Sunday, March 31, 2013

Live and Let Live? (Long Entry)

So I have some big questions/issues to discuss today.

I had an overall nice weekend visiting my old friends in Caipirópolis. I took advantage of the holiday weekend and my myriad of student cancellations to make the long bus ride inland.

As you probably remember from my years of musing/complaining/analyzing, the culture of small town inland Brazil is very different from big cities in the country, and very VERY different from anything I experienced in the US. There is less exposure to people who are different from the mainstream culture. The large majority of citizens are religious. There are almost zero recent immigrants (I was one of a handful that I knew about in the region). Gay people are still ostracized. People rarely come or go. Things are slower, and more predictable.

This small town conservative culture is combined with an almost complete lack of people speaking up. I mentioned this a little in my previous post about the bus -- when Brazilians see things that they disagree with, like a cultural norm or an outright law being broken, they rarely say anything to the offender. They will whisper to their company, or click their tongues, but it is not the Brazilian way to speak one's mind when you believe someone else is doing something wrong.

While I lived there, this social acceptance (if that's the right word), along with this constant but only whispered surprise at anything different from the status quo, made me think a lot about relativity. My trip back this weekend brought up this issue.

Here is my first question: Where do you draw the line between something that is simply a cultural difference and something that is inherently wrong?

Here's my second question: When you believe that something is inherently wrong, when do you speak up?

I've been in many situations since my move to Brazil in which I've been forced to try to answer those questions in the moment, and in which I've had to make difficult decisions. I'm going to tell you about some of the situations and be honest about what I did. I hope to avoid judgement in the comments and to instead receive advice/insight on how you TRULY respond in situations like these (not just how you tell other people to respond, since these kinds of responses are so much easier said than done). I also appreciate any reading recommendations on the topic. (I'm going to focus on situations with people that you know, not with strangers.)

1. Once, Alexandre and I met up with a group of his work friends at a restaurant for one guy's birthday. The birthday boy drove himself to the restaurant and drank himself into a stupor. I asked Alexandre, "is he going to drive himself home?" to which Alexandre responded, as if it were obvious, "yeah. He drove himself here."  I expressed my concern, and Alexandre gave a typically Brazilian response: "he's a grown up. I can't tell him what to do. If he wants to drive himself home, he's going to drive himself home." We were one of the first couples to leave. I was angry that no one stepped in to prevent the birthday boy from driving, and we argued on the car ride home. I didn't do anything because these were Alexandre's friends and it was the first time I was meeting most of them. I didn't want to be the one to make a scene, especially since it seemed like I was the only one who saw anything wrong with the situation. (However, it's hard to know, since people don't tend to say anything when they think something is wrong. Vicious cycle, perhaps.) I argued that we all had a social responsibility, not to protect birthday boy's pride, but to protect his life and the people he might hurt or kill on the way home. However, I still regret not saying anything to any of the other women at the party, who I think may have been good allies in that they would be sympathetic to my concern, they wouldn't possess the bullshit Brazilian macho mentality that "real men know how to drive home drunk," and they would also be close enough to the birthday boy to intervene. Birthday boy needs to thank his lucky stars that he made it home without incident.

2. When Alexandre was in the military, we went to another, similar birthday dinner. Luckily, no one was drunk, but the topic of conversation was gay people. You may be able to imagine the type of comments being made by the oaf-like military men and their equally ignorant wives. Lots of jokes, lots of ridiculous theories and generalizations, etc. Alexandre didn't laugh at the jokes or chime in, but he didn't defend gay people, either. He is so worried about "rocking the boat," especially with people who are more coworkers than friends (which was the case in both of these situations), that he believes it's more important not to openly question the status quo than to do what I consider to be " the right thing" (to say that you disagree). I felt pressured by Alexandre's silence and the fact that they were his coworkers, and again, I didn't say anything. But after a while I got so annoyed that I just got up and left the table. I went to the bathroom, but didn't say anything like "I'm going to the bathroom."  I just go up and left. I stayed in there for a while, stalling, fiddling with my hair, hoping they'd change the subject.  Apparently, my exit was "dramatic" (Alexandre's word) since I didn't excuse myself, and the table stopped their conversation because they were confused about my abrupt exit. You may not be surprised to know that Alexandre was annoyed that I'd "rocked the boat." This led to another argument on the car ride home.

As you can see, this is a huge culture clash for the two of us.

