When I was 19, I moved to the southeast coast of Brazil for half a year. It was the most evolutionary time in my life, and it shaped me into the person I am today. The volunteer work, poverty, and being independent from my family taught me a lot, but the Brazilian culture and people taught me more than any of that. Five years later and I can still say that I live by many things I picked up there. It’s all made me into a kinder, more outgoing, wonderstruck human being.
There are so many misconceptions surrounding Brazil and Brazilian culture, but if more people took the time to understand it (or when it’s safe to travel, took the time to go there) they’d realize it’s one of the most inspiring places in the world, filled with life-shaping lessons. I truly think Brazil could make everyone better, because here are 10 lessons that the culture taught me while I was living there.
1. When you hear music, you dance.
This is one of the true stereotypes about Brazil—the people love to dance. Every region has different music and styles, and where I was it was playing constantly. People blasted their music from boomboxes, from bars, and from cars, and if you were on the street, you danced. Some people would seriously dance, and would samba even, but most people would at least bop along as they walked. It wasn’t abnormal to be talking to friends outside, to hear music, and then to be dancing as you talked. On top of that, people would sit outside their houses on the street to play drums and sing. Sometimes it was panhandling, but most of the time it was clearly just for fun with their friends. People all around would stop and dance and talk. Music is a way that Brazilians bond with each other, and they’re not embarrassed to dance to it—even if they aren’t all great dancers (not every Brazilian can samba). It’s a culture of warmth, so even if you are alone, you dance and people will join you. Strangers will samba with you or clap along while you badly attempt to breakdance. Your skill level doesn’t matter, because dancing there isn’t about reaching perfection or showing off for others. It’s for yourself. There’s no reason to be worried about what people think because they don’t care—it would be weirder if you didn’t dance, and you’d also miss out on the freedom and endorphins of movement. So the joy that comes from dancing “like nobody’s watching” is alive and well in Brazil, and I’ve kept that concept with me.
2. It’s important to know about the nature around you.
It’s the norm in Brazil for locals to know about all of the indigenous plants and animals in the area. Part of this is that since houses in Brazil often are situated in nature, it’s vital for residents to aware of any potential dangers. The other part is that Brazilians really love the natural beauty of their country (so much so that it’s all over their money, and the country itself is named after a tree—the brazilwood), and they value it deeply. It’s considered a part of their identity as people, and it’s seen as very odd to not honor that by understanding what’s around you.
3. Fruit is the highlight of every meal.
Brazilians are extremely proud of their fruit in Brazil. Their country grows a huge amount and variety of fruits (in the Amazon alone, 3,000 distinct types!), and it’s very much a part of their identity. They have a big pitcher of it with every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it is considered the highlight of the meal. Brazilians are always so excited to have foreign visitors try all of their fruits. The entire time I was there, the people around me were constantly offering me fruits and telling me about them. I learned so much from it, but best of all, it was a delicious process. My favorite will always be the passionfruit juice, which just like all of their other juices, never has added sugar. The Brazilian way to make juice is to literally either press the fruit, or put the fruit with some water in a blender and call it good. As someone who comes from a country hooked on sugar, I found this to be so refreshing. They believe that fruit is perfect and doesn’t need anything else to make it taste good, and I’m completely on board with that. If more kids in the U.S. grew up drinking pure juices and eating whole fruits, they’d probably grow up with a healthier relationship to sugar, and a stronger appreciation for the Earth and its bounty.
4. Don’t put produce in a box in terms of seasoning and flavors.
There, the people use fruits and vegetables to their maximum capacity, so they don’t assign labels to them. For example, corn can be sweet or savory. It can be used as a spicy relish, or made into a very sweet treat called Bolo de Fubá. Avocados can be served with bread, or blended with condensed milk to make a sweet drink. Food can be whatever you can imagine it to be.
