Following my post about ‘expats’ in Brazil, I stumbled across an article in which its Brazilian author uses the metaphor, ‘You don’t walk into a house and say the couch is ugly, do you?’, to infer that foreigners should never criticise other countries, including Brazil.
I’ve no doubt that I myself would also be offended if you, my dear reader, visited my house and told me yours is superior because: my furniture is cheap, my choice of decoration garish, the dinner I cooked you disgusting or the living conditions inhumane because the toilet doesn’t flush properly.
Back in the real world, it’s similarly understandable why Brazilians take offence to foreigners posting lists full of vitriolic and banal reasons why they hate living in Brazil. I’m sure most of you would be a little peeved if a foreigner wrote something as insensitive about your country.
And, despite being a foreigner myself, I too have become rather tired of some of the sensationalised dross that has been written about Brazil in the foreign (UK) media.
There is, of course, a reason more stories like this are being written about Brazil. Its economic rise over the past ten years, along with the recent protests in June and the fact that it will be hosting the world’s largest sporting events over the next few years, mean that Brazil is being scrutinised with an intensity that is unprecedented in its history.
However, much of this scrutiny – often justifiably – has tended to focus solely on Brazil’s problems and challenges, most of which Brazilians have long been acutely aware of and, no doubt, feel they need no reminding of by sniffy foreigners. Brazilians can be intensely and very openly self-critical of Brazil but they resent foreigners doing the same, even if they are being critical of exactly the same issues.
Some view this as being a manifestation of what has been described as a Brazilian inferiority complex (or complexo de vira-lata in Portuguese). In his book, The Brazilians, Joseph Page notes that, ‘Brazilians are wont to ignore their own virtues and fixate on their shortcomings’. Indeed, it is common to hear Brazilians unfavourably compare Brazil’s (real or perceived) problems to ‘developed’ countries in North America or Europe – their analyses often portraying those countries as being utopian beacons of hope and prosperity.
I’ve seen this myself whilst teaching English to Brazilians. For example, I teach a class about the UK where I ask students to note down five things they associate with the UK, and then I ask them to do the same from a foreigner’s perspective about Brazil. Typically, those about the UK are fairly innocuous stereotypes or positive images (apart from those about our shitty weather of course).
Interestingly though, they almost universally assume foreigners associate entirely negative images with Brazil, including: crime, drugs, poverty, corruption or bad infrastructure.
My response is often to question why any outsider, particularly one who has never even visited Brazil, would primarily associate Brazil with corruption or bad infrastructure, when in reality whilst some may think of crime, they are just as likely evoke clichés such as carnaval, samba, beaches and football.
In a way I think Brazilians need to embrace these stereotypes a bit more, even if they grate a little. More importantly though, I think Brazilians just need to show their country a little bit more loving. It’s time they embraced the wonderful country they live in, as well as be proud of who they are and not what they are aren’t. Brazilians are beautiful people, and not just aesthetically.
Equally though, if Brazilians are unhappy with the images us foreigners associate with Brazil then it is, as Brazilian journalist Mauricio Savarese recently wrote, as much the responsibility of Brazilians to teach the world about Brazil as it is for us outsiders to learn more about Brazil ourselves. Brazilians need to be better ambassadors of their country.
For example, I recently read a blog by a Brazilian who lives in London, and in it the author complains that the British often think ‘Brazil is synonymous with Rio’. Additionally, they bemoan the fact that Brits don’t know the location of Salvador on a map or that it has a bigger carnaval than Rio.
I would counter that there’s no real reason why Britons, especially given the lack of direct historical or cultural links between our countries, would know any more or less about Brazilian geography than any other country. Should the average Brit really know where Salvador is?
In my English class I give students a map of the UK and ask them to distinguish between the UK, Britain, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as mark important cities like London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast, etc. Am I offended that they – who are commonly well-educated bank executives – often confuse Scotland with Wales? No. Am I offended they often have no idea where London is? No, we can’t all be experts in geography after all.
Instead, I enjoy being able to teach Brazilians about aspects of my country’s culture (cricket anybody?) and history (good and bad) that they weren’t previously aware of. This too is what Brazilians need to do.
My message to Brazilians then is this. Engage foreigners, but not just when they have something nice to say about Brazil. Don’t shut down criticism, embrace it. Use it to poke fun at yourselves, and us foreigners too – our countries have problems as well remember.
The protests in June perhaps gave us a glimpse of what a proud and self-confident Brazil can be. It is one that wants its country to change for the better, but it needs to make sure that momentum isn’t lost. Brazil’s complexo de vira-lata should be no more.