3. This weekend while out with my Caipirópolis friends, we were catching up at a restaurant. Most of my friends who were there are college educated and well traveled, but the gay jokes still started flying. One friend made a gay joke that required the understanding of a pun in Portuguese. Everyone laughed except for me.
"Aw, I don't think Danielle understood the joke," one friend said.
"I understood," I said. "I just didn't think it was funny."
My side of the table raised their eyebrows and changed the subject (a small victory, in my opinion), but the other side continued the gay bashing.
"It's like being gay is the new fad," one girl said loudly, stupidly.
"No it's not. It's not like that." These were my friends, and only my relationships and reputation were in jeopardy, not Alexandre's. So I had no problem speaking up. "You may disagree, but your country is giving gay people more and more rights. I think the same number of people have always been gay, but people just feel more comfortable being open about it now."
Luckily not all of my Caipirópolis friends are ignorant in this respect, and one of them agreed with me and made some supportive comments. It shut up the original joksters, and permanently changed the subject.  I truly believe that the majority of young people in Brazil don't have anything against gay people, but (a) some people don't feel bad making non-PC jokes, and (b) most people don't say anything when they disagree with the gay bashing that they hear. I believe if everyone commented on the inappropriate nature of gay jokes, the few loud people making them would realize that these jokes are not socially acceptable, and some would hopefully even question their prejudices.

4. One of these friends from Caipirópolis recently had a baby. She doesn't have a car (or a lot of money) and therefore does not have a car seat for her baby. Car seats are expensive in this country (I just checked the Wal-Mart website: the cheapest one is R$120, but I calculated the average of all of the car seats available, and it came to R$421.70, or 62% of the monthly minimum wage), so I don't necessarily blame her. But I do think it's her responsibility to avoid taking her baby in a car. So when she offered to come pick me up from the bus terminal with another friend, I asked, "but do you have a car seat for the baby? Because I can take a taxi, really. I wouldn't want to be the reason for the baby to be in the car without a car seat."  "Yeah, I have one!" She told me, so I said OK.

Unfortunately, she lied. I think she just felt bad and wanted to be involved in my arrival, didn't want to be left out, or something. But when she came with our other friend (mostly her friend) to pick me up, she was in the back seat without a seat belt on and with the baby in her lap.
I was annoyed. I was annoyed that she lied, annoyed that I needed to care more about her baby than she did, annoyed that the driver agreed to have the baby in her car without a car seat. We got to her house and the driver soon had to leave. Another friend was coming to pick us up to go out to dinner.
As the three of us were making dinner plans, I asked, "Why don't we eat somewhere around here? Then we don't have to take the baby in the car."
"No, it's fine!" my friend insisted. "I hold the baby in the car all the time."

(I'm going to interject here that this is against Brazilian law, even though it's a law that a lot of people break.)

"Besides," my friend continued. "I have a sort of car seat." She showed me a baby carrier thingy, like this one:

"Well, you could at least bring that," I said. "But isn't taking the baby in the car to go out to dinner kind of an unnecessary risk?"
"Yeah, I guess," my friend said, but then she and the other friend continued making plans for the restaurant as if our conversation hadn't taken place.
When the friend with the car arrived, I made a point of asking her, "are you sure you want the baby in your car without a car seat?" I thought maybe she'd stick up for the baby and also for herself, as the driver, since the mother wouldn't.
"Não dá nada," was her response. That kind of means like "it's no problem" or "nothing's going to come of it." (Later, when she and I talked alone, she told me that she didn't like the situation but didn't want to be the one to tell the mom what to do with her kid. It was very similar to Alexandre's argument about the drunk friend being an adult who could do whatever he wanted.)

What was I supposed to do here? Refuse to get in the car? What would you have done, really?

I did refuse to be in this situation again. Friend with the baby invited me to lunch with her family on the outskirts of town. She said her uncle would pick us and the baby up, that we'd barbecue at the uncle's house, and that he'd drive us back at the end of the day. I'd been to this uncle's house before (and I'd driven myself), and this uncle is a big drinker. I highly doubted he would keep himself sober enough to drive us (and the baby (without a car seat (on the highway))) home after a barbecue at his own house with all of his family. I told my friend that I would not go in the car with them, but that if she wanted to cook at her house, that I'd be happy to do the cooking and even the shopping. She didn't really seem to understand my protest, and insisted that she wanted to go see her aunt and uncle. So I said sorry, I wouldn't be able to join them. I felt that I'd made my opinions clear quite a few times, in as polite of a way as possible. I couldn't force her to be a better mother, but I could choose not to be involved in such blatant, dangerous law-breaking and bad parenting.

So now I'd like to hear your answers to my previous questions, in light of these anecdotes. No one is perfect, and we're all going to have differences of opinions from our friends. But where do you draw the line? And is there a difference in drawing the line because of cultural differences, and drawing the line below things that you fundamentally disagree with? And what does "drawing the line" mean to you? Just saying that you disagree? Or ending a friendship all together? Or somewhere in between?

