Friday, November 13, 2009

You Ain't from 'Round These Here Parts

So Alexandre has plantão tonight (for those of you who haven't picked up on the word plantão yet, it's his extra-long shifts at the hospital).

I had classes/meetings from 7:00am-4:00pm (with an hour break for lunch) so I'm kind of tired, and I have nothing to do tonight. (Boo Friday night plantões!)  I made a huge pot of Nanny's chicken stew for dinner last night. We had it for lunch today, too, and I'll be finishing it up for dinner. So going out to dinner's out. Besides, I hate eating out alone.

I dropped Alexandre off at the hospital, and then went over to the grocery store for some goodies. My fantastic Friday night supermarket basket included fresh bread (to go with the chicken stew), chocolate syrup (to go on the vanilla ice cream that's still (miraculously) in the freezer after my Wal-Mart trip last weekend), Malzbier, and some chocolate mousse, just for good measure. 

It wasn't my first time with the cashier who was ringing up my order. Let me backtrack with a story: The last time I went through her line, I tried to recharge my cell phone that I almost never use (a) because I have no friends and (b) because cell phone plans are atrociously expensive here and I won't use it on principle.  At that time, I'd only had the cell phone for a few months, and I had refilled it all of 2 times. Both times that I had refilled it, I went into the actual cell phone store in the mall. I gave them the cash, they printed out a code, I called the code using my cell phone, and voila-- cell phone minutes recharged!

Anyway, so yes, it was my first time trying to recharge my cell phone in the grocery store. I assumed it'd be the same. I told her I wanted to recharge the phone. She asked me which carrier I have. I told her. She asked me how much I wanted to put on it. I told her. Then she asked me to put my cell phone number into the credit card keypad.

My number? I know, it's ridiculous, but like I said, I never use the thing, so I didn't know the number by heart. When I had a prepaid cell phone in the US when I went home for Christmas, my number was automatically saved in the phone.  I assumed it was the same with this phone. It wasn't.

I told the cashier, "I'm sorry, I know this is ridiculous, but I don't know the number. I hardly ever use it. I'm sorry... forget it, I'll refill it later."

So yeah, pretty embarrassing.  Now back to today:

As she was ringing up my delicious treats, the cashier asked smugly,
"So, did you learn your cell phone number yet?"

And I said, "Oh... you remember that? How embarassing."

"Well, it's your accent that I remember. You're not from here, are you?"

"No, I'm not." (I know that she wanted me to say where I was from, but I thought I'd make her work for it a bit)

"So you're from... where, then?"

"The United States."

"Oh, wow! Are you going to live here?"

"I've lived here for almost 2 years now."            [side note: Can you believe it?]

"2 years?!" said the cashier incredulously. "And you still have an accent?!" 

My career background made me scoff instinctively at her ignorance. Those of you who know me in person know how hard it is for me to not have "you are a total retard" written all over my face when I think that someone is being a total retard.

But I said, "Yup, it takes a while when you learn a language as an adult."

"Wow, but you really have an accent. Well, it's your Rs. Your Rs are really forced."

"Yes, that they are. They are forced. That is the way that I talk." Sometimes I'm glad that my sarcasm doesn't portray well in Portuguese.  I wanted to say, "that's the way you talk too, caipira", but it wouldn't have been worth it. Besides, I know mine are a bit stronger. If they weren't, she wouldn't have noticed and so eloquently commented on them.

We were finishing up the transaction at this point, so I mumbled a quick "boa noite" before she could make any more inappropriate comments.
Why does this constant "Where are you from?" shtick bother me so much, exactly?  I know that, when people ask me things like "where are you from?" even when they ask it by saying "Você é que?" ("You are... what?"), and even when people make comments like this, like blatantly criticizing my Portuguese, or saying asinine things about the US, they're not necessarily trying to be rude. They just don't know any better. But that's just it. It's hard feeling like the only one in the community who "knows better." It's not enough that people don't have bad intentions. I grew up in California, the Land of The Whole World Meeting in One Place, where relativity abounds, and respect ensues. I went to Berkeley, for Christ's sake. In California in general, and in Berkeley especially, people are just people, and everyone is so different and everyone has so much of their own shit going on that when you talk to other people, you focus on what you have in common. (Or you argue about Veganism, sei lá.)

