Responsibility is Not a Four-Letter Word

I'm having a bad day.

It's ok. Bad days happen, I know. The problem for me is that sometimes I just don't know how to get out of my funk. So I'll write about it, and let's see what happens.

Take advantage whenever you can

As you can imagine, when you move from one country to another, there are a few details involved. This morning, one of those details was to call the person from my rental agency (read: another business created solely for the purpose of taking advantage of others, see also Cartorios and Government Agencies in Brasil) in order to clarify some of the details of our contract. Specifically, I wanted to know whether or not I would be responsible to fix a small crack in the window that we did not make (most likely came from weather changes). The agency confirmed that, yes, I do need to fix the window, because according to the law and contracts and blah blah blah blah blah…

I suspected that would be the case, and I'm not really concerned with shelling out a few more reais at this point. It's the principle: I don't want to be held responsible for a window that I did not break. Of course, I tried to explain that to them, and here's how the conversation goes (this conversation happens over and over again here, so I know it well):

Use with Care

Me: I understand what the contract says, but the reason I'm asking about the window is because I didn't break the window.

Agency: Well, how did it happen then?

Me: You know how it works with glass right? Over time, glass can develop small cracks that, with the aid of changing weather conditions, can grow. This is one of those small cracks that grew.

Agency: Yes, but was the window like that when you moved in?

Me: No, the crack in the window appeared over time. It's not large now, and the window functions just the same with the crack as without.

Agency: Ok, but unfortunately, you have to replace the glass because according to the contract, you are responsible. Does that make sense?

Me: No, that doesn't make sense to me, because I didn't break the glass.

Agency: Who broke it?

Me: No one broke the glass… You know how it works with glass right? Over time….

Exhibit A: Broken Glass

And the conversation could continue in this way for eternity, I suppose. Ours did not, because I was consequently and repeatedly interrupted by lightening fast speaking…this did not go over well with me. I don't like being interrupted. I speak slower in Portuguese because it's not my native language, and because I need time to form my thoughts. That gives people an easy window to interrupt, especially on the telephone. But when I tried to explain my thoughts, they just kept talking over me. That made me angry. I don't like to get angry.

Finally, after I yelled a bit and they stopped talking, I explained how terribly rude it is to interrupt. Here's how that went (also a conversation I have had with MANY folks here):

Me: You do understand that its very disrespectful to talk when another person is talking?

Agency: But sir, you were yelling at me, and this is not acceptable.

Me: I only started yelling after you repeatedly interrupted me. You do know it's rude to interrupt?

Agency: But sir, it is my right to interrupt you. This is my job.

Me: I don't understand how it is your right to be disrespectful. Look I am a very educated person, and I have lived in many other places. I just want you to understand that interrupting people is very disrespectful.

Agency: You are so educated, and yet you would yell at me?

Me: I don't see how my yelling is any worse than your constant inability to wait for me to speak…

Agency: But again, it's my right to interrupt and speak when you are speaking. This is MY job.

Me: But wait a minute. Who is paying for this rental, me or you?

Agency: Sir, according to our contracts it's the renters who pay the owners and blah blah blah

Me: Yes, but you didn't answer my question. Who is paying? Me or you?

Agency: Well, you are, sir.

Me: Exactly. So then without me paying, you don't have a job. So I don't see how it is your right to disrespect me.

Agency: But going back to the original question, according to the contract, you are responsible for….

Taking responsibility is hard, I understand. Here's what I will take responsibility for: I did live in this apartment, I did sign a contract (however unjust and evil it was), and I am trying (to the best of my abilities) to uphold my part of the bargain. I will paint and try to make everything “bonitinho” before I leave, even if it is tantamount to robbery to hold me accountable for fixing things that were old and not well taken care of before I arrived (many things that, as far as I can tell, you possibly covered up so that I wouldn't notice until after I already moved in). And I did yell. I'm sorry for that. That happens sometimes, especially when I feel that others are not giving me the respect that I deserve. Respect that EVERYONE deserves.

