Friday, March 25, 2005


friends on the web, and news of me

Some friends of mine have recently had notable web-events. The good folks at Third Ward Community Bike Center have just put up a new website, handmade in the style of 1997 homepages, featuring far more and better information than their old site and many photos of adorable children operating spot-welders. Also neo-neocon, who has been blogging far more prolifically than anyone else I know, just got profiled by bigtime blogger Norman Geras. Read the interview.

As for me I'm in the US right now, checking out econ PhD programs, visiting friends, and trying to make big decisions about the next 5+ years of my life. So far it's been a fun and completely hectic trip. It's something of a relief to be back in the States for a little while, and to get to speak English to everyone. (Though for a while I was still saying "excuse me" in Portuguese whenever I bumped into someone, and it took me nearly a week to break the habit of throwing used toilet paper in the wastebasket.) Life is easier here in the States, at least for someone like me who grew up here, and it's been wonderful to see friends. But I'm also eager to get back. I find myself doing that annoying thing where I start every sentence with "In Brazil..."

I'm going to be in the Bay area Saturday the 26th to Tuesday the 29th, New Hampshire Wed nesday the 30th to Friday the 1st, and Boston Saturday the 2nd to Friday the 8th. If you're in any of those places and want to hang out, please give a holler.

Sunday, March 20, 2005


roland goes public

The New York Times Magazine just came out with a feature on Roland Fryer, the Harvard professor I worked for for about a year. I'm actually mentioned a little bit (in a scene that the journalist misinterpreted, but oh well). In general I think it's a pretty good article, so you should read it.

Monday, March 07, 2005


viva, viva cred!

Hooray. I finally, finally hav ea job. Today I went in for what I expected to be an interview (man, how I was dreading that Portuguese interview) at a microcredit agency called Viva Cred here in Rio, but in fact it was my first day of work. Fine by me. I am quite relieved. And also actually really exhausted -- I forgot what it was like to spend a long day at work. I more or less shadowed a guy named Berto, who goes around to all the different satellite offices and has the case workers make little presentations to him about potential clients, then he acts really skeptical andlowers the amount of money the caseworker wants to give. I really like Berto -- he was really funny and smart. Most of the clients live in favelas, and the main office itself is at the base of what may bethe city's largest favela, Rocinha. By large I mean an estimated 180,000 people. Berto himself grew up in Rocinha. Anyway, still many things to work out like how much time I'm going to spend there, what I will be doing, where I will live, etc. But I'm excited and relieved and exhausted. I'll surely write much more about this place once I know more and I'm not at an insanely expensive internet café (Rio is awful in that respect). But yeah, I'm really happy I can stop searching and start working and learning.

Friday, March 04, 2005


off to rio...

As you might have gathered from my last couple posts, I haven't been having a really awesome time in São Paulo. Mostly this is context -- I'm here to try to get a job, so I've put off friend-making and all that enjoyable stuff for later. Social isolation makes me work harder, and it doesn't make much sense to put a lot of energy into meeting people if there's a good chance I'm about to leave. But beyond that, it really is a big old gray city. They weren't kidding about that.

So, I am rather pleased to announce that my non-roots São Paulo policy is paying off. I'm leaving tomorrow. One of my leads in Rio just got a whole lot more promising, and I'm going out there to have a meeting at the place I might work. Nothing is set of course, but they seem quite nice and interested in having me. It would be wonderful if this job-search thing could finally come to an end. And I know more people in Rio than in São Paulo, so social adjustment would be easier. Plus, it's like the most beautiful city on earth. I'm trying not to get too excited, because I know from experience how promising things can unravel.

To Rio!


regional specialties

I find that most people think of foreign countries as all one thing, or all another. France has berets and baguettes. Russia is snowy with vodka and chronic depression. We all know the stereotypes, and surely there are places in these countries that fit the stereotypes rather well. But rarely do we pay attention to variation within countries. I remember being shocked to learn that Swiss people, near the Italian border, spoke Italian. But they’re Swiss! How could it be?? How could someone wearing leiderhosen speak Italian? Oh wait, they don’t wear leiderhosen there either. Specifics aside, I think that most people are unaccustomed to the very idea of such variation, don’t remember that countries contain interlocking cultures and linguistic groups, and that national boundaries don’t always fall along the natural fault lines.

This is equally true of foreigner’s opinions of the US. Probably the most common question I am asked regarding the US is, it is hot there? Well, that kind of depends on where you are, and when. The US is a big place. There is a lot of variety within the US, with regards to weather and nearly everything else. There are parts that speak Spanish, and parts that speak English, parts that are tropical, freezing, liberal, conservative, and on and on. We Americans are used to this by now, with regard to America, but for a lot of people here it’s news. And likelwise, most Americans don't extend the insight to other countries.

