One of the many advantages to being an educator in the digital space is the ability to connect with students from all over the world. If I had to take a guess as to which country I’ve learned the most about as a teacher – I’d have to say Brazil. In fact, I dedicate this ramble to one of these students, who I see more as a friend than anything else. Gabriel, thanks for teaching me about your country – I hope you enjoy reading this piece.
A year ago, my understanding of this complex, continental country was limited to the portrayals of the often misrepresentative media I immerse myself in. There wasn’t much in my newsfeed on what life is like in the world’s fifth-largest country. So I deferred to other avenues for information. In fact, I’d have to say that my first real forays into Brazilian society were catalyzed by two blockbuster films that appealed to me more for their action scenes than the societal problems their creators were aiming to expose. Actually, make that three (one of them had a super successful sequel).
Don’t know which ones I’m talking about? Here, I’ll list them out:
1. Cidade de Deus (City of God)
2. Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad)
3. Tropa de Elite 2 (Elite Squad 2)
If you haven’t gotten a chance to see any of these films, I highly suggest you make some time to do so. Not only are they all phenomenal examples of great movie-making, they also offer a window into a nation that is poised to become a global leader within our lifetimes.
I could never summarize into a ramble the appreciation for all things Brazil that I have come to amass over the course of the past 10 months. Just as these films attempt to present their audiences varying views of a society and the challenges that face ordinary citizens, I too am attempting to offer you a glimpse of this magnificent country.
Not Just Football (i.e. Soccer)
To non-Brazilians, Brazil tends to evoke one, almost unanimous sentiment – football frenzy. The country has produced, and continues to churn out, amazing athletes of legendary caliber. For good reason – football is pretty much Brazil’s unofficial religion, let alone a national pastime. As Gabriel once joked, “We show patriotism in two instances- 1) If a gringo (Caucasian foreigner) makes a crass remark about our country or 2) Whenever we’re playing a football match.”
It’s not a coincidence that I’m penning this ramble on the eve of the world’s largest international sporting event – the FIFA World Cup, due to begin in less than a month in, you guessed it, Brazil. The country has won the coveted trophy an unrivaled five times and hopes to cap off a sixth title on its home turf later this summer (which would be a first).
I was around nine years old when I first got into football. The first World Cup I remember consciously following was in 1998, when France clinched the title from Brazil. Even though I didn’t understand much in terms of team loyalty back then, my father explained to me that even back in our native Bangladesh, fans usually fell in two camps (at least in his time) – those cheering for Brazil and those cheering for Argentina. He went on to explain that Diego Maradona and Pelé, in particular, carried enormous influence outside South America, particularly among South Asian spectators, ever since the football heyday of the 1980s. Perhaps subconsciously, I too became a passive supporter of Brazil, that is, until FIFA 99 (the PC video game) was released a mere year later. Almost instantly I was hooked to all things international football. For a reason that perhaps I will never know, Brazil became, hands-down, my favorite international team.
Its status as a football powerhouse notwithstanding, Brazil is a tremendously complicated country the more you peel away the superficial layers of samba, soccer, and sandy beaches. There is much more to this country, good and bad, than just this sport.
Order and Progress
Brazil’s motto in the national language, Portuguese, is Ordem e Progresso, which translates to Order and Progress. It adorns the nation’s distinct green and yellow flag. Lofty goals for any country to achieve, but ones that are particularly poignant for a nation as beset with differences as Brazil. As you read the rest of this ramble, keep this maxim in mind.
For starters – let’s take a look at a map:
Brazil is a nation of continental proportions, literally. It touches every country in South America with the exception of Ecuador and Chile. It straddles across several ecological biomes, from the dense (but depleting) Amazon rainforest in the country’s vast north to the sweeping plains in the south. Along the country’s eastern coast with the Atlantic is where most of the population (the world’s fifth largest) lives. From north to south, cities of mention include Fortaleza, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo.
The easiest way to characterize the regional socioeconomic variations in Brazil is to compare the country to the United States, but in reverse. The country’s northeast is the agrarian heartland where millions of African slaves were brought in by Portuguese colonialists, who profited immensely from the Triangular Trade that dominated the Atlantic during the 17th-19th centuries. The southeast, on the other hand, is Brazil’s industrialized hub of commerce, tourism, and international investment. The megacities Sao Paulo and Rio can both be found here. The further south you go in Brazil, the more economically prosperous the states become.
