the road. Moreover, I stopped at all of the Pare signs. Pare
literally means STOP. No one actually stops at Pare signs. They are more of a
suggestion. Most rules in Brazil seem to be just that—suggestions. Maybe you should
drive 60 kilometers per hour or maybe you should drive however fast you want. You can stop
or don’t.

Jason, one of my colleagues and a science teacher who lived in Egypt for several years,
laughed at me when I asked him why they post speed limits or have stop signs. He replied,
"when you are outside the U. S. don’t ask why, let go, you will only frustrate
yourself." Being a teacher I feel that I must question. I have to understand. My wife
assures me that there are rules, but I just don’t understand them yet. The first rule is:
Don’t stop at stop signs. I have so many more to learn.

Many of my observations concerning Brazilian behavior have been gained through
supermarket encounters. People operate their carts much like they do their cars. When one
would like to pass through a crowded aisle in America, one simply says "excuse
me," then people theoretically pull off to the side or allow you to pass. However,
the Brazilian shopping experience in the large grocery stores or supermercados like
Carrefour is much different than my experiences in the southern United States. To get
through a crowded area, one must slam other carts or knock into people to get them to

The Portuguese word for excuse me is com licença. However, it has a different
connotation. Literally it means "with license." This is often meant as "get
out of my way." If it is not heeded, there can be drastic consequences. The grocery
store takes on a Darwinian character where only the strong and aggressive survive. The
second rule is: Be aggressive in procuring important material items. This can be a
difficult rule to follow for someone from an ostensibly polite society.

Another glaring difference from my middle-class American perspective is the Brazilian
party atmosphere. After giving my students a fair amount of homework for the weekend, one
particularly garrulous teenage girl said "the weekend isn’t for homework, it’s for
social time." Everyone in the class nodded in agreement. Even though I have only been
teaching for a few years, I am used to students complaining about any amount of homework.
I think complaining is more of a catharsis for American students: they do it, but they
know that nothing really changes.

However, Brazilians place a high value on socialismo, literally spending time
with friends and loved ones. At a party for one of my wife’s students, there was a
mix of all ages. The parents hung around by the pool, drinking and socializing while the
younger kids danced in the living room. In America, teens would prefer death to partying
in the same place as their parents or their teachers. There are completely different
socially acceptable norms.

The third rule is: Friends and family are the pinnacle of importance. This is a strange
one for Americans. From our perspective, family and friends are important, but socializing
is rarely valued as much as the "American Dream" of hard work leading to
material success. What parent hasn’t sacrificed an aspect of their social life to achieve
their career goals? Who hasn’t put in more hours at the office at the expense of their
children? Who’s right? Am I wrong? What should be our main priorities?

Both my wife and I chose to teach overseas to challenge our previously held
conceptions. Moreover, I knew that moving away from the U. S. would provoke internal
change, but I feel like my tectonic plates are shifting and there are cracks and fissures
in my belief system. I can’t figure it all out now. I don’t know all of the rules.

Joseph K. Young previously taught secondary mathematics and social
studies in Orlando, Florida at the Celebration School and currently teaches secondary
mathematics at the Escola Americana de Brasília (American School of Brasília). To
contact the author send e-mail to

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