Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Haves and the Have-Nots

I would argue that one of the hardest things about living in Brazil is its lack of a strong middle class and the overwhelming disparities between the shockingly poor and everyone else. It sucks for everyone involved.

Alexandre and I lead a rich life in Brazil: rich by most of the world's standards, in fact. We each received a good education, while many of the people we encounter in our day-to-day exchanges barely know how to read. We probably spend more on groceries and restaurants that many of our neighbors make in a month. We have most of the latest electronics, while people just around the corner feel lucky to have a fridge and a TV.

Most people get angry at the other side for this situation: the rich have a strong distaste for the poor, and the poor feel the same about the rich. The rich create ways to separate themselves from the poor as much as they can: country clubs, private beaches, gated communities, and security everywhere. The poor see this obvious avoidance, see the way they're being pushed out, and lose any remorse they might have harbored when trying to steal from or take advantage of or make a quick buck off of the rich.

The weather outside is gorgeous today, so I decided to procrastinate on my translation and spend some time at the beach after lunch. My student (who's also Alexandre's surfing instructor) insisted that it's safe for me to bring my Kindle out, so I did.

I already stand out enough as it is, with my height and my very white skin and my short, lightly-colored hair. I can try to make myself look a little more humble with a simple dress and Havaianas, but I'm pretty sure my efforts are futile. I also have a fancy pair of prescription sunglasses, a gift from my ophthalmologist father-in-law. (I could choose not to wear them, but then I'd be wearing a fancy pair of prescription eyeglasses, so it doesn't make much of a difference.) I find myself more conscious of myself than I ever have been, have ever had to be.

I made a point to sit where other people were sitting so I wouldn't be isolated (at least not physically). But it didn't seem to work. About 20 minutes in, two skinny preteen boys wearing only scraggly shorts (with no shoes, no shirts, no towels, etc) were suddenly blocking the sunlight hitting my Kindle screen. I was lying down, so I sat up quickly and turned around to face them.

"Hello," I said simply, in Portuguese.

"Hi," one of the boys said. He dragged out the dipthong a little. If he'd been ten years older and sheltered, I would've thought he was flirting.

They circled around a bit. I looked at them directly, but not with scorn or fear. They looked at each other quickly, and back to me.

One sat down next to me. He mumbled something like, "I'm just gonna sit here for a minute." The other joined him. They stared out at the water nonchalantly.    

Two boys behind us were kicking a soccer ball around. They were about the same age as these boys, though slightly better dressed and probably more well-fed.

"You guys seem pretty bored," I said to the boys next to me. "It seems like a great day for soccer. Maybe you could ask those boys if you could join them."

This forced them to look back at the boys behind them, and at the people around us. After exchanging glances with his partner, the talkative of the two looked at me one more time.

"Vamos na agua," he said, an ambiguous grammar that could've been directed toward me ("we're going in the water") or toward his friend ("let's go in the water"). Then, with the same languidness with which he had sat down, he was up again, his friend scrambling up soon after. They made their way down to the shore. They entered the water slowly. They glanced back only twice.

When I looked around again, I saw that the small family on my left had disappeared, and the boys behind me had gone to sit on a bench close to the boardwalk and off of the sand.

My afternoon on the beach had suddenly lost its luster, so I packed up my things and went home.

The whole thing made me sad. I'll never know if the boys were actually trying to steal something from me, or if they were just innocent and curious about what new machine I had. I'm doing my best not to judge them, especially because they're young, but also because they're hungry, and desperate, and that is all they know. They certainly don't know enough about how the economy works to know that I have the right to possess the things I have just as much as they would if they had them -- basically, that I'm not "the bad guy," in the same way they are not "the bad guys."

There is, unfortunately, always a risk that I'll get robbed here, because the people robbing often have so little, and the things they would take from me (a cell phone, an MP3 player, a watch) can garner them so much. I think I would be most upset if my Kindle were stolen because it wouldn't even have value for the person who stole it -- even if they knew what it was, or found someone to buy it, they wouldn't know how to get past the password, or even how to use it (or likely how to read books on it). If someone stole it, it would just be a frenzied, knee-jerk attempt at Having.