A striking demographic reality in Brazil is the country’s racial makeup – the population is almost exactly half White and half non-White (encompassing people of African, indigenous, and mixed ancestry). And as is the case in much of the United States, Brazilians confront controversies surrounding race, economic opportunity, and social mobility on a daily basis. The prosperous southern states eye their northern, more ethnically heterogeneous, countrymen with guarded suspicion. Those in the north, for better or for worse, accept this as a part of their everyday reality.
Here are some graphs that offer additional perspective:
Bear in mind there is an enormous body of information on this topic out there, both from scholastic, objective sources as well as from publications that cater to selective special interests. My thoughts here are a reflection solely of my personal research as well as the conversations I have had with my Brazilian friends who reside there.
I have come to the conclusion that there are many parallels between Brazil and other countries. When it comes to developed countries, I predict what Brazil is going through today demographically is what America will have to confront in 50 years (conservative estimate), when we find White Americans on a 1:1 footing with non-Whites.
As for the developing world, I find that Brazil shares remarkable similarities with its BRIC partner India.
Brazil and India are two of the world’s largest democracies. This is a source of pride for citizens of both nations and gives credence to their international standing as regional powers.
If we examine the tale of the tape, some things are obvious. India’s population is 5 times that of Brazil’s (size-wise, Brazil is larger), its resources are more strapped, it is much more multiethnic and culturally diverse (there are 25 official languages, compared to Brazil’s one), and a greater proportion of the population lives below the poverty line. India is also much younger and hasn’t been able to flex its military muscle for as long as Brazil (remember the Paraguayan War?). But then again, India is a declared nuclear power with an increasingly insatiable appetite for weaponry, to the chagrin of both archnemesis Pakistan and its longtime ally China. Brazil currently pursues a more pacifist foreign policy, but has nonetheless managed to irk Washington by refusing to align itself overtly with the NATO block. The NSA didn’t help matters either.
The way I see it – both Brazil and India are going through growing pains – after all, it is during adolescence (let’s say young adulthood) that one struggles to find a comfortable niche from which to thrive. There is no question that Brazil had a considerable head-start as a unified nation-state compared to India, but military rule and setbacks to popular participation in politics stifled reform in the second half of the 20th century. Now, well into the 21st century, globally-engaged citizenry in both countries are a socially conscious bunch, invested in dedicating their collective resources and acumen to social improvement projects at home. And in responsive democracies, you’d think politicians would oblige.
If only it were that simple.
Despite hailing from democratic countries that differ from one another in language, religion, and culture, Brazilians and Indians find common ground in their mutual desire to right the wrongs in their societies. In both countries, cash-driven corruption, flagrant nepotism, and rampant financial misappropriation (or perhaps, mismanagement) top the list of the public’s grievances.
Politicians in both countries have historically been responsibly receptive to the masses before and during election seasons and only passively interested in furthering their constituents’ welfare at other times. For the most part, they have come from the established, wealthy (often foreign-educated) elite and have pursued positions of power more to solidify a sense of personal accomplishment than to help elicit meaningful changes in their communities. Newcomers to the political arena find themselves having to subscribe to a handful of predetermined party ideologies. In these regards, the United States isn’t that different, either. You pretty much start at the bottom and work your way up. You can escape the rat race if you have a famous last name or a friend with a fancy title (don’t ask me how to make these kinds of friends, that’s not my area of expertise).
That isn’t to say there haven’t been pioneers in the political arena. Both countries have been led by strong men (and women) but the current generation feels the situation has stagnated to the point of being irreversible. Maybe the recently-elected Modi will breathe new life and rekindle a renaissance in India. Dilma, however, doesn’t seem to be in a rush to capitalize on her position as Brazil’s first female head of state.
What makes Brazil and India stand out from other, dare I say “developed,” democracies is manifested most prominently by both governments’ lackluster attitudes towards three important spheres everyday citizens have to deal with on a daily basis: 1) Infrastructure (traffic, roads, public transportation); 2) Crime; and 3) Cost of Living (taxes, in the case of Brazil)
All Roads Lead to … Potholes
Minas Gerais is a populous state in south-central Brazil. A Brazilian exchange student friend of mine in high school hails from the major city there, Belo Horizonte. I recently reconnected with her. She advised me, “You’re welcome to come here, but don’t expect the roads to be like the ones back in New Hampshire.” I was a little surprised. Roads? Really? Why would that top her list of warnings to me?