So that's the first reason why I get frustrated having to explain my life literally every day.  I have a new definition of success: My day is considered a success if I am getting ready for bed and realize that I didn't have to say "I'm American" or "I'm from the US" or "I"m here because my husband is Brazilian" or "Yes, I 'am liking' Brazil" for THE WHOLE DAY. (Oh, also, added to that list of successes is if no one hung up on me on the phone. Those of you who subscribe to my blog using Google Reader got a glimpse of my rant that I later deleted. Yes, people actually hang up on me when I call places trying to get information, like what time the restaurant closes, or why my portable air conditioner hasn't been delivered yet. Talk about social rejection. See below.)

The second reason is something I've mentioned before... that 19 months is a long time to feel like a social outsider. I'm like, indirectly rejected. I'm hoping Ginny or Michelle can back me up here with psychological data/statistics/terms so I stop feeling like a lunatic. The Malzibeir's starting to kick in, but let me explain: the minute I open my mouth and my English allophones come out, people stop seeing me as "one of them." People here don't ask me things that they ask each other, like "Wow, crazy weather we're having, hein?" or "Can you believe [xyz current event on the news]?"  They're just so bowled over by having a real-life AMERICAN in front of them that they forget all social norms. I work in this city, too, with its relatively low wages when compared to Sao Paulo. I drive on these streets with all their potholes (something that people here love to complain about as a form of small talk). I go to the same gym.  I shop in the same stores and pay the same high prices for [insert inflated priced product here]. I use the same annoying internet/cable company that has its monopoly on the region.

My day-to-day life is the same, but I don't have anyone to relate to, because my being Not Brazilian overrides and overshadows everything we could possibly have in common.

And like, Jesus Christ. My Portuguese is not that bad. I'm always going to have an accent, and most of Brazil doesn't care, I imagine. Not a single person in Sao Paulo (a big city with lots of tourism and immigration) asked me where I was from. People on the metro complained about the heat to me, and then we talked about our days, and the employee in the bookstore sold me English books without enchendo saco (no idea how to spell that) and he only smiled a little when I said that I didn't want to give my CPF on my receipt.

I'm trying not to be like 'hicktown is the worst place and Sao Paulo is the best place" but I can't help it.

I'll leave you with a song that's getting me through this evening. It's by The Mountain Goats. It's called "This Year."   There will be feasting, and dancing, in Jerusalem this year! The day we drive away in Alexandre's Peugeot behind the moving van taking us to another city for his residency, or, better yet, taking all our furniture to his parent's house because we're on our way to the USA, I am going to blast this song and probably cry a lot.

If you think I'm being melodramatic, or if you know some more optimistic way to view my current lot, please, tell me. I won't be offended. I am usually a pretty optimistic person, but I'm losing it, and I'd welcome a new perspective.


  1. First of all, I'm relieved that I'm not going crazy. I knew (ohg, i actually just spelled that new) that you had a blog entry and then I couldn't find it. I've been going crazy! lol.
    I hate to say it, but welcome to my world (besides being in Brazil). I had to spend 2 years in Virginia Beach--a town I hated with all my passion (1/4 of the time I was alone there with no friends until an old friend from Philly moved there). We're up for orders in January (ie. we find out what wonderful places we can move). Trust me, I hit the jackpot with SD and I had to fight for it. But just as in your situation, it's not up to me. Leo has more invested in his career right now. In a few years, that will change, but for now I just have to suck it up. Wow, sorry. I was going to write something supportive, but this turned into a rant. Ok, here comes the supportive part. What I've learned is that, this too shall pass and also wine and vodka don't hurt either :D

  2. We really didn't make a good impression on you, did we? And I'm so sorry about that. I don't know what to say or do to help you, but I really wish I could. I feel sad that you're not having a good time here. Not only because I'm Brazilian, but mainly bacause I think one shouldn't feel that bad about where they live.
    And that so odd... there are 3 foreigners at the school I teach (1 Canadian, 2 Americans) and they are CRAZY ABOUT Brazil and want to stay here for good. I don't know if you were unlucky or maybe Brazil really isn't that good for you. :(
    Anyway, you're not obligated to love here, right? So I just hope things work out fine for you... whether here or back home.

  3. May.... I don't dislike Brazil. I'm just not a small town girl.

    Alexandre tries to tell me, "you'd/we'd have the same experience in a small town in the US." and I say, "and that's why I never lived in a small town in the US."

    I really enjoyed my time in Sao Paulo, Santos, and Iguaçu, all cities that are used to having tourists and foreigners. I think that's all I need, to not be the only foreigner.

  4. Dear Danielle,

    I would love to give you some perspective.

    But I don't have any.