As for my friends whose gay jokes are my biggest gripe about them, I don't believe I need to like, cut them out of my life. They aren't against gay rights, nor do they mistreat gay people -- their culture just hasn't evolved enough to think that gay jokes are inappropriate. (This also comes back to the relativity issue, and how in the US, un-PC jokes are often criticized.) But this friend who had the baby was the one who made the comment about gayness being a "fad," and in this case I think my line is drawn with the gay opinions and the baby situation combined. I think she and I are just too different to stay friends. I've spoken up and given her my opinions, and she disagrees with some things that are really important to me.

I'm still not satisfied with myself about not speaking up in social situations with Alexandre's friends and coworkers, and I just don't know what the right thing to do is. I don't know where to draw the lines, and I don't know when it's even worth it to speak up.

If you've gotten this far, thanks for reading all that.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bus Etiquette

Yay! A blog post!

So as most of you know, I broke my wrist a couple of months ago, got a metal plate put in, and have been on the surprisingly long road to recovery ever since. Things are about 80% better, but I'm still working on building my strength and movement.

My weakness in my right arm becomes an issue on my daily trips on the city buses. I don't have enough strength to hold on to the standing bars safely, and if I fall in the next few months, it'd be easy for me to break my wrist again. So I have no qualms about asking able-bodied people sitting in the handicapped seats to get up for me. (I just flash them my big scar and gross them out.)

But here in Springfieldee, the handicapped seat system is a little different from the ones I've experienced in the US. First, there are a LOT of seats wrapped in yellow pleather to signify "handicapped" -- on small buses, it can be as many as half the seats! I think this system is worthy of some sociology studies. In the US, usually only 2 or 3 seats are marked as handicapped. People leave them empty unless the bus is totally full, and when a disabled person or an older person gets on the bus, it's very clear WHO needs to get up.

I have a lot of time to think and muse on the bus, and I have developed a theory that marking so many of the seats as handicapped is worse than marking only a few. More people are likely to sit in handicapped seats immediately (who wants to leave HALF of the bus seats unoccupied? "No way all these seats are going to be filled," people think), but then when a handicapped person gets on the bus, every able-bodied person sitting in the yellow seats believes that the OTHER able-bodied people should get up. Does that make sense? If 10 seats are designated as handicapped, it is more likely that able-bodied people will sit in them. Then, if 10 people are sitting in these seats and a handicapped person gets on the bus, all of those 10 people think, "there are 9 other people who could get up, too. I shouldn't have to stand! Someone else can!" There must be a name for this theory.

Anyway, this social musical chairs theory (let's use that name) results in a poor combination with the Brazilian cultural tendency to not call people out on their shit. We Americans are all about calling people out on their shit. Smoking less than 20 meters from the bus stop? HEY YOU, THAT IS ILLEGAL!  J-walking? You need a talking-to, from ME! But that is not the Brazilian way, for better or for worse. So very often, the elderly get on the bus, they see the designated seats full of youngins, and they don't say anything, or demand their rights! They just give people forlorn glances, hoping that someone will notice and offer them the seat that they are legally entitled to. (I really wish these elderly people would ask ME to get up, so I could stick the scar in their faces and tell them to ask someone else! I would love for them to know that I'm not just some lazy youngin'. I used to leave the handicapped seats open! Be the change you wish to see in the world, and all that.)

Luckily, people almost always notice these elderly bus riders and get up and give them seats. 

So as you can see by the image above, lots of people have the right to the handicapped seats. My injury has caused me to consider something new: who gets priority over the yellow seats? 

Notice the first square in that image -- obese people get priority to sit over non-obese people. Some seats are marked as being specifically for obese people. But who has priority -- me, or the obese person? Me, or the lady with the 4-year-old? Do I have the right to ask other "preferential" people to get up and give me their seats? This question is more important than you may realize. Consider:

The other day, I got on the bus. The bus had 4 handicapped seats, 2 of which were combined (as in, no stitching or plastic to separate them) to make them more accessible for obese people. In these 4 (well, 3) seats, there was one old lady, one younger girl, and one fat guy in the obese seat. What was I supposed to do? Did the fat guy consider himself to be obese, or was he just sitting in the seat because it was open? Would I offend him more by asking him to get up, or by NOT asking him?

I did not handle this well.

I decided to ask the young girl to get up. But as I gave her my speech,* the fat guy got up too, to offer me his seat! It was kind of a mess, and it was really awkward, and I tried to just pretend like I didn't see the guy. But what was I supposed to do, ask him for his BMI?

