Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Looking Foreign In Sao Paulo

As the chorus to The Only Girl In The World bounced around the club walls, the pissed up crowd threw their hands up in the air in appreciation.

Want you to make me feel, like I’m the only girl in the world

Maybe I’m getting old, maybe I hadn't drank enough, or maybe I need to stop going to shit clubs; but one thing was pretty certain, as I looked around I seemed to be one of just a handful of people on the dance floor NOT loving this song!

Like I’m the only girl that you’ll ever love
We BLOODY love Rihanna!

In the distance I saw a guy who appeared to be staring right at me. I had to double take, ‘surely he isn't looking at me’ I told myself. Only he was, and he was actually staring quite intensely. As our eyes met, he raised his eyebrows in recognition, smiled, and then started walking towards me….

Like I’m the only one who knows your hea-a-a-a-a-a-rt

Before I knew it, he was effortlessly gliding his way through the crowd and was rapidly approaching.

‘Do I know him?’ I asked out loud to nobody.

His face looked unfamiliar; he had a skinhead and a nose that made him look like he’d been created by a Disney animator. ‘Perhaps he’s someone I've taught before? Maybe I just don’t recognise him in his casual clothes. I mean, they don’t wear tee shirts with skulls on the front in the company offices I go to’.

As he approached me he smiled and then said, “hi there!” I didn't want to make this encounter any more awkward than it needed to be, so I responded with a tone that suggested familiarity. Actually, if I’m being honest it did more than merely suggest it, I sounded like I’d just been reunited with a long lost friend.

“HEEEEEEEEEEEY! How are you doing?” I inquired, with more than enough sincerity to disguise the fact I still had no idea who he was.

“You’re not Brazilian are you?”

“Erm no. I’m British” I said, now feeling a little confused. However this confirmed that my first assumption was correct, I really hadn't met him before.

With his eyes still staring right at me, he took a sip of his beer and continued to slur. “I thought so. I LOVE English, I have lessons twice a week. But my English is so bad!”

Any native English speaker  living in Brazil will know the drill here, as`bad´ as it may be, you’re always going to reassure whoever it is that it isn't  As I did this, Rihanna was already mid way through her chorus again.

Want you to make me feel, like I’m the only girl in the world

It wasn't just her voice I was trying to talk over, but also the collective voice of the crowd that was screeching along with her. Needless to say there was only ever going to be one winner, and it sure as hell wasn't going to be me! What I was saying was instantly being drowned out, and after trying to talk loudly into his ear, as I looked at his face I could see that he was frowning at me.

“I don’t understand what you’re saying. Maybe it’s because I’m used to speaking American English and not British English”.

Before I’d had chance to repeat myself, he’d changed the subject.

Add me on Face (Face is Facebook to a lot of Brazilians!), we should definitely hang out some time. I studied English in America for three months in 2009, and my girlfriend lived in Canada for 6 months last year. We love talking in English”.

“Oh! Fantastic” I responded enthusiastically, before stopping for just a moment, “Sorry, can I ask what your name is?”

As a foreigner living in Brazil, this incident was quite unusual for me, but perhaps not for the reason you might expect.  


I actually didn't find this guys request to add me on Facebook so quickly all that weird. Compared to British people, Brazilians are much less reserved when it comes to forging new friendships. So it figures then, that their attitude to adding people on Facebook that they have just met is also less thought out too.

Before moving here I only used to add people on the site that I knew well, but after a few years of living in Brazil I've found myself adding people I barely know, because it’s generally the way Brazilians (with Facebook accounts) do things.

That English speaking waiter who served me my chicken and chips once in a restaurant, the one who awkwardly stood over me and asked me for my name...well, I accepted his friend request. 

That guy I met queuing to get into a club last year, the one who studied in Canada for a summer who would LOVE to `know` England...I also accepted his request!

The friend of a friend who I only had one conversation with in Portuguese for two minutes about how much she loved Harry Potter....well, of course I accepted her! I still have no idea who she is, but do you know what...she looked like she had a fantastic New Year at the beach!

So yea, adding on Facebook really isn't a big deal here. 