Brazil is also a big place. In fact, it’s slightly bigger than the continental US. And, unsurprisingly, it contains a lot of variation. It contains far more variation than I’ve had opportunity to see so far—the Amazon region to the northwest is gigantic and purportedly different from everything else, with a much stronger Indian culture than elsewhere. But I have seen Bahia, and I’ve seen a little bit of the south, and now I’m in São Paulo. (Moving from Bahia to SP is a little like moving from New Orleans to Chicago, and about the same distance.)

Regional differences in Brazil are stark—geologically, racially, linguistically, and culturally. I’ve already talked enough about Bahia and the northeast that if you are a regular reader you are probably crying mercy. But to recap, the climate is tropical, the people are almost entirely black, and the region is a font of arts and culture: much of the music, dance, and religion and many associate with Brazil as a whole are in fact endemic to Bahia. It’s the sort of place where you actually encounter dancing in the streets regularly. Márcia likes to take her pandeiro around with her and start little parties: on the bus, on the ferry, waiting in line. People join in.

In contrast, I spent a few days in Belo Horizonte, a little north of SP, and one night I went to a club. A club, I thought—time to cut loose. But everyone was standing around. A couple of the Brazilians I was with started to joke around and try to get the gringo to dance, but within a minute or two it became clear I was actually the only one who could dance, or at least the only one who was willing. One of them, it all seriousness, came up to me afterward to say that I danced really well. It was bizarre—I was like, aren’t you guys Brazilian? In Bahia my fairly unskilled dancing ensured I was nearly always the worst on any dance floor. There is in fact a classic bossanova tune called “Falsa Baiana” about the Bahian girl who doesn’t know how to dance, and therefore isn’t a true baiana. And in fact I saw four year old girls in Bahia who could samba the pants off most professionals. But there in Belo Horizonte they don’t grow up with it. They receive it second-hand, and try to imitate it sometimes, but it’s not part of their culture.

Down south near Porto Alegre, things are different yet again. The people are mostly Germanic and Scandinavian. There are cities in which German is the main language, and is taught in schools. The music is polka-rhythmed and accordion-heavy. The accent, for reasons I don't understand, features r's that are almost exactly like American r's. There are also many Spanish-speakers from Argentina and Uruguay. Everyone goes around sipping those crazy addictive maté things, which make you look like you’re drinking grass-clippings through a smoking pipe, and taste about the same.

I’m interested in how culture and context effect how one thinks and acts and interacts. For instance, I found it incredibly difficult to do anything in Bahia besides hang out. Now that I’m here in SP I’ve been a little flurry of activity. (Though I don’t know if this is culture or desperation.) It was very easy in Bahia to strike up conversations with random people, but here it feels harder for the simple reason that it’s less commonly done, and therefore perceived as weirder. (It is still, however, far easier than in Boston.)

My perceptions of race have also changed. In Bahia, virtually all of my friends were black. I was in fact the only white person at my surprise birthday party. After just a day or two in the city this felt really natural, more natural than I had ever expected. I think that when everybody is X, X starts to feel like the normal order of things and you kind of forget about it, even if you yourself are not X. It’s just the norm, and other salient characteristics arise that distinguish people.

In the US, I sometimes feel a barrier in interacting with black people. I don’t particularly think this is my fault, or “racism.” I just think that in the US, still, a white person and a black person being friends is a thing, and any friendship you might have will have that thing-ness hanging over it. Brazil has a much different history, and though it also had slavery, things have since worked out quite differently (not necessarily better, mind you). For one, there’s been a lot more intermarriage. I’ve often heard people say “tinha um monte de missegenação,” which means “there was a mountain of miscegenation.” Sometimes they’ll say this while narrating the features of their faces: curly hair from Africa, a straight nose from Europe, wide cheekbones from South America. In any event, there has always been more intimacy between races in Brazil than in the US, and a white and black person being friends is definitely not a thing. Given this context, I found it extremely easy to slip into a mostly black social milieu.

But here in São Paulo, for the first time in a long time, I’ve been getting a little twist of nervousness when I'm on the street and a couple of young black men turn the corner toward me. What is this? Did I suddenly get racist? Well, I think it’s context. In Bahia, being black is the norm. It doesn't give the observer much information. In mostly-white São Paulo, being black means you’re more likely to be poor, more likely to be desperate, more likely to mug me. People I wouldn’t have blinked at a week ago, or might have considered potential friends, I now find myself eyeing warily. It's unfortunate, but I can't help it.

To take another example, in Bahia I spent a lot of time with working-class people. In Belo Horizonte, I stayed with a family solidly in the upper middle class. Driving around town in their car (something I hadn’t done in months), with the mother compulsively locking the doors whenever someone the slightest bit raggedy came close, the fear became infectious. And I realized, if someone up to no good saw me with the folks in Bahia they’d leave me alone, but here sitting in this car with a bunch of nervous rich people I became a potential target. It's a lot more likely, to the observer at least, that I would have money. Context influences a lot. We’ll see how things go in this new context.

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