O Brasil não é para principiantes

That “Brazil is not for beginners” is well known by gringos, brasileiros and the media alike (Seriously—just pick a language and google it). These immortal words, coined by “The Girl from Ipanema” composer, Tom Jobim, seem to be something of a point of pride among Brazilians and an obligatory post title for anyone in the blogosphere (and far be it for me to buck the trends—see below). The phrase seems to apply especially to business and government and more generally, to the extreme bureaucracy encountered when trying to get anything done in Brazil.

I don’t know which came first, jeitinho or the incredible amounts of red tape, but at this point they seem to go hand in hand. Jeitinho, the diminutive of “jeito” or “way,” refers to the manner in which Brazilians tend to find a “way” to get what they need, even though (or especially when) it involves circumventing the rules or the law. When I first heard “Brazil is not for beginners” spoken with pride by my Portuguese tutor, it seemed at odds with all the warm, extremely welcoming Brazilians I have been lucky enough to befriend over the past year or so (including my tutor). But the biggest component of jeitinho derives from this very factor; Brazilians will do anything to help out a friend or relative, from helping them cut in line to getting a job or a visa. And many times the only way to accomplish these goals in one lifetime is by employing jeitinho.

Jeitinho is, of course, a stumbling block for any foreigner. How can you use jeitinho if you don’t have the network or connections anyone native to a given country develops naturally? How can you bypass the system if you haven’t grown up with the rules, never mind had years of social education learning how they are best bypassed? I think for me, jeitinho will pose a special challenge. I am extremely “by the book.” I follow rules and respect authority to a fault (Hmm. I’m rethinking my parents’ positive reception to my Brazil decision. Maybe they were just happy I’m not joining the military?). I get disproportionately irritated when people seemingly “don’t see me” and jump me in a line. To add to that, I feel uncomfortable asking people to do things for me, even if we have known each other for years, never mind if we have just met. So basically I am brasileira.

I can’t predict now how my experience with jeitinho will be. I have to somehow accept that it will be a special challenge for me, but it’s just the way of life there. So many of my friends seem to know someone in Sao Paulo—which may not be that surprising given the metro area has 20 million people—and all of them have offered to put me in touch with their friends. I love meeting new people anyway, but I still feel a little weird about accepting this kind of help.

But I feel even worse about the really great new Brazilian friends I have met here in Durham who, even after knowing me for such a brief amount of time, are helping me with Portuguese, teaching me about their country and culture and putting me in touch with their Paulistano friends. All this, just so I can have a smoother transition and maybe even find a job when I move to their country, thousands of miles away. I think the first step of my transition though, is to humbly accept this help, knowing that if I can ever do anything to help my friends, old and new (I’m beginning to see why my dad thinks I’ll wind up in jail), I would be proud to. Now loosening up on people who cut in line—that might take me a while.

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