And how about you? What will you take responsibility for? And herein lies the rub: almost everyone I meet here is NOT WILLING TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANYTHING THAT GOES WRONG. This is a serious issue, a character flaw. And it has infected an entire city, and large portions of the country of Brasil (believe me, I have been more places in Brasil than most Brazilians). When a person (or a culture, I suppose) responds to criticism or problems with either blame or apathy, that person has what is called a “character disorder.” I know this affliction (heck, I slip back into this from time to time…it's very common in men), and I have to say, it's pretty serious. Too serious to tackle in the same blogpost, so let's leave it here for now. Dangling…

(from Shawshank Redemption: the first 30 seconds will suffice)

 

My day hasn't gotten any better yet. I think I need a beer.

 

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How Bazaar

This was one of those days that I always dread: I had to go to a government organization (Detran: the Brazilian equivalent of the DMV in the US) in order to get the official documents for the car that we recently purchased. It is always a pain to go to government organizations here: long lines, delapedated buildings, and usually more than one trip back home because of some incorrect form or missing signature.

The Throng of Those Awaiting Government Documents

I had done my homework: prepared my papers, made my copies, checked my directions…Alas, when I arrived, I was informed that I had filled out the wrong form.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Things were looking positive before my arrival; I had followed the directions correctly, and I was even able to make a left turn where I needed to, just like Google maps said I could. But it's hard to describe the stark reality that met me–the closer I came to my destination, the more I began to be surrounded by what only could be described as some kind of government services bazaar. There were people all over the road, trying to entice me into their offices and to convince me that their service would be much easier than going into Detran myself (here, they are called Despachantes). And there were those selling the goods that might make it easier to pass the inspection, and those selling food and beer (mind you, it was only 8:30 in the morning) and any number of cheaply made goods. Somehow, I was able to see through the spectacle and arrive within the gates of Detran for my inspection. Here is where I found out I had the wrong form. Sigh.

The Inspiring Waiting Area

But then I thought, surely someone from the circus outside might be able to help! Aha! A glimmer of hope! I had forgotten of course, that the circus is only there to entertain…and also, in a cash driven culture like Brazil, a pocket full of credit cards will not buy much of anything.

I returned home…sitting in the remains of morning traffic for about 45 minutes…thankful that my new car is well equipped with a/c and a stereo to keep me calm and comfortable.

For some, the story would be over after this. Battered, downtrodden, left to lick my wounds and fight again another day. BUT NOT SO FOR ME!!!! oh no no no. This was the day I had set aside to conquer the demon Detran, and I would not let one small oversight (two, if you count the fact that I had no cash with me), keep me from vanquishing this terrible foe. I got the right form. I filled it out. I printed it off. I ate lunch. And I returned.

Oh, and yes, I passed my inspection, and received my new documents that same afternoon. Only after waiting in many lines for a few hours, mind you. The correct form indeed made all the difference.

The Entrance to the Compound

But for me, I'm still stuck in the confusion and nervous energy of the Bazaar. When I first arrived just outside the Detran “compound” (think tall grey concrete wall with steel door entrances) I felt that queezy feeling that comes when you know you are surrounded by people who are ready to take advantage of every vulnerability you have. And government agencies bring about vulnerabilities: they provide a service that I need, but I have to jump through all the correct hoops in order to get that service. It's an easy place to be preyed upon by those wanting to “help,” and of course to make a quick buck. On my second arrival, my return after lunch, the invasive zoo that greeted me struck a different, more spiritual chord. Yes, I am spiritual, and I think sometimes, I even “hear from God.” I don't use this language lightly, or even to feel holier than thou; it's just the words I sometimes use to describe an experience where I see things anew, more truthfully, more clearly and deeply. This was one of those moments.

As I arrived, I was immediately transported into the story where Jesus arrives at the Temple in Jerusalem, only to find the outer courts (and I can imagine, the whole surrounding areas) full of money changers and peddlers looking to “help” the arriving worshippers and pilgrims who were in need of the spiritual renovation in their lives that could only be found through a certain prayer or sacrifice at this very Temple. I understood that this was an even greater Bazaar than my own surroundings, and this clear and terrible image was accompanied by a simple message: “Matt, this is how I felt when I arrived at the Temple. Now can you see why I got so angry and turned over those tables? Now can you feel a little of what I felt? The pain? The anguish?”