Brazilian’s Speaking English

This incident in the club wasn't unusual because a Brazilian was speaking English to me either (well, not entirely). On a night out I can put money on at least one person coming up to talk in English after hearing me speak it to my friends...and if I find myself chatting in a smoking area, this number skyrockets! I remember once telling my British friend Sarah one of my riveting stories in a smoking area, and we were interrupted no less than 4 times in the space of 10 minutes; all by different people wanting to practice their English! 

Dont get me wrong, I don't have a problem with this at all, in fact...I kind of like it!!!

But then Sao Paulo is a business city, and speaking English isn't just required for some jobs, but it can also be a meal ticket to a promotion or other golden opportunities. Naturally then, there are quite a lot of people here studying it. So despite English not being taught to a high level in many schools in Brazil, from my experience, I've noticed that there are certainly a number of people with a decent grasp of the language living in the city (who enjoy telling me about their classes on nights out!). 

By this I'm certainly not saying that EVERYBODY here speaks it well, or even at all (I mean, taxi drivers, cleaners and bus drivers aren't likely to help me out if I were to only communicate with them in English). There are plenty of blogs around slating Brazilians and their ability to speak English......but having people come up and speak in a bar or a club (with fairly decent English skills) is quite common for me, which kind of goes against what I have read.  

Drinking doesn't just make you dance like this, it makes
you speak fluently too! 
It goes without saying though that when you’re investing time, effort and money into studying English, you're gonna seize the opportunity to speak it after a few drinks to native English speakers. I mean, it’s an unwritten law; a truth universally acknowledged that anyone with second language abilities will try them out when drunk!

I am guilty of doing this too, I actually met a good friend of mine here when I saw him in a club, assumed he spoke Japanese and then went over to practice my rusty Japanese on him. It sucked, he asked if we could speak English, he turned out to be almost fluent and we've been friends since. 

And l really enjoy speaking Portuguese after a few beers too, even if nobody understands me!

Practicing any second languages when at a bar/ club/ party definitely isn't restricted to Brazilians, and having people want to speak English to me isn't unusual here! 

So what was it about this incident that was strange for me then?

My Face

Well, it was because very rarely do people come up speak English to me without hearing me speak it first. 

I'm sat taking in a deep breath as a write this, I know that there is no way to say it without making myself sound stupid….but up until this moment I had assumed that this was because I didn't really look foreign here.

My `German`Face (I`m obviously on the left!)
Let me say what you're probably thinking, "Andrew, you're a lanky, white boy from England, why the hell would you think you blended in with the Brazilians of Sao Paulo!?!" Well, let me explain…

When I first arrived in Brazil I used to eat at a buffet style restaurant relatively close to my house. The food wasn't great but it was cheap and going there meant that I didn't need to cook. I knew that as long as I didn't go near the pasta (I tried it once, it crunched!) I knew I would be safe.

More often than not, on my way inside I would pass a homeless man who always looked like he was off his face on drugs. Having no inner monologue, he would stand outside and shout at everyone and everything passing him by until his attention was invariably drawn elsewhere.

Whenever he saw me he used to say the same few words over and over again. Yet it wasn't until I was walking past him with my Brazilian friend Carlos a couple of months after I'd began eating there that I was offered a translation of what he was saying. 

"He thinks you're German"

"Really?" I replied, with my forehead wrinkling into an expression of confusion. "Why does he think this?"

"Because you have blue eyes and white skin. So maybe he thinks that you look a little bit like the Germans who live in the south of Brazil. There are many German-Brazilians there".

And with this one comment I felt like I was a whole lot more Brazilian looking.

Whatcha mean I don't look Brazilian!?!!
When I lived in Japan I obviously couldn't pass for Japanese, so I appreciated that people in Brazil thought I looked like one of them. And with Sao Paulo being a cultural melting pot of different ethnicities and cultures....I really thought I blended in!

Since then this assumption was seemingly backed up by strangers coming up and asking for directions, or to ask me for the time (which is still almost a daily occurrence), reinforcing my belief that I didn't look like a tourist, but a Portuguese speaking Brazilian. "They only notice I'm not Brazilian when I open my mouth and speak" I remember thinking to myself once.

However when I told Carlos about this incident in the club, he well and truly destroyed the assumption I had that I looked Brazilian ...in less than 30 seconds.

"Carlos, why did this guy instinctively know I spoke English? I mean, I look a little Brazilian, don't I?”

