A dispatch from the labyrinth of Brazilian bureaucracy

Bureaucracy in Brazil is notoriously inefficient. The World Bank estimates it takes 80 days to start a business here (landing between Somalia and Eritrea, at 70 and 84 days, respectively), and ranks Brazil 126th out of 190 countries for ease of doing business. In fact, an entire industry has sprung up around helping people navigate all the paperwork you need to buy a house or register your car or something.

But at the same time… things get done. A Canadian professor at UCS is fond of remarking that in Brazil, “nothing works and everything gets resolved.” For better or for worse, in one way or another, people figure things out.


Caxias at night, as seen from the Pavilhoes Da Festa Da Uva—which my host mom twice jeitinhoed our way into by sweet-talking the guards

Brazilians even have a term for this ability to get things done: jeitinho brasileiro, or literally “little Brazilian way.” It refers to any creative or unconventional solution to a problem. This can be innocent enough (sticking frozen water bottles in front of a fan for some DIY a/c), but it can also be illegal (tapping power lines) or downright reprehensible (government kickbacks on a truly massive scale). Jeitinho brasileiro is thinking outside the box—whether it be a conventional or social or legal one.

Jeitinho brasileiro extends to bureaucracy as well. When requirements are arcane and processes opaque, it seems like the only person who enforces anything is the functionary you’re working with. And if this functionary also thinks that the bureaucracy is unnecessary—or, you know, he or she doesn’t face any consequences for circumventing it—then he or she is your key to getting things done. You just have to find the right way to ask.


The Federal Police in Iguatemi Mall, Caxias do Sul

My first brush with bureaucracy in Brazil was registering for my SUS card, which allows me to access Brazil’s healthcare. I thought it would be simple: other ETAs in Caxias had gotten their cards by just showing up at the hospital with their passports and waiting for a couple hours. But for Barbara and me, the process took over a week:

  • When we first went, the hospital told us we needed an additional paper from an external immigration agency (I don’t know why)
  • When we drove to this agency, we learned this paper literally just stated our name and address—which we didn’t need to show any proof of
  •  When we returned to the hospital the next week, we were told the SUS system was done and they didn’t know when it would come back up
  • The system remained down for a couple days, but at least we wised up and learned that by calling ahead
  • Later in the week, when the system was finally back up, we were finally able to get our card—but only after being helped by workers so apathetic that Elaine complained to their manager about them

My other big encounter with bureaucracy, registering with the Federal Police, was a lot more involved—and even that was with a guide from Fulbright and some help from UCS:

    • When you apply for a visa—surprisingly, the easiest visa-application process I’ve ever been through—you get a form stapled to your passport that you need to bring to the Federal Police
    • Fulbright also recommended I bring to Brazil a notarized copy of my birth certificate—which thankfully my parents had, or else I would’ve had to pay out the nose to have it shipped from my birthplace in the middle of Minnesota
    • The International Exchange Department at UCS was kind enough to register us online with the Federal Police—printing each of us an appointment form and payment form
      • Except the appointment was after our 90th day in Brazil, our deadline for registration—so we needed to go individually to the Federal Police (located in a shopping mall outside the city) to reschedule.
        • Elaine looked online and saw they opened at 8. So we went at 8. They turned out not to open until 10. When we were finally seen, we were given new appointments and told to return the following week.
      • And my appointment form had my mother’s name spelled wrong, which I was promised wouldn’t be a problem.
      • The payment form needed to be paid in cash at a bank. There’s a bank at UCS—but I learned the hard way it is only staffed from noon to 3:00PM.
        • I also realized that the form had a deadline I had missed, necessitating another trip to the International Exchange office before I could return to the bank during the proper hours.
    • Fulbright told me the Federal Police needed a 3x4cm headshot (smaller than a standard passport photo, and costing about US$5 for a set of eight) and authorized photocopies of every page of my passport with something on it
      • I actually had to return to pose for a second sets of photos, because I didn’t pay close enough attention to Fulbright’s original guidelines and had my photo taken with glasses and a smile, like a fool
      • Getting authorized copies of my passport entailed waiting in line at a cartorio and then paying about US$20 to for copies of the eleven (!) spreads of my passport that have personal information, visas, or stamps on them
    • Hand over your passport with the form stapled inside, your updated appointment form, your payment form with the receipt of payment stapled to it, and one of those 3x4cm photos
    • Wait while the attendant fills out a series of physical and virtual forms with what looks like the exact same information.
      • The attendant did indeed notice that my mom’s name was misspelled, but she just corrected it in pen without a word. Good thing I didn’t need that notarized birth certificate I went through all the stress of finding.
    • Get fingerprinted
    • Ask the attendant if she needs your fancy expensive passport photocopies—which she doesn’t, because the Federal Police have their own copier
    • Get told to return in at least two months to pick up your residence card

Clearly, I didn’t need all the preparation I put into this Federal Police registration… but at the same time, when I could be turned down for any number of petty reasons, I wanted to be as thorough as possible.