*Here's my speech; not sure if my Portuguese is correct: Com licença, descuple te incomodar, mas não consigo segurar a barra. ::flash scar, make a sad face::. Posso sentar aqui?

Because I ride a lot of buses, I've had a lot of practice with this social awkwardness. So here are my solutions:

1. If there are regular open seats, I will sit in those first, so that no one asks me to get up (not that they would).

2. a) If there aren't, I'll ask obviously able-bodied people to get up from the handicapped seats.
    b) If there are both men and women in these seats, I'll ask men before I'll ask the women. This is not because I think women are frail creatures who need to sit. It's because, in the few cases when I've gotten attitude for asking for a seat, it's always been from women. So I'm actually using the country's chauvinism to my advantage. Men are more likely to think, "oh, that poor thing!" Women have just sighed and glared at me. Once, a girl seemed to think I was asking for her seat in order to get closer to her boyfriend (ironically, this is when I still had my brace, so the fact that I was telling the truth should have been more obvious) and she insisted on reaching over me to hold his hand and glaring at me during the whole ride. She was totally uncomfortable, and I got to play games on my cell phone. She was cutting off her nose to spite her face).

3. If there are no obviously able-bodied people in the handicapped seats, I'll ask someone from the single seats to get up. These are the single seats:
See? I ask those people, because it's physically easier for them to get up and let me squeeze past.

But I never just stand and look at people with puppy dog eyes. I don't look handicapped, and more importantly, I will not go along with this cultural tendency of not sticking up for myself. I'm not going to fall and break my wrist again just because I was afraid of offending some teenage girl who wanted easier access to her Blackberry.

Oh, and as a side note, since I always get a seat on the bus now, I have started to bring books to read (and my Kindle, when I deem it safe). This post should show you that my thinking on the bus does more harm than good! I overthink everything!

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Break from Sugar

Poor little blog! So much I want to write, and no time to write it.

Here's a quick post for you:

Starting last weekend, I decided to stop eating sugar to see how I would feel. I've been reading so much lately about how terrible sugar is, how it's more correlated with obesity and obesity-related diseases than fat, etc. I'm surprised at how confused people have been by this concept. My American friends are saying that it's not possible, but luckily, I live in a country where cheese is just cheese, yogurt is just yogurt, and spices are just spices. Very few things have extra sugar added to them if they are not obviously desserts. People also keep assuming that I'm substituting sugar with fake sweeteners and stuff. Yes, I know they're bad, and sometimes worse, so no, I'm not doing that! I am eating fruit and honey. I'm also eating Brazilian french bread from the bakery, which probably has a little bit of sugar in it. BUT I HAVE NOT HAD A CHOCOLATE PASTEL IN 8 DAYS.

I'm just trying to say that this lack of sugar should be easy to understand -- not necessarily easy to do, in terms of will-power! The hardest things for me are checkout lines and Pinterest. I do feel cravings for sugar and sweets, especially in the afternoons. I've been more irritable than usual this week, despite a full night's sleep every night.

But to give you an idea of how possible this is, here is a typical day of meals for me from this week:

A smoothie with milk, yogurt, bananas, and strawberries (sometimes I switch out a dairy for coconut milk)

An apple

Whole wheat pasta with chicken breast, tomatoes, olive oil, roasted squash, and Parmesan cheese

A few bites of queijo minas padrão (cheese)

A Middle Eastern salad with arugula, chickpeas, chopped up and sauteed kale, and a beef marinated in Middle Eastern spices and topped with lime juice and olive oil

I'm just trying to cut out unnecessary sugars and sweeteners. I'm not cutting out fructose. I'm not cutting out carbs that will turn into sugars. I'm just trying to be instinctive about it. Fruit = fine; milkshake/suspiros/cake = unnecessary.

I'd like to take this opportunity to plug a wonderful e-cookbook that I recently bought. It has lots of light, healthy, Brazil-friendly meals in it. It's from Jules at Stone Soup and it's called 30 Dinners in 30 Days. She gives you tips on how to make cooking at home easier, and she gives useful alternatives to recipes (for ex, how to make them vegetarian, or how to substitute rare ingredients). It's been helping me a lot this week. That's where I got the salad idea from.

I cook a lot on the weekends and freeze meals; I roast things late at night for the next couple of days; I don't mind spending a little extra for cheese that's already grated or arugula that's already been cleaned, because I know I'll be more likely to eat it.

Hooray for Brazil for making healthy eating easy!

I'll write more blog posts soon, I promise!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...