Apparently Minas Gerais takes the cake for the worst (read: most dangerous) roads in the republic.
I can’t speak for the other states when it comes to enjoying a smooth ride on the highways, but one thing all Brazilians complain about is the traffic.
For instance, people in Sao Paulo can expect to spend 3-6 hours in their daily commute. It’s much worse if you have to take public transportation because you expose yourself to harrowing delays in transit and transfers. Perhaps because of the roads, or more likely because of congestion, Brazilians demand government-mandated improvements to the current insufficient transportation infrastructure across the board. But change has been painfully slow. So slow in fact that it has led to civil unrest. Most of these popular protests manifested last year, but every now and then another city in Brazil finds itself beleaguered by angry citizens fueled by a simple desire: to get to work on time without having to pay an arm and a leg for safe passage. Is that too much to ask?
Stadiums To Stand the Test of Time
Gabriel recently remarked to me that the World Cup will be a gigantic fiasco. I disagreed, and still do, because I think despite the construction mishaps (and unfortunate deaths) that have marred the lead-up to this event, the world will get a chance to see Brazil like it never has before.
It’s pretty clear, though, that no one could have imagined that this much cash would be needed to appease the football gods. Compared to previous World Cups, the cost seems to have spiraled out of control – I’ll let these figures do the talking:
The exorbitant amount of money that has been spent thus far has incensed Brazilians nationwide. What’s worse is how much money has yet to be appropriated or, it seems, wasted, in this effort. The continuing fiscal mismanagement and delays have done much to dampen the otherwise festive atmosphere as tourists pour into the country from all corners of the globe.
If the country’s leaders and policymakers want to turn these shortcomings into success stories, they might as well think about what’s going to happen in 2016, when the country is due to host another international mega-event – the Summer Olympics.
No reason to reinvent the wheel. Maybe I’m wrong, but until I see how much the government plans to invest when it comes to financing the Olympic venues, I’ll reserve judgment. My Brazilian friends are not keeping their fingers crossed.
Seasoned moviegoers who have gotten a chance to watch the three movies I mentioned earlier in this ramble will not only know what a favela is, but what one looks like. In Brazil, the word is synonymous with urban sprawl, the kind of place you don’t want to venture in late at night. Although they are often portrayed as inhospitable neighborhoods dominated by heavy-handed drug lords, favelas are home to millions of Brazilians. And not all favelas are made equal – some are certainly more dangerous than others, even by Brazilian standards.
What I have learned from countless hours of conversation is that favelas are, unfortunately, here to stay. Perhaps most importantly, they present themselves as a renewable resource for politicians to tap into every time there is an electoral contest. Few things are as photogenic as an elected (or aspiring-to-be-elected) leader posing with the poor – mind putting that on a campaign poster? If you want to see the difference between the have’s and have-not’s in Brazil, you don’t have to venture far from the comfy penthouses of the rich and famous. Chances are there’s a favela nearby. And the status quo doesn’t want to disturb this convenience.
Where it gets disturbing is the fact that most favelas are outside the jurisdiction of standard law enforcement. Much of this stems from the fact that local/provincial police forces just don’t have the manpower (or firepower) to pose any kind of a threat to the entrenched battalions that rule the favela streets. Cash is king – those who peddle for the king are willing to risk life and limb to maintain the status quo.
Interesting, isn’t it? I mentioned two types of status quo in the last two paragraphs. Paradoxical, yes, but very much the reality. Organized crime and politics have formed an uneasy, albeit symbiotic relationship in Brazil (let’s not forget, the same is true in India). The law is willing to turn a blind eye to illegal activities so long as politicians’ careers are left unscathed. Never mind the people, unless it’s time to snag a vote.
It hasn’t been pretty – the damage the drug trade is rendering on Brazil’s youth and favela residents in particular is staggering. Entire police forces have been designed (they’re more like paramilitary units) to deal with the armed lawbreakers – “mop-up” operations were initiated to ensure nothing embarrassing ensues when all eyes turn to Brazil later this summer. Have there been breaches of justice? You bet there have. The people aren’t complacent, but in some instances, they’re at a loss as to how to demand retribution.
