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Hasan Shahid Posts

The American Way

American passportsLiving abroad has a way of goading you into rediscovering the cultures that shaped your upbringing. Back home, we often fail to notice not only the everyday, seemingly mundane aspects of our societies but also the larger forces literally operating before our eyes. Without having any sort of comparison and having no compelling reason to question what we consider natural, we unconsciously normalize these things and file them away in the back of our minds.

A step outside of your comfort zone and into a foreign land will force you to learn not only about a new country but your very own as well. In fact, I constantly catch myself learning more about the good ol’ U.S. of A. once I leave its borders, despite having traveled and lived abroad at many points since childhood.

My current excursion into Brazil has further driven the following point into my head: we Americans are an incredibly wealthy and privileged bunch. Yes, I know there is stark social inequality, rampant institutional racism, and a million other factors that prevent countless people from having a secure and materially comfortable life, but we, as a whole, have a mindbogglingly high standard of living and a remarkably stable government that drives it.

Our houses are enormous. Middle-class people with five-figure incomes will aspire to and truly expect to own a 3,000+ square foot house just so they can have six bedrooms, a gigantic lawn they will dutifully mow but never use, and a kitchen with lots of cabinets and drawers that will eventually hold plastic grocery bags and chopsticks stashed away from Chinese takeout. In Brazil even the homes of the wealthy normally do not come close in size, although they will probably be comfortable, well-constructed, and protected by tall walls and fences. And we’re talking about the top 5 or 10% of the population here.

We have the power to buy tons of useless stuff. Compared to much of the world, electronics, clothes, cars, and other goods are relatively cheap in the U.S., a factor that encourages unbridled consumerism and the unnecessary accumulation of junk. In contrast, prices for many products in Brazil are incredibly steep, preventing American-style hoarding for the masses. Many Brazilians deal with this by flying to the world’s largest economy just to go shopping.

Besides having access to lots of cash and/or credit, Americans enjoy relative economic and political stability. It would be disingenuous to say that the economy has faced no troubles over the past decade and that politics has been nothing but clean, but we can generally rest assured that we have time-tested institutions in place to maintain some sort of predictability and structure in our lives. Nothing has seriously threatened the United States’ unity since the end of the Civil War, and most of us don’t realize how much this stability has contributed towards the nation’s well-being.

Brazil, on the other hand, has undergone many significant political changes over the past thirty-something years, including: the end of a military dictatorship (1985), implementation of its current constitution (1988), the impeachment of its first female president (2016), and incarceration of a former two-term president and current presidential candidate (2018). These transformations, along with current economic woes and other issues, have caused many Brazilians to view the future of their country with anxiety.

Americans: don’t fall prey to arrogance and develop a sense of superiority about yourselves. Let’s not forget that nothing is permanent and that peace and prosperity come and go. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll be the ones flying to other countries in search of deals for things we want.

Wait, we already do that for our medicine.

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A Weekend Escape

Holambra brochure

Seeking to sample a bit of rural Brazilian life, the family and I grabbed an Uber last week and journeyed to Holambra, a small town of about 13,000 residents located 25 miles north of downtown Campinas.

This charming place draws hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. Founded in 1948, Holambra is known for its Dutch heritage, most notably evident in the locale’s architecture, cuisine, and most colorful economic activity—floriculture. Heck, even the city’s name is short for “Holanda, América e Brasil” (“Holland, America, and Brazil”).

According to Wikipedia and the information I picked up from our short trip, a group of about 500 Catholics from the Netherlands arrived nearly 70 years ago, looking to escape the devastation wrought by World War II. They intended to continue their profession of dairy farming in Brazil, but the 800 or so heads of cattle brought by the immigrants died on the ship while en route to South America and as they awaited transfer to their destination at the port city of Santos. Eventually, after the arrival of another group of newcomers a few years later, many families decided to grow flowers to sustain themselves.

Today Holambra produces nearly half of the flowers sold in Brazil, and one can visit a select few farms through an authorized tourism agency. Real Receptivo Holambra provided us with a quite informative tour, allowing us to visit two farms—one specializing in chrysanthemums and another in gerberas.

