About a week or so ago, Veera (my Finnish exchange student friend and quasi host sister by virtue of us sharing a host mom), Virna (my first host mom), and I (me) went to the bakery for dinner where we encountered one of Virna’s many acquaintances. That in itself was not an unusual experience, because nine out of ten places that I go to with Virna we meet at least one person that she knows. This time it was an elderly woman and her husband. We exchanged greetings and then, like every meeting with every Brazilian that I am meeting for the first time, Virna’s friend asked us if we spoke Portuguese yet. We nodded and said yes.
“And it’s all due to the grace of God that you’ve learned Portuguese, right?”
I couldn’t stop myself from rolling my eyes and telling them that God had nothing to do with it; I’d learned Portuguese from my own hard work.
The woman and her husband looked genuinely confused, and then the husband said, “Well, there has to be something else that you believe in, something you can put faith in.”
I told them that I believe in my own self. (Actually, if I had to define my beliefs, I would call myself an agnostic with a community in the United Church of Christ, and that I mostly believe in communities and people.)
That’s when the woman very gravely told Veera, Virna, and myself that the world was ending because of the homosexuals and because men are dressing in women’s clothing and women dressing in men’s clothing. Cue nervous laughs from Veera and I.
Never mind the political crisis and corruption scandals centered around the Brazilian federal government, conflict in the Middle East, ISIS, and the very fact that many countries have the technological capability of completely destroying the continent next door, the world is going to end because of the homosexuals.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that woman had prayed for my soul that night.
Virna tried to placate me after the conversation on the ride by saying that the couple came from the interior of the Northeast, where culture and family life is centered around tradition. And even though Natal isn’t part of the “interior,” tradition is still a big part of the culture here. Specifically, northeastern Brazilian culture. Life in the northeast is very different than life in other areas of the country, primarily due to the fact that this region is among the poorest of the country.
Small examples of Northeastern Brazilian culture include the daily nap after lunch, everyone’s excuse for being lazy is that it’s hot, and the practice for children to refer to their parents with the formal version of “you” instead of the informal version. And then there’s the culture of machismo and sexism. There are examples of this all over the place.
One of them that hits me in the face on a day to day basis is the simple fact that my school, Henrique Castriciano, has a sister school (they actually share the same campus and use the same administration and the same teachers as my school, but the check is written to a different name) called Escola Domestica. This is an all girls “traditional” school. I haven’t really seen much difference in their classes and HC’s classes, and to me the differences are rooted in that Escola Domestica literally translates to “Domestic School.” It’s only for girls, and their uniforms consist of what looks like an antique maid or nurse uniform with a completely white, very short dress.
It seems that everyone is trying their hardest to fit these girls in a “domestic box.”
We could also talk about the fact that there are no opportunities for a girl to play futebol (soccer). There are no girls’ teams, much less girls’ leagues, and downright rejections and funny looks are given if you bring up playing on a boys’ team.
Girls do the cooking and the cleaning, even if they have a full time job (and their husband doesn’t).
Women must always be perfectly made up (hair, clothes, makeup) and are met with giggles or weird looks if their hair is wet or they are wearing their gym clothes while men can leave the house looking like they haven’t shaved in days in their gym clothes and won’t get a second glance.
Small girls (by small, I mean age 4 and up) are wearing full makeup. Face powder, mascara, lipstick, the whole shebang. And their brothers are encouraged to go get dirty, play around in the mud, etc. There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, but I can’t get over the moms who are putting their daughters in the whole get up so young. (Maybe I shouldn’t judge; I’m missing some culture gap here. But it’s been commented more than once by Brazilian girls that they’ve noticed that the girl exchange students have the tendency to go “all natural” and wear minimal to no makeup. Many of the girls who have said this to me say they wouldn’t mind going “all natural” themselves, but it just isn’t done and not how they were raised.)
During the Women’s World Cup, my brother Ben said something very smart, in that the South American men’s teams are so much better than the USA’s team, but the South American women’s teams are really bad while the USA women’s team is amazing, and that’s because the culture in terms of sports and how women and men are treated is different in South America and the United States.
And then when you even start talking about feminism and equal rights here, there are differences on that end, too. In my sociology class here my teacher informed us that feminism is women fighting for more rights. She made no mention of the fact that there is no official discrimination against women that gives us less rights than men. If you believed what she said, then why is feminism an issue in the first place? Feminism is about putting men and women on the same playing field. It is equality.
Maybe I’m being a little unrealistic by expecting Brazil, a country that is still developing, to have the same political and social equality that I’m used to. I mean, that’s the entire goal of exchange, right? To understand and accept the fact that the world isn’t exactly the same everywhere. But I’ll still be very happy to get back and go to class in sweatpants and a hoodie without weird looks about why I’m not perfectly made up.