Yeah. I'm still chewing on that a day later. Sometimes I yell, and get angry, but it ain't always with that good a reason. Perspective–it's a filling meal.

 

I really hope this isn’t catching…

As I have said here before, living in any foreign country is no easy task, and usually there are many moments of each day that I am reminded of the difficulty.

I regularly have the opportunity to explain Brazilian laws to other Brazilians: they always appreciate this, and while they usually respond with a raised voice and claim that I am wrong to think that a crosswalk would be for pedestrians, I usually find I can yell louder.

This tendency to find ways around the law can be “cute” sometimes, other times frustrating, and other times horrifying. Last night, a large truck carrying steel rods overturned on a road near where I live, killing at least three people, possibly more. By law, that truck was not allowed to be driving on that road. Not such a “cute” cultural tendency when it turns out this way.

There are a number of things that happen in daily life here that cause me to pause, to reflect, to pray, to yell my head off. And then there are the things that happen that make me think: My God, we have GOT to get out of here!!!!!! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!!! well. I can be a bit dramatic sometimes.

A good friend of mine visited recently (he is Brazilian) and we had some time to just sit and chat. We talked much of the things we love here, of life, of faith, and some, yes, of our concerns for this growing giant, Brazil. He too has noticed many of the things that concern me (he lived outside of Brazil for 5 years from which he gained a certain amount of perspective), and for me it was enlightening and confirming to share my thoughts with a native. I believe that cultures (just as people) have fantastic, wonderful, and one could even say, “holy” elements–characteristics that enable them to rise above pain, to create beauty, to foster love, to harmonize people. The opposite is also true: cultures have sins, diseases that fester and threaten to break them down, to limit their ability to grow economically, spiritually, creatively. I realized many of these cultural truths while living in the US, and they are becoming clearer and clearer to me here in Brazil as well (some I have already shared here). But recently I have considered some of these malodorous elements of Brazilian culture and I have wondered, or worried: are they catching? contagious? I do not remember much envy in my thoughts before living here (judgement, yes, but not so much envy), but now I find it creeping into my thoughts, my decisions, my desires. I would never before have considered the possibility of just “parking wherever I want” no matter the consequences for others or the law, and yet many times I find myself making choices while driving that show no regard for my fellow citizens or for the law.

And maybe that’s why some days I find that I’m so tired. It’s like my mind and spirit and soul are fighting off a cancer, and that can be hard work. Constantly sifting through the elements of my day, searching for what can be kept, discarding what may be harmful, adapting my character, my ideas. Gruelling work, revealing my ugliness, my holiness–yes, sometimes I yell, but I’m finding other things surfacing under that rage, pushing their way to the surface for air: sorrow, and hope.

A good friend just returned, and I’m so happy to have him back in town. I picked him up last night, and he remarked about how much my driving had changed. “Dude, you drive like a Brazilian now! Hahahaha!” Yes, I said, BUT I do one thing different. I stop for pedestrians.

 

My Way or Your Jeitinho

When I’m angry, I usually yell. And it’s the kind of thing that works exponentially.

You get the picture. And I have a feeling that this post may end up that way. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, but I fear what I have to say may not be so pretty or appropriate for everyone (read: proud Brasilians without much perspective).

I often feel like I am being taken advantage of–strike that. I will speak more frankly here, because, well, I can. Since moving to Brazil, I (and my family) have been blatantly overlooked, lied to, disrespected, almost killed and/or maimed, and yes, taken advantage of more times that I would like to remember or count. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are MANY things I enjoy and even LOVE about Brasil and its people, but there are also those things I could do without. And I think many Brasilians would rather live without them as well, but I can only truthfully speak for myself. I am beginning to understand something called the Jeitinho Brasileiro (the Brazilian way), and if you don’t know what that means, I will be curt and blunt in my explanation.

“If it is to my advantage, I will do it, even if it means I will hurt you or unfairly take away your advantage.”