Lots of chrysanthemums
Lots of chrysanthemums
Gerbera farm
Gerbera farm
Orange gerbera
Orange gerbera
Pink gerbera
Pink gerbera

Although Holambra has much to offer, we spent most of our three days and three nights relaxing at the Rancho da Cachaça, a country inn known both for serving scrumptious all-you-can-eat meals cooked over a wood fire and for concocting its very own cachaça, a distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane juice.

Breakfast kept warm over a wood fire
This was delicious
This was delicious

I particularly enjoyed observing the farm animals. Hens, roosters, and their cute little chicks ran freely around the property. Helmeted guineafowl coexisted with the chickens, and ponies, goats, sheep, rabbits, a huge water buffalo, a peahen, and tortoises lived within their enclosures. And let’s not forget about the dogs and cats that spent their time doing canine and feline things.

Now entering livestock territory

Besides observing and interacting with creatures of the domesticated variety, I paid close attention to the several species of wild birds found on the ranch, including black vultures, squawking plain parakeets zooming high in the sky, and southern lapwings, which made fascinating yet startling sounds after nightfall.

Southern lapwings frequented this spot after sundown

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to explore Holambra’s quaint little downtown, with its restaurants, bakeries, manmade lakes, and impeccable parks and squares, though we did catch a quick glimpse of it through the tour van windows. Next time!

Small towns normally don’t appear on the itineraries of most foreign tourists visiting Brazil, but they do make for an intriguing cultural experience. If you happen to find yourself in the highly improbable situation of choosing between Holambra and Rio, consider this: Holambra’s Moinho Povos Unidos, a gigantic Dutch-style windmill, dwarfs Rio’s Christ the Redeemer by nearly two feet.

Latin America’s largest windmill

Personally, I’d pick hanging out with chickens and goats over getting sand in my shorts on hot, crowded beaches any day.


Who am I?

As a brown-skinned Muslim guy of Bangladeshi descent named Hasan, I don’t fit into most people’s conceptions of the “typical” American. Too foreign-looking in the U.S., too American in Bangladesh, and too ambiguous in Brazil, I somehow make no sense.

The question “where are you from?” has stalked me since childhood. Rather than having the genuine intention of asking about my hometown or state, the inquirers usually seek to say the following: “Hey, I’m just going to ignore the fact that you sound totally American, but you can’t really be American because you look like you own a 7-Eleven.” As a result, the answers “I was born in Utah” or “I grew up in Illinois” tend to elicit the laconic response “oh” along with a bored face.

Back home, I basically need to reaffirm my Americanness to a random stranger every 7 to 30 days.

Considering that I am a foreigner in Brazil and that I speak Portuguese with a discernible accent, questions from Brazilians about my nationality clearly make sense. Brazil has a very racially diverse population, with its inhabitants having roots in the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, and other parts of the world. Consequently, I can neatly blend in without drawing stares, assuming I wear standard Western attire. Those I interact with will only notice my alien status when I speak, sometimes asking me “você é brasileiro?” (are you Brazilian?) or “de onde você é?” (where are you from?). They will typically not question my answer and not prod much further about my lineage, even after hearing my unmistakably Arabic name and noticing my lack of blond hair and pale skin.

But when I’m out with my wife, who wears a headscarf and is also of Bangladeshi origin, everything changes. People will stare at us and ask for more details about our ethnic background. Once a bus driver asked me if I was American, guessing my nationality correctly while assuming that my wife came from somewhere else. Another time a woman at an ice cream shop accepted that I was American but deduced without explanation that my wife was not. As these situations show, wearing hijab will de-Americanize you.

To be fair, I can’t blame these individuals for showing skepticism when I state that my family and I hail from the U.S. Why should they not doubt my answer when even my fellow countrymen have questioned my nationality my entire life? Historically, popular American TV shows and movies, exported from the U.S. to the rest of the world, have hardly placed a diverse set of actors and actresses front and center. Thus, one can surmise that someone watching American media will develop a certain image of the U.S., one devoid of Muslims, South Asians, and millions of others.

