This post attempts to explain my initial reactions and experiences with culture shock abroad. These observations simply reflect my personal encounters, as a fairly superficial representation of all my experiences thus far in Brazil. However, I find these differences interesting; and hopefully, they can help paint a better picture of the life of a student abroad in São Paulo!
Deadly Sin #1. Underestimating the friendliness of a Brazilian!
While Midwesterners are known for being friendly, I am afraid to say that even Wisconsinites are not on par with Brazilians in this area. It starts with the intimate greeting. Brazilians are quite fond of kisses, or “beijos”, and it is socially appropriate to greet someone with a kiss on the left cheek, as opposed to the firm handshake we spend so much time perfecting as business students in the US. (An exception is for male-to-male greetings, in which case handshakes are preferred).
Next, it is not uncommon for Brazilians to ask for a What’s App name, phone number, or Facebook link within the first minutes of meeting. Oftentimes I have been invited to the homes of new friends for a meal within initial interactions as well. I have been told this is quite common, as is an exerted effort to assist strangers or customers. Additionally, Brazilians tend to avoid conflict, and it is unusual for someone to directly turn down an invitation. As such, it takes an understanding of implicit cues to interpret intention.
Deadly Sin #2. Assuming it is acceptable to “get by” with Spanish.
Although Portuguese is very similar to Spanish, and many verbs, conjugations, and roots overlap, pronunciations in Brazil are very different, and many Brazilians do not know Spanish. As such, there is a chance that if you speak to someone in Spanish, they will have no idea what you are saying, and even if they do, it can seem offensive or ignorant to assume that Brazilians speak Spanish. In general, Brazil sees itself as separate from Latin America, and as the only country that speaks Portuguese in South America, this distinctive language imparts a unique sense of identity to Brazilians.
As a somewhat unrelated aside- not all, but most well-educated Brazilians speak English. All of my classes at the university are in English, and there are students in my program who are having a wonderful time in Brazil without any prior knowledge of Portuguese, or any foreign language for that matter. My host mother speaks very little English, and prior to my departure I had taken only one semester of Portuguese. Before departure, I would recommend at least a crash course of “survival Portuguese” or a Spanish-speaking background paired with Portuguese practice on Duolingo at minimum!
Deadly Sin #3. Flushing toilet paper down the toilet.
Because of the way that the infrastructure in São Paulo is set up, the pipes cannot handle toilet paper. Instead, there are small garbage bins in private and public bathrooms to dispose of it. Knowing this in advance of travel to Brazil will save confusion and a potentially embarrassing situation!
Deadly Sin #4. Missing an opportunity to consume pão de queijo.
This Brazilian specialty can be found just about anywhere! From the corner market to Starbucks (yes there are Starbucks’ in Brazil) to high-end restaurants, pão de queijo is a staple of the Brazilian diet- next to rice and feijão of course. This (usually) warm “puff” or roll is made of tapioca flour seemingly infused with cheese. It is definitely a sin to miss out on trying any variation of this traditional Brazilian food.
Deadly Sin #5. Indiscriminately selecting public transport.
After living in Brazil for just a few weeks, it is not difficult to understand the impetus behind protests for better transportation and infrastructure in Sao Paulo. The bus and metro systems take some getting used to, especially for someone who is completely disoriented in the area.
For example, bus numbers include 175P, 875A, 875H, 875P, 875P-10, 975A, 975H.. just to name a few. Of these strangely similar codes, two of these may take you to the same place, but confusing an A with an H or a P with a P-10 could take you on a wild ride around the other side of the city. And yes, I speak from personal experience on this one- resulting in a few necessary cab rides to make it to class on time!
Deadly Sin #6. Leaving food on the plate after a meal.
Food is an important part of the culture in Brazil. And with good reason- Brazilian food is absolutely delicious! In many cases it is not only rude to leave food on the plate, seemingly signifying that you did not enjoy the dish, but it is also often the norm to request one, if not two additional servings.
Deadly Sin #7. Adhering to the college-student standard of cleanliness.
One of the first things that my host mother said to me (in Portuguese) was that she expected me to keep my room impeccably clean. This is not the “shove everything in your closet or under the bed” clean, but the Brazilian standard of clean, which means nothing is out of place, and the bed is made daily. Dishes are never left in the sink, dirt is unacceptable, and many people have maids who deep clean the home a few times a week, if not daily.
As for personal hygiene, multiple showers a day may be out of necessity due to the heat, which in the summer (the current season) has averaged 80-90° F. It is not uncommon for people to brush their teeth at restaurants, at work, or in school, adding up to 5-6 times per day, after consuming any food or drink. For women, manicures seem to be a weekly ritual, and odds are you will find a salon on just about any street in São Paulo.