This way of thinking permeates Brasilian (and other Latin American) culture and society, so much so that many do not even see it, or if they do, they accept it as a way of life. And, as Brasilians do not often separate the personal from the professional, the Jeitinho Brasiliero can be easily identified in business dealings, political life, the grocery store, etc. “But Matt,” you say, “what is so wrong with that? This is a dog-eat-dog world, and you have to be strong to get ahead. How is that different than anyplace else in the world?” Maybe a few examples would be helpful.

I have often waited for long hours in bank lines, or lines related to Government services. The time that one passes in this way is excruciatingly boring and frustrating, but it is a part of life here, and I accept that. Often, while waiting in these lines, someone will arrive who feels that her question or issue is so important that it merits going to the front of the line, interrupting the person (who probably is a friend or cousin of theirs), and resolving her issue quickly and effortlessly. And people in the line will often watch, sometimes in disbelief, and other times not even caring.

There are many crosswalks that exist all around the city, and there are MANY people walking. For those crosswalks that do not have a traffic light controlling them, it is written in Brasilian law that drivers of cars are required to allow pedestrian traffic to cross. The few times that I have experienced drivers stopping for me have been truly wonderful, but normally this does not happen. We run across the street in fear of our lives. I have many times almost been hit by cars while crossing the street with my children. The times that I have attempted to remind my Brasilian brothers and sisters of this, my request for simple “gentileza” (kindness and respect for others) has been ignored, scoffed at, and oftentimes, refuted. One man even said “No! That crosswalk is not for you!” Well, then who or what is it for???? Talking Elephants????

I have had many issues arise (both professionally and personally) that are difficult to resolve. Many times, just in order to buy time, or to try and please me or assuage my fears, I have had people lie to me–over the phone, directly to my face, representatives from the apartment agency, neighbors, at my kids’ school. These are not usually HUGE lies (although sometimes they have been), but they are often the type of lies that promise something that is very well intentioned, but will not or cannot be delivered.

In traffic, if the person ahead of me needs to stop for any reason and for any period of time, they will stop–even if it means their decision to stop will cause traffic to back up and inconvenience many people behind them.

I could go on, but I think it better here to stop, clarify, and evaluate a few things. Many of the situations described above are small, yes, but when they add up over time (sometimes even just over one day), it is easy to imagine how one might feel like screaming their head off. And I have. But don’t think there aren’t some larger systemic examples of the Jeitinho. It is to the advantage of many here who are rich (in which I include myself) to keep the poor (who FAR FAR FAR outnumber the rich) in the place that they are. Within the last ten years, the government of Brasil has shown its desire to “help” those that are poor to live a better life–they have greatly increased the “Bolsa” (welfare-type benefits) which gives money and assistance (medical care, education) to those in need. And of course this has changed many lives for the better, but it also has a dark-side, a side which keeps the poor just happy enough that most of the time they can overlook the dire circumstances of their life; a life which for anyone looking from the outside, reeks of the uncivilized third world indigence that Brasil (and other countries in South America) so emphatically claims to have left far behind.

And so now I have said it one way, and I’ll say it again. To live in this way is not civilized. Of course, you CAN lie, and cheat, and cut, and ignore, but this way of life is not civil, respectful, or mannered. Let me be clear: my words and thoughts are in no way meant to stand as judgement against Brasil or its people. As I have said before, I love this place, and for the time being I am raising my family here, growing as a human being and as an artist here, working here, loving here, enjoying the people and the many beautiful places here. But the truth has a way of shedding light on everything, even the things that are really ugly. We must also realize that whether a society is civilized or uncivilized has no real effect on its intellectual output, it’s ability to function, it’s artistic contributions, and as is especially clear in Brasil’s case, it’s economy.

What then are the benefits of a civilized society? Well, I will leave that for you to think about, and if you want, leave a comment and continue in this civil conversation. Suffice it to say I believe there are many reasons, the least of which have the potential to give each and every person a measure of respect and value that can transform a city or a country from a place that is merely “live-able” into a place in which life is “worth living.”