I can’t single-handedly change how Hollywood represents minorities, but I can educate the Brazilians I do meet about my country’s diversity. Though it gets tiring talking to strangers in whatever country about my ethnicity for the 1,009,353rd time, I now view these conversations abroad as ripe opportunities to shed light on a side of American society that fails to receive proper attention by the greater public.

Luckily, I can at least bask in the fact that, in Brazil, probably no one will assume I’m the IT guy.


You Can’t Escape U.S.

Bugs Bunny on a billboard in Campinas

Aspects of American culture have a firm presence in contemporary Brazilian society. Walk into any supermarket, hip fashion boutique, mom-and-pop stationery shop, or used bookstore, and you will, eerily, hear the same songs from American top 40 radio interspersed with Brazilian classics and pop hits. Take a stroll around the block, and you might come across a McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, or Brazilian franchise clearly inspired by the greatness of artery-clogging American fast food. For better or worse, ’merica has invaded Brazil.

Certainly, the strong presence of American culture is surely not limited to this part of the globe. Let’s admit it: the United States wields an extraordinary amount of economic and military power throughout the world. As a result, it has the means to quickly export its products and ideas nearly everywhere, inundating lands close and far with Microsoft Windows, Beyoncé, Star Wars, and iPhones.

Prior to World War II, the Brazilian elite primarily looked to France for inspiration, learning French, reading its literature, admiring its art, and imitating its fashion. However, the U.S. quickly replaced the former European colonial power, and now Brazilians—especially those of the middle and upper classes—favor the language of Anglophones and the consumption of American products. Over six decades of this influence has introduced, for instance, a host of words, such as shopping (short for “shopping mall”), drive thru, and Xerox (used to denote copy centers), into the Brazilian lexicon via American English.

Today those who have the financial capabilities often travel to the U.S., flocking to popular tourist sites and purchasing clothes, electronics, and other goods that cost 50 percent or more in Brazil. Curiously, nearly every Brazilian I have met in Campinas that has set foot in the U.S. has visited one or both of the following places: Orlando (i.e. Disney World) or Miami, cities both conveniently accessible by direct flights. That would explain why I see images of classic Disney characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse around town far more than I do in the U.S.

Interestingly, this fascination with American culture starts at an early age. While there are some Brazilian children’s TV shows, the majority are American shows dubbed in Portuguese, such as Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob Squarepants. If they’re not American, they probably originate from somewhere else in the English-speaking world, such Canada (Paw Patrol) and the United Kingdom (Peppa Pig). The draw towards the Anglosphere starts early.

Although American culture carries a certain chic flair in Brazil, the locals show no sign of surrendering their own rich traditions in favor of another. Rather, they end up incorporating once foreign elements into their everyday lives, creating uniquely Brazilian blends. English hasn’t replaced Portuguese but has instead enriched it. American pop music hasn’t erased Brazilian genres but instead has existed alongside them, even leading to some catchy hybrids.

This cultural exchange, however, largely fails to work in the reverse. Relatively few Americans have any substantial knowledge of Brazil, speak Portuguese, listen to Brazilian music, or watch Brazilian TV shows or movies. Of course, you will find Americans here and there who take capoeira classes, have watched City of God, listen to “The Girl from Ipanema,” love Neymar, and who have shed their clothes and tanned on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro’s most touristy areas, but this level of interest in Brazil hardly matches the Brazilian attraction for the U.S.

Americans, let’s take some time to learn about the world around us. It’s pretty interesting.



An Exercise in Patience

CPF applicationSuccessfully adapting to life abroad requires one to inevitably have the will to adjust to new circumstances. You may have to learn a new language, eat food that you never knew existed, or deal with the fact that not everyone does things the way you do.

Although I had already spent a total of four months in Brazil before embarking on this trip, I constantly attempt to figure out how to navigate life here. The biggest challenge? Learning the norms when it comes to dealing with government bureaucracy.