I don't think the solution is to keep myself cooped up in my house; nor is the solution not to buy, use, and enjoy the things I want and that I can afford. Many people think that the problem is that some people have so much, when the real problem is that not everyone has the opportunity to have what they want, let alone to have basic things. Basically, it's not wrong for me to have a cell phone -- it's wrong that the other guy and I live in the same neighborhood, but he can't afford one.

We don't make enough to join an ever-popular country club, though I don't know that I'd want to, even if we did, because I don't know if seclusion and exclusivity is the solution for me, either (though it's a logical reaction, especially for people with kids).

For now, my working solution is to try to maintain my routine as much as possible, but to try not to look like a deer in headlights or a hamster hoarding her food while doing it, and, if faced with situations like the one I was in today, to be steady but respectful (rather than rude or skiddish) in an attempt to diffuse the tension. But I don't know what the real, big-picture solution is, and until the gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots gets a little more narrow, I don't know if I'll ever feel completely comfortable.

PS: Thanks to everyone for all of their advice on the schools. Some things are in the works, so I will have updates for you sometime next week. :)


  1. Danielle,

    I think you are already doing the right thing, I mean, when you go to the beach, try and stay near other people.
    In big cities, common sense is key, you would never walk into an alley by yourself late at night, so, you should be on an isolated part of the beach.
    You can always stay close to a beach kiosk, or other people, families or the ever so present folks playing footvolley or soccer.
    Your area is known for being very safe, there is a very efficient police and not so many desperate people, so just use some common sense, like you seem to have already been practicing and you should be just fine.


  2. Danielle, don't doubt your intuition. We have been here long enough to know curiosity and when someone is trying to take advantage. Obviously there are many reasons behind it. You can call them bad kids with an open conscience. But here you learn to watch out for yourself.

    I'm sure it is a fluke, as most of these situations are, but I tell my 4 yr old that if he would be very upset to lose something he should not take it out.

    I choose where I take my kindle. It's an unknown and thus potentially worth something. But don't let this ruin all your beach days. It was a taste of the reality of others, a reason to be even more thankful for what you have and more open to give what you can.

    If you were in Rio you could join the "Ghetto" country club with us. As one expat referred to it: "It's cheap and anyone could afford it so EVERYONE goes there." I laughed my ass off at that comment.

  3. I just had an idea!!!
    Why don't you put your kindle in the middle of the regular magazine!
    Wouldn't that be a good way to make it stealth? :)


  4. I agree with Ray! My classmates do it all the time, but using notebooks or books.
    I go crazy when I need to take out my computer with me. I don't want to lose it, and I don't have the money for buying another one. And this computer is really special for me, dad gave me it when I passed vestibular.

  5. That was kind of sad - hopefully if they were planning to swipe your Kindle they felt badly maybe and changed their minds.

  6. Being a newcomer, I am learning and starting to see the classism on a daily basis. For example, my in-laws treat their maid like family. I noticed when visitors come around, she will disappear. Before Easter weekend, we took her out with us to eat. I was shocked to find out, that was her first time eating at restaurant! She was very quiet during the meal. I have seen poor try to steal from the rich. Its sad both sides are brutal to each other. I agree with the others, follow your intuition.

  7. This is one of the many reasons I Love the USA !I love my kindle and and take it with me everywhere I go.To think I would have to watch or hide it when I go out,seems outrageous and totally defeats the purpose of having one.I hope you don't have to live in Brazil for too long.I love the country in general,but would never go back there to live.
    I was born and raised in Brazil(in Rio)until the age of 18.My family was VERY poor and Honest.I must say most of the poor people are honest.Don't let the minority (even though it may seem majority)of "trombadinhas"make you think otherwise.


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