As soon as I'd said this I could see Carlos' nostrils flair up and a slight smile being suppressed (about a second too late).

"Andrew" he said, with his voice betraying the fact he was trying to keep down a loud laugh. "Do you...erm....do you think you look like....a Brazilian?"

"Well yea...."

Before I'd had chance to finish what I was about to say next, Carlos had burst out laughing and continued to do so for an awkwardly long period of time. At one point he was almost wheezing because he was so out of breath. I sat there waiting for him to finish, wondering what the hell he found so funny. When he eventually regained composure, he looked at me with his watery eyes like I was crazy.

"You have the number one gringo face in all of Sao Paulo. If you think you look Brazilian then you are REALLY stupid!" He then continued to laugh HARD for another unnecessarily long period of time.

Are you actually being serious!?!
I was a little taken aback by this, and after trying unsuccessfully to work out what he was laughing at, I eventually asked "so what makes me look gringo and not German then?"

"Because you have a REALLY big nose and blue eyes, and everybody knows you are not Brazilian".

"Well why did the guy outside the restaurant near my old house used to shout that I was German when I walked past him?"

"Andrew, you mean the guy who was using drugs everyday!?!"

"Hmmm....well, why do people always stop me in the street to ask me for directions or the time if they don't think I look Brazilian?"

"Maybe because they think you speak a little Portuguese, and they want to know the time or some directions! I'm really surprised we are talking about this. You really don’t look Brazilian".

By now I could tell Carlos was enjoying my surprised reaction almost as much as listening to what I was actually saying, and it dawned on me that this must be sounding pretty funny to him. Because what I was effectively telling him was that a tramp off his face on drugs had been responsible for me thinking I looked Brazilian for two years, and since then I've been oblivious to how foreign I look to others.

So from me, my blue eyes and my big foreign nose, Happy New Year (or glückliches neues Jahr to the German community I used to feel I belonged to!)


  1. I don't know... You could pass as a brazilian judging by that photo. Maybe it's your body language? I usually recognize "gringos" by their body language.

    1. I hadn't thought about my body language...the plot thickens!!! Ha ha! Thanks for the comment!

    2. First, I apologize for my English and second, I agree with Augusto! My father is brazilian, he has blue eyes and a huge nose (italians have big noses), but he doens't look like a gringo. I don't think we recognize gringos by physical features (is that correct?), but by body language. But let me say... I am from São Paulo and I feel really bad when I go to Rio or Bahia and people quickly guess that I am "paulista", because (in their words) I'm "white and small" and don't have curly hair. I guess I feel bad because I love Rio and Bahia and I want to feel like I'm part of those places when I'm there. I guess if I look like a carioca or baiana I would feel more... I don't know, "embraced" by the place or the people. But then I think it's useless to feel bad, because in fact, Rio and Bahia ALWAYS had embraced me when I went there, even seeing me as a "paulistinha branquela". Hahaha!

    3. Hey Ana, thanks for stopping by to leave a comment! And your English is great too!

  2. I don't think people asking directions in Portuguese can be taken as a sign of much, tbh. I'm blond haired, blue eyed and about as un-Brazilian looking as it's possible to get. Everyone knows I am a gringo instantly, everywhere I go.

    People still approach me regularly to ask questions/directions/the time/etc. in Portuguese though. I guess it's possible to look like a complete gringo but perhaps not like a tourist (and therefore they just expect you to speak Portuguese).

  3. Definitely, it must be your body language. I once saw a Brazilian on "Fantástico", Globo, who'd been raised in the U.S.A. He was probably in his early twenties. Despite the fact he had Latin American physical traits, the way he talked, moved, and looked at the camera was really foreign. I also have a friend, raised in the States since she was 1 month old, whose father is Brazilian. She also looks foreign even though she's been visiting Brazil since she was todler. Oh, did I forget to mention her mother is from Japan? Still, my friend doesn't look like a 'classical' Japanese girl; though she had a pair of big beautiful slanted eyes, her eyebrows were not 'Japanese-ish'. Globalization, my friend (lol). By the way, I love your blog!

    1. Hey, thanks for commenting! I am now discovering looking 'gringo' isn't just going to happen when I wear my checked shirts, but with my boy language too! I will have to look out for Brazilian mannerisms! And thanks for the complement about my blog, I appreciate it!