Of course, taking precious hours out of your day to go to a local government agency is something you’ll have to deal with at some point anywhere in the world. However, the ways that you go about completing your bureaucratic business can differ drastically from one country to another. For example, in Brazil you will typically need to pay for a particular service, such as obtaining a CPF (a taxpayer identification number needed for a number of financial transactions) at a bank, post office, or other designated location before heading over to the agency in question, showing a receipt as proof of payment. This is something I never had to do before moving to Campinas.

Besides having to make at least two trips for the same task, you should arm yourself with every possible document to prove your existence just in case, as the rules for what papers you need to present are frequently not clearly stated anywhere. For instance, foreigners who plan on staying in Brazil for more than 90 days will need to register with the Federal Police (the equivalent of the FBI) within 30 days (or 90, depending on your source). While this sounds simple, you may not know exactly which documents you will need to show until after you have been turned away from your appointment for lacking a piece of paper that no one ever mentioned. Oh, and you will have to make your appointment by checking the web site literally every hour until you find an opening for the next business day.

Brazil’s bureaucracy often involves much uncertainty about what steps one must take, and even those born and raised in the country find the system daunting. In fact, many hire professionals known as despachantes to maneuver the complex red tape. In other words, I’m not alone in my confusion.

Learning about a culture’s most intangible aspects can impose the most challenges. You can taste the cuisine at restaurants, listen to local music at concerts, and hear the language on the streets, but you must pay careful attention to what is not said and shown. Books could not have adequately taught me about Brazilian bureaucracy, as the actual experience of waiting in line and submitting paperwork serves as a far more memorable lesson.

Now that I think about it, getting a new driver’s license when I go back to the U.S. should not be as annoying as I once thought. But, just to play it safe, I’ll bring every document imaginable with me to the department of motor vehicles, ready for whatever comes up.

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“So why Portuguese?”

Portuguese dictionary

How I ended up choosing to do a PhD in Portuguese and Brazilian studies and living in Brazil sometimes baffles me. I mean, if you had asked me back in high school if I would have any sort of interest in studying Brazilian literature, I probably would have given you a blank stare. That’s not something a Bangladeshi American kid from Central Illinois would do, right?

I knew next to nothing about Brazil. As far as I remember, that infamous 2002 episode of The Simpsons that takes place in Rio de Janeiro serves as my only memorable interaction with anything Brazilian. Oh yeah, and there was that Brazilian exchange student in high school that I didn’t know and that time I used an English to Portuguese online translation tool to prank a Brazilian American girl on AOL Instant Messenger at the oh-so-mature age of 15 or 16. Such educational experiences indeed.

For whatever reason, my exposure to Brazilian culture grew during my college days. I dabbled with capoeira on campus and in my hometown, futilely attempting to sing the songs despite having zero knowledge of Portuguese. Perhaps most randomly, I vividly remember watching the ’80s-looking music video for “Se ela dança eu danço” (“If she dances I’ll dance”) by MC Leozinho on a bus during an 18 hour trip I took while studying abroad in Argentina in 2007. The song is still stuck in my head.

My time abroad in a Spanish-speaking country, ironically, led me to learn Portuguese after finishing my bachelor’s. Motivated by my travels, I applied for a master’s in Latin American studies. The program accepted me and offered a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship to waive tuition and to provide a decent stipend. The deal? Enroll in courses about Brazil and learn Portuguese.

The receipt of this fellowship played a pivotal role in developing my interest in Lusophone cultures. Clearly not looking to relax after graduation, I flew to Vermont just a few weeks after the end of senior year to participate in the intensive Portuguese immersion program at Middlebury College, which basically crammed two semesters’ worth of coursework into seven weeks. There, I learned the fundamentals of Portuguese. Afterwards, I continued my studies, which included a summer of fieldwork in São Paulo, at my university. Brazil had me hooked.

Flash forward four years later to fall 2014, and I’m a first-year doctoral student eagerly starting a degree that I had no idea existed a decade prior when I was a college freshman. Coursework complete and exams passed, I am now a Boren Fellow working on dissertation research in Campinas, a city of over a million residents located about 60 miles northwest of São Paulo. Thirty-six days have passed since my wife, two kids, and I landed in Brazil. Let’s see what adventures await us over the course of the year.

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