I registered at that empty desk on the right

Putting aside the rampant corruption it inspires, I don’t know how I feel about a culture of jeitinho brasileiro. I appreciate the ingenuity it often displays, and I’m drawn to its meritocratic trickster-tale sheen. But at the same time, the arbitrariness of some of my encounters with Brazilian bureaucracy—including the Fulbright Commission’s shifting stance on its vacation policy—is incredibly frustrating, and it strikes my US-conditioned self as patently unfair.

But regardless of my feelings: jeitinho brasileiro is part of the culture of Brazil. And as long as I’m here, I’m going to be grateful I don’t need to start a business or register a car or take out a mortgage. But for those other encounters with bureaucracy, the ones that I can’t escape, I’ll just have to find some jeitinho to deal with it.


kkk and other unfortunate Brazilian abbreviations

1507734524_893537_1507878071_noticia_normalAs in many other countries around the world, Whatsapp is hugely popular in Brazil. It’s my primary mode of communication here, and I don’t think I’m alone—phone companies advertise plans with free unlimited Whatsapp use, and I’ve never had anyone call or text me outside the app.

As a result, I’ve seen how a lot of people use a lot of different words, abbreviations, and slang over text. And, well, some of these abbreviations have vastly different meanings in the US, which leads to some pretty amusing texts. Here are three of the most common offenses:

stds = students

This is one I get when some of my students/professors try to write in English. I’ve seen lessons about internet slang in textbooks here, but I have no clue where this particular abbreviation came from. That being said, it does create some easy opportunities to joke about students being a pain in the rear.

bjs = beijos (kisses)

This is just one you learn by context clues when your host mom sends it to you… and your program coordinator… and your professors… and your students…

kkk = lol

Despite the fact the KKK refers to a white-supremacist terrorist group in the US, I actually find this abbreviation quite charming. It’s supposed to represent the sound of laughter, with a variable number of Ks depending on how long you want to laugh for. I just like it because every time I read it, I imagine the sender is laughing like Ernie from Sesame Street.

Other laugh sounds include rsrsrsrs (which some of my students told me stems from risos, meaning “laughs,” but which I think makes more sense when you consider that Rs are pronounced like Hs here) and shuahsuahsuah, along with a keyboard-mashing asdhfgdkl that I think is supposed to convey that you laughed so hard you had no choice but to smash your head into your keyboard.

Bonus differences that aren’t weird/funny but that I think are cute:
Hum(m) = hm(m)
Ops = oops

All of these abbreviations, however, are far better than the alternative: Whatsapp voice messages. It’s super common to send a brief voice recording in lieu of a text, and it drives me crazy. Brazilian Portuguese speakers: I can only understand you half the time even when we’re speaking face-to-face, and I can’t run your voice recording through Google Translate! English speakers: I don’t want to take time out of my schedule to sit and listen to you “umm” and “uhh” for two minutes, much less find a space to listen to your message so I’m not inconveniencing everyone around me! Just text me like a normal person.

I get that sometimes sending a voice recording is quicker for the sender, and I can see how the feature might be a boon in low-literacy environments. But we’re not in a low-literacy environment, and if I’m going to all the trouble to type something out so you can quickly scan it in any environment, you should do the same for me, darn it.

Go back to stds and kkk and bjs, please.

Just how safe is Caxias, exactly?

The website I use to get my local news has a fun little feature: a running tally of how many people have been murdered in Caxias this year. So far, that number stands at 42—a little less than two murders a week. (The other fun fact is that so far, only 17% of those cases have been resolved.)

I’ve had different reactions when talking to people about safety in Caxias. People who are used to living in bigger cities, like nearby capital Porto Alegre, say Caxias is relatively safe: gang violence isn’t as much of a thing here, and I get the impression that drug use isn’t quite as bad, either. But when I talk to some of my students who come from small towns—like, where it’s not uncommon to leave doors unlocked—they tell me Caxias is definitely dangerous.

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It’s not hard to see what’s happening in these conversations. We each have our own experiences that determine what we see as normal. We then compare our current situation to our established baselines and form judgements based on the differences. It’s how we make sense of the world.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been reading Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, a book that was originally on the syllabus for my Intercultural Communication class at UCS. I’ve actually been blown away by its insight—and that’s coming from someone who’s spent nearly a third of his life living, working, and traveling across some two-dozen countries. I think it does a great job of laying out the roots of cultural differences (in myriad dimensions) and explaining how they might influence people’s behaviors, values, and thoughts.