    People look at me like I have two heads. Or they stare at me ALL night in the restaurant because I'm talking to my boyfriend in English. And all the waiters in the whole restaurant pass by our table (to listen to me talk Im sure) and they all give me that stupid you know the one I'm talking about? Not the Oh hey! Smile. They oh, she's from america, and can barely understand a word Im saying so I'll talk to her boyfriend, ask questions about her like shes not here and just smile at her, smile. And then ask me if I like Brazil.

    The End.

    PS- One more year. One more year. One more year. There is your perspective.

    Because if you were me, then you'd be saying, I will never leave this town. I'm going to be here forever. Because EVERY SINGLE family member lives within two minutes of the parental units. And I will never escape. I'll be damn lucky if we even move out. And we don't even have a wal mart. (did I tell you i dreamed about going to wal mart? talk about really just wanting a one stop shopping center)

    You know Julie commented on my blog how positive I was...Julie are you here? Sorry.

  5. Dear Danielle,

    I am also an optimistic, and frankly, it sounds like this phase of your life is over and you are getting ready for the next step and you can hardly wait.
    It will happen soon, hang in there!
    I can vision you and Alexandre laughing about your days in hicktown at a dinner on your penthouse in Manhattan, San Francisco or Sao Paulo with your big city friends and telling them all about the exotic life in the country :)
    If you end up in Sao Paulo I will have a ton of big city friends to introduce to you.

  6. Hey guys - Steph, don't worry I still think you're great - you live in a place with no major shopping centre !
    I guess I must be really lucky, cause my nationality is German and nearly everyone here in the South has a German ancestor or knows somebody with a German ancestor - so everyone still wants to know where i'm from, but when I say "Germany" they go "A que legal, sabe que meu bisavõ é alemão?" or something to that effect and I guess it makes me not quite so foreign to them (I don't get any of the rudeness and stupid questions you guys seem to experience).

    Hm - so maybe don't say you're American but choose some large Paulista immigrant minority and they'll be able to relate better?

    Call it a white lie ;)
    Hang in there!

  7. Oh man, you should get a good list of those kinds of everyday questions you were talking about in your head, like the weather and potholes, and stick them into the conversation quick before people can ask you any follow-up American questions.

    "You're not from here, are you?"

    "Not originally, but I live here. Crazy weather we're having, huh?"

    If they go back to America, do it again.

    "So you're from... ?"

    "The United States. I was just thinking about the potholes they have up there on all the streets. Just like the ones here that I have to drive on. They're terrible, huh?"

    Hahaha, just have a bunch of 'em and keep changing/relating the subject. Even to the point of being obnoxious about it. Maybe it could work! Pretty much prove that although you have a funny accent, you're really Brazilian now :)

  8. Danielle,

    I get the "you´re not from here" in Belo Horizonte and it is a big city. It is as though people get some sort of pleasure out of pointing me out (dedurando). This I never experienced in Rio and my husband shows it confirms his feelings that BH is hicksville, only bigger.

    I swear some day I will go postal and there will be Globo headlines about an American who assaulted someone just cause I got asked for the zillionth time "you´re not from here, are you?".

    However, there ARE people who look past your nationality, it just takes a while.

  9. Hi Danielle,

    I sympathize with your situation. While nobody in Manaus was that harsh with me, I know from speaking to Brazilians living here in California that I have a long ways to go before my Portuguese sounds less caipira ou americano. On that note, I thought you might like to know that they (Brazilians in the US) go through similar situations. They also hate constantly being asked "Where are you from?" Who knew?! Hehehe. Here is the link. Most of it is just advertisement, but there are some good points.

    Take care,

  10. "Where are you from" is small talk when you're in a little yokel town, where the idea of community and belonging is usually limited to a few silly references like accent or faith. I myself often get "de onde você é" when visiting small towns in Brazil just because of my carioca accent.

  11. Now I feel really bad, because I always ask people where they're from. I really wanna know, so I can start talking to them. It would be even worse if I took a "Little Prince" approach to it and asked "Hey, so what's your favourite colour?"

    I think some of you guys may be overreacting about the "where are you from?" question. Like Pedro said: they notice you're not from there and they want to start small talk. Maybe this is a cultural communication issue rather than an actual offense.

    Here in the States, I've been asked:

    - So you're from Brazil? Buenos Aires?
    - Why is your drivers' license expired? Are you an illegal or something? (I was asked this one by a cop, on my graduation day)
    - Are you a Jew? I thought you were Brazilian!
    - Are you sure you have a visa? (a woman asked me at a karaoke bar)

    All I'm saying is that most Americans I met around here can't tell the difference between me, F. Castro, H. Chavez, Shakira and Blanca (the Brazilian green dude from "Street Fighter"). Some of the comments I hear are innocent, but some are just straight up full on prejudice.


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