Erich reports from the Southern Front…
In 1964 a military dictatorship was established in Brazil. It lasted until 1985. PUC (Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo) was a stronghold of dissent against the Brazilian dictatorship, and remains a bastion of leftism. This resulted in fun and games like the school’s enormous theater being torched. It’s since been rebuilt, allowing for this photograph. [ED NOTE: The Stalinists confiscated Erich’s camera] Also, murders, disappearances and the occasional game of Twister.
I met enough students to learn that some things are universal, at least based on my experiences in two countries. Young lesbians and/or girls going through their lesbo phase before bagging a lawyer and ending up listening to Norah Jones while driving kids home from karate practice, like to flaunt their sexual activity, as if you were their daddy and actually cared. Straight chicks complain about having too many exes and too much male attention, while flirting with a pile of laundry. They’re still hawking the same “Ronald McMurder,” and “Che” T-shirts that they had back in the 90s when I was kicked out of UC Santa Cruz. Why they are selling shirts that depict Santa Clause snorting coke, I have no idea.
My favorite student that I met was Kyle. Very friendly guy, interesting and for reasons that will be come clear shortly, one of the most entertaining people I met in Brazil. Like most Brazilians, Kyle was friendly, helpful and curious. He initiated a conversation with me after learning that I was American. This was particularly interesting to him, because Kyle’s family had immigrated to Brazil as refugees from the civil war in the US and helped to build the town of Americana with other runnin’ rebels. He had been to Atlanta to visit relatives for four months and spoke English well enough to communicate, but poorly enough that I was struggling to keep my language as simple as possible. Considering that I’m picking up Portuguese at a rate of about one word every ten days, I’m not going to criticize the guy for his English, but it had one pretty bad flaw. Apparently, but perhaps unsurprisingly given his background, Kyle had one badly mistaken perception about the customs of English speakers.
When he first made use of the word, we were beginning a conversation about race that I have had several times in Brazil. I have to set the scene; Kyle is a truly nice guy and we were sitting in a lounge in a left wing university in a country that prides itself on racial tolerance. Imagine my surprise when the kid says, “I think that in the rest of the world, they think Brazil has mostly niggers because of our soccer team.” I’d have been less startled if the guy asked me to shave his coin purse. Initially I wasn’t sure how to respond. Should I explain that I didn’t care to listen to his bigotry? I decided that I was in Brazil to observe and learn, not to lecture people and impose my standards on them.
The truth of the situation left me barely able to contain my mirth. Kyle went on to carpet-N-bomb me as our discussion continued. I simply stated my impressions, for example that there is much greater animosity between races in the US than in Brazil. It became clear that Kyle simply didn’t realize that you’re not really supposed to refer to blacks as “niggers.” So he just kept saying things like, “I think America is too racist against the niggers.” I don’t think it will be much of a shock to learn that, during his visit to America, Kyle had “a lot of problem with the niggers.” I was tempted to ask if those relatives in Atlanta had given him a good recipe for squirrel casserole.
I also met Vera and her friend, Mariana. Those two gals were pretty funny as well. Mariana nodded toward her non-English speaking boyfriend and said that he was gay. “Gay” has been incorporated into Brazilian Portugese, so he knew to protest. She held up a mitten and said, “Yes, he is gay because I have long fingers.” He looked down, slightly embarrassed and laughed. Again, Brazilians’ relaxed attitude toward sex is beyond refreshing. From the guy’s reaction, Mariana was obviously telling the truth, although she was joking. This reminded me of the time a casual friend walked up to Marina (my lady friend down here) and me at a party and asked, “How long is his cock?” I think such behavior as casually joking to a stranger about how you fingerbang your boyfriend is seen as a bit bawdy–something you do after a few drinks–but not shocking or outrageous. Brazil might be the only country in the world where bringing up the famous Death by Horse Cock video to a girl doesn’t equal instant strikeout. Bare in mind, I said that it might be. I haven’t tried. Yet.
Vera and Mariana had an endless stream of questions about America and my take on Brazil. Conversations with Brazilians are great for an American because we are both fascinated by different cultural perspectives, especially about ourselves. What do you think of my country? What do you think about what I think of your country? What’s the deal with this aspect of your country? So I was informed, for the 15th or so time on the trip that the AIDS rate in Brazil is about the same as ours in the US, contrary to American opinion. Of course, the assumed ignorance was justified, as I had once believed (never, never again) that AIDS was as common among Brazilians as among Queen groupies. I felt better about myself, however, when I learned of a girl who had been sent as an exchange student to Fort Wayne Indiana (apparently the exchange student lottery can be very cruel) where her host family asked, in complete seriousness, if people in Brazil wore clothes. They also wondered if she had ever lived in a tree.