For me, the central assumption underpinning the book is that people have learned to behave in a way that works in their context. It’s easy to dismiss other people as stupid, but it’s harder to understand the context in which their behavior makes sense. That’s a good reminder for me in Brazil, where things can seem needlessly difficult or opaque—but I also think it’s a good approach to life. And if you may allow me to step up onto a soapbox for a second, I think this attitude is sorely needed in political conversations in the US as well.

Looking at Caxias’s 2018 murder rate, I can see why people tell me Caxias isn’t safe. I get why people don’t stop at red lights at night, and I understand why every house here has some sort of fence surrounding it. On a deeper level, I can better appreciate the malaise, frustration, and insecurity that many Brazilians (not just those in Caxias) seem to feel. And when murders are rarely solved—including the high-profile death of Rio de Jainero councilwoman Marielle Franco, which officially remains unsolved two months later—I get why so many people feel angry and pessimistic about the chances of justice being delivered in their country.

Anyway, if you want to read Cultures and Organizations, some kind soul posted a pdf of the full text online. I highly recommend it if you’re looking to learn about different ways of making sense of the world, or if you just want to realize how deep your own cultural programming runs. As I’m reading, I’m routinely surprised by how many of my own values and beliefs I take for granted—like how differences in individualism vs. collectivism, for example, can explain some of the tension we ETAs are experiencing in Brazil.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep trying my best to approach other people and cultures with humility and openness. I’ll also do my best not to get mugged—and admittedly breathe a sigh of relief when I get to spend some time in a city that’s a little safer than Caxias.

What I need to know about Brazil, according to my students (1/3)

This is the first post in a three-part series. You can find the second part here and the third part here.

As we all know, it’s super fun to talk about yourself. In this way, being an ETA can be a bit dangerous for the ego: because I’m still shiny and new, people want to hear about my life and experiences. Basically, I end up talking a lot. But since the Fulbright program’s all about intercultural exchange, I decided to turn the tables with my English V class: every week, one of them will present something (about themselves, Caxias do Sul, Brazil, or just what they like) to me.

I’m sort of proud how it worked out. My students seem to be having a lot of fun with the presentations, and they can practice English as I get to learn about Brazil. Here’s what they’ve been teaching me so far:

Music — Igore

Igore kicked off our series by giving me an overview of music in Brazil. I adapted his powerpoint a bit; the original presentation had the pictures appearing over each other. You can check out all the videos he showed here.

A lot of the music was what you might expect. But I was especially intrigued to learn about a genre that Igor translated as kids’ music. He showed us an example that was delightfully 90s, a bizarre mash-up of edgy visuals and a Kidz Bop chorus of  “Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump! Let’s jump!”

And then of course we had an example of funk music that basically reinforces every negative stereotype you could have about Brazil. (As an aside: Elaine detests funk music, and it amuses me to no end to respond to people who ask me what I think about funk with “my mom doesn’t let me listen to it.”)


Neymar’s old tweets — Jéssica

Neymar is a Brazilian soccer star whose bizarre tweets have become infamous in Brazil. My students were shocked when I’d never heard of him—he’s the world’s most expensive player and ESPN’s sixth-most popular athlete. He’s also apparently an avid tweeter, churning out nonsensical updates that quickly turn into memes here in Brazil.

Like, I’d never heard of Neymar, but by the time of the presentation I’d already seen a “Deus e TOP” joke used in a group on Whatsapp.

My students seemed to be split about Neymar. I get the impression that his skills on the pitch have earned him some status as a national hero, but my students’ reactions to his tweets ranged from ironic amusement to sincere regret that someone so careless and ignorant has such a large platform.


Brazilian Food — Susana

This was definitely one of my favorite presentations. My class conspired to bring in a selection of popular Brazilian foods, so we had a little party that day. I may have underplayed exactly how many of the foods I’d already tried as an excuse to eat more…

Susana broke down the foods that are popular in each of Brazil’s regions. Apparently the south, where we are, is known for its meat and adapted versions of European food. “Better versions,” Susana clarified. I totally agree that the churrasco here is outstanding—it’s probably the main reason why I eat like three times as much red meat here—but I’ve also spent several months in Rome and there is no way Brazil has superior Italian food.

Also, I heard from somewhere that to many Brazilians, a meal’s not a meal unless it has rice and beans. Sometime over the past two months, I have 100% bought into this, and even when I visit a buffet with a ton of other foods, rice and beans always find their way onto my plate.