The anger is bidirectional. Policemen who have seen their salaries stagnate have demanded increased wages. When the government failed to respond favorably, they took to the streets, refusing to perform their duties until changes were made. Looters made for stores in the absence of law and order, stealing consumer goods and destroying property to such an extent that the army had to be called in to maintain discipline.
Is the government taking note? Brazilians don’t think so.
Brazil is a very expensive country to live in. In India, the saying goes that the middle class is being squeezed whereas the poor get poorer and the rich keep on getting richer. I don’t know if the situation is as dire in Brazil, but Brazilians of all stripes have complained to me of the ridiculous amount of taxes that their government levies against citizens and tourists alike.
An English educator friend of mine who has lived in Brazil for over 18 months now wholeheartedly agrees. A Wisconsin native, she moved to Rio de Janeiro soon after graduating college to build her company. With time, the reality of living there as an American expat on a strapped budget became more and more apparent to her. “I’m making do with just a single bedroom in Rio, granted in a nice part, but the rent here is over $1500/month!” she exclaimed. My nodes of comparison when it comes to housing are San Francisco (and more recently, Boston). Rio, however, blows them out of the water.
Although I haven’t asked for specifics, I have heard that it’s unreasonably expensive to buy a car for most Brazilians. SUVs are toys for the high-middle to upper class. It’s also pretty hard for the average person to purchase the land to build a house. Traveling isn’t cheap. And coveted foreign commodities (i.e. any Apple product) are out of the reach of the common citizen simply because of the taxes and fees that are associated with import. One of my first distance learning English students put it best, “It’s cheaper for me to buy a ticket to fly to the United States, purchase a MacBook there, and bring it back to Brazil, than for me to buy it here.”
So far in this ramble it might seem like I’ve dwelt too much on the downsides of Brazil. If you feel this way, I ask you to read on because I wish to redeem myself.
The day-to-day life in Brazil isn’t an easy one for the average person. There are lots of reasons why, and I’ve only touched on a few thus far. What I want to devote more attention to now is how Brazilians manage to move on with their lives despite all of these challenges.
The answer – an irresistible sense of independence.
Brazilians are a free people – free-spirited, free-thinking, open-minded, and unbelievably friendly. Every single Brazilian I know has invited me to come to their country and experience this liberating lifestyle. They admire the United States for many reasons, but admonish us for our workaholic, drive-through culture. Whereas many of us live to work, Brazilians work to live. The country’s rich regional diversity in food, music, and dance have contributed to the creation of an unparalleled cultural experience. One that I as a foreigner can’t get enough of.
Fully aware that their country’s geography and demographic differences present considerable challenges when it comes to speaking in one voice, young Brazilian pioneers have found a receptive, almost ravenous, audience on cyberspace. YouTube has emerged as the channel of choice for social commentary and comedy has emerged as the genre par excellence. Instead of having me explain it, I urge you to explore for yourself the two links below:
1) Parafernalha (Paraphernalia)
2) Portadosfundos (Back Door)
Both channels are household names in Brazil, although I do need to brush up on my Portuguese to understand more of Parafernalha’s jokes. If anyone who knows anybody from either troupe is reading this, please ask these guys to embed English subtitles. You’ll reach a global audience and your popularity will skyrocket if you do (Portadosfundos, you guys used to, but the newer videos don’t have the English subtitle option). For some media coverage of Portadosfundos and their effect on Brazilian society, check out this video from the New York Times.
I urge tech-savvy English-speaking Brazilians to capitalize on this cultural capital in the international arena. You guys are at the helm of designing how your country is perceived by the outside world. There is no doubt your domestic market offers plenty of space for diversification and growth, but think about the impact you could render on a global audience. Your culture is contagious, so share it with the rest of the world. I assure you only good things will come of it.
Spreading the Message
I’m a big believer in finding common ground and my exposure to Brazil has only solidified my belief that we really all can find much more that unites us than divides us. Perhaps it’s because I’ve gotten a chance to travel that I tend to seek out this commonality – maybe I’m trying to justify what it means in my mind to be a global family. Whatever the reason, I think it harms us to be insular, especially nowadays when it’s as easy to connect with someone in the same county as someone who lives several continents away. If I hadn’t decided to teach English online to students around the world, I doubt I would’ve learned this much about Brazil.
I suppose that’s what I’m trying to get at – we all have a tremendous amount to share with one another. And it’s not hard to do so. My avenue was distance learning. Yours could be music, or photography, or, you name it!