5. Sports can be artistic, and fighting can be nonviolent.
As an athlete who also has been creating art my entire life, this especially spoke to me. Brazilians love soccer, but they love capoeira just as much. The first time I saw it done, I had no idea what I was looking at. It looked like ballet and karate mixed together. Two people would be kicking and punching and swiping in slow motion at each other, seeing how close they could get to the other person without touching them. It would then be done faster, alternating the speeds, but the amount of communication and consent that went into it was beautiful. Both people agree on the speed and what moves they’re comfortable with doing (for example if one isn’t comfortable with having the other person kick near their head, they don’t do it). On top of that beautiful part, the goal isn’t to injure the other person or prove to be stronger. The goal is to be graceful and accurate. It’s more of a dance than a fight, and it’s artistic and graceful (even when being done at top speed) and as it’s being done music is played by musicians using a berimbau—an instrument unique to Brazil. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.
6. “Roadkill” doesn’t have to be a given.
Brazilians treasure their native species of non-human animals, and because of it, they take their deaths very seriously. Since people live so close to the jungles or “mata” as it’s called, their roads often cross them. In order to avoid the unnecessary death of thousands of non-human animals on the big roads, Brazil has built beautiful wildlife bridges for them to cross over, so they don’t have to risk their lives. This prioritization of wildlife has saved so many lives, and it’s ensured that while roads disrupt the habitats, they don’t have to result in nearly as many deaths.
7. Knowing the unedited history of your country is necessary.
Brazil has an extremely diverse culture (Sao Paulo has the highest population of the Japanese outside of Japan), and it’s therefore a wonderful melting pot of cultures. It has Bavarian towns in the south, Asian districts in the southeast, Italian influences in the middle and southeast (if you listen to Portuguese being spoken, it sounds like a fusion of Spanish and Italian), Portuguese and African culture in the northeast, and indigenous Amazonian traditions in the north. Because of this, it’s created an atmosphere of unique regional traditions meeting national patriotism. That said, Brazilians understand why that is and don’t see learning about the history of it as being controversial. Brazilians acknowledge and openly discuss their history of slavery and colonialism in their country. It’s not something they sweep under the rug, and because of it, they’ve developed a better understanding of the progress that needs to be made (“ordem e progresso”) and a fuller love for their country because it’s not a whitewashed version of it.
8. Colors bring joy, and that’s something to embrace.
Brazilians wear extremely colorful clothing (though the actual style of the clothes themselves vary in every region) and makeup, and live in very colorful houses. The brighter, the better, and they seem to live by that. Those who wear makeup tend to wear way less of it, and most of the time the women will wear no makeup except for extremely bright lipstick for a touch of color (it’s often even purple!). Their furniture, art, and even their food is made with color as a priority, and it suits this beautifully joyful country.
9. Food is meant to be eaten outside.
One of the first things I noticed about Brazil was the fact that everybody tended to eat outside—whether they were out or at home. When I’d eat with different families, they tended to bring their plastic tables outside to enjoy the meal. Brazilians love nature and their animals, so when they eat, it’s pretty common to be looking for colorful parrots flying by wildly or soaking in the sun. Restaurants tend to have a heavier emphasis on their outdoor seating than their indoor dining room. Part of this is because the eateries and bars are very small so there is more space outside, and part of this is because Brazil is a social culture. People love to go to the lanchonetes to drink juice or beer and eat yucca with strangers. On the beaches, kiosks (or outdoor snack and drink bars) are abuzz with locals who want to socialize, eat, and enjoy the ocean air. No matter where you are in Brazil, the outdoor eating and drinking culture is extremely prominent.
10. Strangers are just friends you haven’t made yet.
As mentioned, Brazilians love to socialize. It’s extremely normal to have strangers buy you snacks and have long conversations with you. Similar to Nordic culture, Brazilians aren’t ones for small talk, so conversations are real and deep. On top of that, soccer games played or watched with strangers is commonplace, as well as hugging and kissing strangers (as greetings). The warmth of Brazilian culture is so strong and bright, and it will always be my absolute favorite thing about it.
Brazil is by no means a perfect country. It has problems, like any other (including the deforestation and far-right politics of their current president), but its culture is unlike any in the world. It’s warm, colorful, and accepting. Strangers would give the shirt off their backs for you, and no matter who you are, if you’re in Brazil, you’re family. That’s something to take to heart.
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Photo: Emily Iris Degn