Rio Grande do Sul’s musical culture — Patrick

My state, Rio Grande do Sul, has a proud history of gaúcho music. Patrick, a musician, wanted to break that down for me. He started in the 1960s with Gildo de Freitas and Teixeirinha, who performed a song that’s somehow become the state’s unofficial anthem. When Patrick played it, my students sang along, knowing every word.

Then came the jaunty Adelar Bertussi, whose accordion skills basically revolutionized the genre. He also brought drums into gaúcho music, which had traditionally only included the accordion, acoustic guitar, and tambourine.

Patrick also touched on tchê music, a relatively new genre that relies less on the gaúcho tradition and incorporates elements of other popular genres. It’s popular among kids who grew up going to Traditional Gaúcho Centers, and sounds (to me) suspiciously like ska. It’s divisive for all the reasons you’d expect cultural change to be.

Brazil for beginners: a reflection on life in Caxias

Today marks the end of the first quarter of my time in Brazil. And to be honest, I thought it would be harder.

There’s a saying here, courtesy of the late Brazilian musician Tom Jobim: “Brazil is not for beginners.” Personally, I don’t think this conveys any great insight into Brazilian culture—except maybe its penchant for exceptionalism—but it’s pithy and self-effacing, and so it ends up in travel guides and news articles and Fulbright Orientations and stuff.

I’m not trying to say that life in Brazil is easy. For many people, citizens and expats alike, it’s not. But for all that I’d heard about Brazil before coming here—from past ETAs and an impressively negative expat Facebook group—I was honestly expecting a lot worse.


Like, Caxias is known as a wealthy city. The streets are clean, it’s generally safe to walk around during the day, and there are cultural events on the weekends. My host mom says the tap water is safe to drink, even if we still boil it just to make sure. And over the two months I’ve lived here (spanning the end of summer and beginning of fall), the temperatures have never risen higher than the low 80s.

Caxias also feels super familiar. Half the food is Italian, and there’s a wide-aisled hypermarket called Zaffari down the street that feels like it was airlifted from the US. One of the city’s premier attractions is São Pellegrino, a gleaming four-level mall with an Airsoft range and a movie theater. I blend in on the streets, and the supposed coldness of the people here feels exactly like how people behave on the East Coast back home. And while the color of my skin would earn me the title gringo (with varying degrees of offensiveness) across much of the rest of South America, here the term refers exclusively to people who are culturally Italian.

Meanwhile, the Universidade de Caxias do Sul boasts a sprawling campus, a well-stocked library, and projectors in nearly every classroom. Maria Valésia, our program coordinator, zealously guards the 20-25 hours Fulbright says we’re supposed to devote to our university each week. Every one of my classes is led by a professor who is happy to include me in the lesson, and the vast majority of my students are proactive and eager to learn. The classrooms are informal—I can get away with teaching in shorts and a t-shirt.

On top of that, I live in a nice (bug-free) apartment close to the city center that was organized for me before I arrived. I live with another ETA whom I’m learning alongside and a great host mom who emphasizes how the three of us are a family. Since Elaine’s originally from the state of São Paulo, she also knows what it’s like to be an outsider and is good about explaining cultural differences to us. We cook and clean and take trips together, and I’ve learned more from her about navigating Caxias than from anyone else.



Nossa familia

In short: it’s hard for me to complain here. There are the daily ups and downs and inevitable frustrations, but on the whole, my life is a lot easier than I had expected it to be. And sure, part of that stems from the fact I’m a well-off able-bodied white dude, but even while inhabiting that position—which is shared by many other Fulbrighters across the world—I feel like I’ve gotten especially lucky here.

So while life in Caxias does sometimes feel like Brazil for beginners, I think my experiences only prove Jobim’s point. Living here is easy precisely because Caxias isn’t like the rest of Brazil. And I think these great diversities within Brazil’s borders were exactly what Jobim was trying to capture in his quip. (Well, that and the sex and violence and corruption, plus a whole host of political contradictions.)

“In a sense, Brazil provides a unique case study into modern life under contradictory conditions: it is the West, but it isn’t; it is rich and prosperous, but it isn’t; it has universal healthcare and education, and famine and ignorance in equal measures; it’s an industrial powerhouse, but it uses primary exports as a lifeline and can’t grow for three years in a row without generalized financial collapse. It’s a tropical paradise with a desert the size of France; the largest catholic country, with the largest gay pride parade; and, crucially, by almost any measure it’s the world’s 8th largest economy, as well as the most unequal.”

– Eduardo Coltre Ferraciolli, Quora

Brazil’s a big country, and I’m still wrapping my mind around it. I can’t conjugate verbs properly, I can’t speak intelligently (or at all, really) about the dictatorship, and I can’t tell you how much Brazilians pay in various types of taxes. But I can tell you that I’m trying to learn—and Caxias is a pretty comfortable place from which to do it.