I was surprised to see that nearly every Brazilian friend of mine knows next-to-nothing about what’s going on in the Middle East. Significant swathes of the globe are just too out there for them to really pay much attention to. I spent an hour describing the Syria conflict to one student, but when he asked me a follow-up question the week later, it was painfully obvious that not much had sunk in. I don’t blame him – the Middle East is one hell of a complicated place!
That’s not the point, though. Many Americans are completely clueless when it comes to South America. Indians know next to nothing about Mexico (it pains me to say that, but it’s true).
I can see myself in Brazil, in Mexico, in South Africa, or any number of other places, sitting in traffic just as I did in San Francisco or Dhaka. Any time I find myself walking or driving by the water in the cool night air, I think back to my wonderful week-long sojourn on Kish Island.
Life is too short. Make memories. Teach what you know and learn what you have yet to find out. There are experts all around you.
There has been much discussion, in both social and scholastic circles, regarding the current state of American education, especially when it comes to STEM, a convenient acronym for the rather loaded subject “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” I came across a recent interview on NPR that challenged the prevailing notion that the United States is falling behind other countries in the race to develop innovative solutions for the 21st century.
Anthony Carnevale, the guest in the above interview, speaks at length about how STEM education is approached in the United States. He mentions that whereas a general education allowed graduates to pursue a wide variety of careers a few decades ago, today this is only true of a technical education. In short, he argues that if you want to have a lot of alternatives down the road, you want to do something with STEM.
I want to take his argument one step further. Like him, I don’t discount the value a holistic education provides to our students. In fact, I think it’s crucial, and I’ll explain why in a bit. I point the finger instead to a disconnect that is pervasive in contemporary academia – the feeling that techies are bots without empathy, passion, or human feelings, and that to go down the techie path is to say goodbye to a healthy social life and meaningful interpersonal interactions. I completely disagree.
Building Social Technologists
I have many friends from college who became engineers and I saw first-hand that they lived through a tremendously rigorous academic experience. Even with all the pressure that surrounded them, however, they were given the chance to explore interests that were outside the core STEM curriculum. A chemical engineer I know decided to study Arabic for two semesters. He spent the summer after his senior year in Egypt, and left just in time before that country descended into chaos. Others decided to explore product management and app design for non-profits in Silicon Valley, where they learned to network with the best and brightest and dedicated themselves to furthering noble causes.
This is what makes a holistic education, one that encompasses the humanities, arts, theater, and social sciences, such an important complement to a technical education. Both are powerful tools in their own right, and an educational system that perpetuates the belief that the two are separate is perpetuating the belief that the two are unequal. The key to securing America’s supremacy in the global, highly interconnected arena of innovation is to build a generation of social technologists. We should seek quality, not quantity.
Quality > Quantity
This is where the United States has the edge and where I don’t see any of our competition catching up with us anytime soon. Recent statistics show that India and China are graduating a million engineers a year. So what? I would be willing to bet my undergraduate tuition that those students never got a chance to live on a vibrant college campus where they could choose to study Plato by day and perform improv comedy at night. China and India have an assembly-line approach to education and measure success by the number of products they deliver. If the metrics are shifted from quantity to quality, however, the American model is far more superior. Students trained in the United States emerge from four years of higher education with a broad worldview, at least a semester of co-op or on-the-job experience in the field, and are challenged to tackle contemporary problems using the knowledge that they gained. That isn’t to say, however, that the American model is perfect. Far from it.
Numbers don’t lie – we do need to popularize STEM. It’s too late for those of us like me who have already graduated from college, but there has never been a better time to do more to get young people, as early as the elementary school level, interested in science and math. There are millions of untapped minds in this country’s sprawling urban cities who have never been able to benefit from a world-class education. Who’s to say they don’t have the next great idea? All they need are the tools. For me, this translates to a top-notch, holistic education that creates model human beings with a purpose. Once they have that, they are a priceless resource for this country.
Bots for Tots
It’s never too early. Los Altos, a bustling suburb at the southern end of the San Francisco peninsula, has pioneered a program for kindergarteners to learn the basics of robot programming. The earlier these minds are engaged, the longer they have to develop their own unique approaches to solving tomorrow’s problems. And with that kind of passion, we will never have to worry about falling behind in the cutthroat world of competition.