Of course, as anywhere in the world other than Tuscalusa, Alabama, you can dredge up some instant camaraderie by sharing in loathing and hatred for Bush. Such a man could never be elected in Brazil, of course. For one thing, in Brazil one can make a statement like, “I’m a moderate Marxist.” At the same time, there are people who are actually monarchists. In the plebiscite to determine Brazil’s form of government after the dictatorship, monarchy got 5% of the vote. That’s more than Nader got last time around. So, like just about any other democracy, Brazil is to the left of the United States, but there’s also a much more complex political landscape. Along with having lived through a recent dictatorship, I think this diversity is what keeps so many Brazilians actively engaged with politics. Even if Brazil was identical with the United States in left to right terms, the people here pay far too much attention to ever let a guy like tWit slip into office.
The conversation turned to language. Mariana had introduced herself saying that she didn’t really speak English. As usual, this was something like, “I’m sorry. My English is, how do you say?–inelegant.” The conversation turned to weird pronunciations.
“I think it’s unnatural how you make the sound,” Mariana stuck her tounge all the way out and made exaggerated, “THHHHHHHH. Like, THHHHHHHHHHHick.” It reminded me of making fun of rolled “R’s” in Spanish class.
Marina chipped in a complaint about how there was no way the letters “R” and “L” should ever appear in that order. Everyone found this hilarious and took a turn saying “GIRRRRRRRRRRRRLLLLLLLLLLLLL ” and “WORRRRRRRRRRRLLLLLLD.” Then Vera pointed out some sounds that non-Portugese speakers had difficulty with and I was coached on how to make them.
Vera: Unintelligible dolphin sound.
Mariana: No, unintelligible dolphin soooouuuuunnnd.
Marina: “No, no. Unintelligible dol-phin sound.”
Everyone else: [with blanks stares barley hiding exasperation] Oh good! That’s it
I also had a chat with a kid whose name I forgot. We were both fans of the Los Angeles Lakers. He spoke very limited English, but unlike so many back home, had grasped the fact that Kobe Bryant has ruined our team. “He made 81 points but he only cares about himself.” I agreed and said that the Lakers would never win another title with Kobe in town, to which he agreed. It’s incredible that a third world college student who can barely speak the English could run our team better than Mitch Kupcheck.
Marina and I met up with a different Mariana at U.S.P. (Universidade de São Paulo) P.U.C. piles 16,000 students into what seems like only a couple of blocks of real estate. The classroom building feels like a shopping mall, and the students from each school (various majors) congregate in adjoining lounges. The more left wing the school, the more graffiti in the lounge. U.S.P. is very different.. The school was built in the 1930s and expanded under the dictatorship with a sprawling and segregated design meant to prevent student gatherings. The plan worked, as although I saw anti-Bush graffiti and dumb t-shirts being sold, the overall feel of the school was much more business like. Bad intentions resulted in a nice looking campus, however, as the hilltop sprawl is filled in with trees and greenbelts.
I sat in on the final, abbreviated session of Mariana’s Italian class. There appear to be no cultural differences at all in the classroom, based on my 15 minute survey of the matter. The professor was a pretty woman in her 40s who had the relaxed demeanor of someone in the world’s cushiest profession. She wasn’t dressed poorly, but far too comfortably for most jobs. If my last boss had seen a relaxed, contented employee wearing a soft scarf and a well worn corduroy jacket, he would have made her wear a crown of thorns for a week. I imagined that the professor averaged about 6 weeks a year in Italy. I was particularly envious because I have an MA in philosophy, and in earning it I learned that contemporary, academic philosophy is, for the most part, a mind numbing sham and I really wish I had studied a foreign language instead because its practicality is undeniable. I am qualified to teach philosophy at the junior college level, but in order to do so I’d probably have to pretend to believe that Hilary Putnam is not a complete ass wipe. I think it might be worth it though. Either way, when you study Italian, you don’t suddenly learn that 75% of the language is completely useless.
The students were also similar to what you would find in America. Everyone had come to get the results of their finals and a brief exchange was intended to take place about the class overall. What the students liked and disliked about the class and so forth. Everything was held up by a student in her fifties who I had encountered dozens of times over my seven-year college career. She was back in school because the rest of her life had emptied, and she hoped to supplement the remains with voluminous notes and tedious, unnecessary questions to professors. She sat in stark contrast to a room full of twenty-year-olds stepping into the prime of life, who might enjoy the class, but not as much as fucking and getting high. The professor would be divided because, on the one hand the middle aged student was interested and diligent, on the other hand, shut the fuck up already.
The other students were the usual. Mariana was the girl with her life on track. She was back for a second degree, but already had a good job. She had kicked ass on the final. She was no Alfred Einstein, but she was bright enough and had her act together. The difference between her in college and me in college is that she had a job, while I would routinely oversleep for classes that started at 2pm. Actually, if you take away the part about me having classes, little has changed. When she’s my age, she’ll have a retirement fund and health insurance. I have a really cool sweatshirt that I got for free by playing a lot at Hustler casino. There was also a socially awkward, overweight guy who had grown his hair out in an attempt to define himself as something other than a socially awkward, overweight guy even though he wasn’t really a hippie or a metal head. There was another student who did poorly on the final, and seemed to feel that this was unjust because he deserved high marks for being uptight and wearing a sweater and glasses. It was an interesting experience to survey Brazilian university life, and I liked the kids I met. But I was also reminded that I would rather take a job in a salt mine than return to university life.