My leaving the United States for Brazil, a place I’d never been, was like swapping a long, bad marriage for a cybernetic passion. I escaped one culture by desperately flinging myself into the arms of another, created mostly by my fertile imagination.
What mattered was not what awaited me but what I was leaving behind, a world so competitive that little time is left for relaxation. Americans now enter that exhausting routine, called “the rat race,” at an increasingly precocious age.
Parents enroll their kids in elite, pre-schools while they’re in the womb and send their little geniuses (read: geeks) to advanced-math summer camps. Middle-class husbands and wives are often both top executives.
And many professionals take tranquilizers to reduce the stress caused by job performance pressures. Why?? In the USA, you are mainly defined by the social status your profession offers.
That’s why at parties in the USA, the most common first question a strangers asks is “what do you do for a living? And at “networking” parties, get-togethers held at bars during “happy hour,” strangers with the same profession make “contacts” to further their careers.
Brazilians, who go to happy-hour bars to relax or flirt after work, advance their careers effortlessly through a “whom you know” network. And at parties here, a stranger’s first questions aren’t intended to size up your social status.
In the USA, even friends engage in such competition. Some American friends I recently visited couldn’t believe I was still a freelance journalist, the same profession I had when I left California 21 years ago.
Because my career move was horizontal and not vertical, one friend asked if my job was “challenging enough?” Another asked “are you doing work that makes your life meaningful?”
Last year, an American bird watcher – with telescope, cameras, books and binoculars – subjected me to a similar interrogation at a country inn in the Pantanal.
At breakfast, he introduced himself by asking “since you know what my passion is, what’s yours?” Before I could answer, a toucan perched nearby, causing him to bolt from table with his binoculars.
“When bird watchers converse,” a member of his group told me, “they’re just killing time until the next bird flies by.”
Americans weren’t always this obsessive. When I was growing up, people didn’t have passions or talents. They just had hobbies (I shot pool) or aptitudes, often left undeveloped. While some of our mothers had jobs (often as teachers and nurses), they didn’t wear suits, work late hours or give us front-door keys.
And while the world has become far more competitive since then, Brazil is still a far less workaholic place than the USA. Brazilians prioritize both families and professions.
They get one-month of paid vacation each year and four-month maternity leaves, compared to the two-week paid vacations per year and six-week maternity leaves given in the USA.
When Brazilians ask me “Why would someone from such a rich country chose to live in such a poor one?,” I simplify. I tell them I decided to swap a “time is money” culture for the more relaxed one evoked in the songs of Jobim and Caymmi.
And while my rhythms have not become slow, very slow, or almost at a standstill, nor are they those of someone in a race. They are, however, sufficient to sustain a life that is meaningful enough for me.
This text was originally published in the daily newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.
Michael Kepp is an American journalist who has lived in Brazil since 1983 and who has written for Time, Newsweek and many other U.S. publications. He is the author of the book of crônicas Sonhando com Sotaque – Confissões e Desabafos de um Gringo Brasileiro. For more information on the author and book consult www.michaelkepp.com.br