Nostalgia That’s Not Mine

tim maia

Credit: Sonia D’Almeida

Nivea has been doing a concert series every year where they have a popular artist pay tribute to the great Brazilian artists and give free shows around the country. This year, Ivete Sangalo (who I’ve written about before) and hip hop artist Criolo teamed up to cover soul legend Tim Maia.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to learn about Tim Maia. He’s a difficult figure to miss — his music is ubiquitous in commercials, radio, weekend barbecues, other artists’ set lists. Just like every American knows at least a couple of Michael Jackson songs, every Brazilian can sing a few of Tim Maia’s hits.

He’s an artist with an interesting history. (Wax Poetics published an extensive piece on him a few years back.) He was a rather intense, hard-partying musician who brought black American soul music to Brazil after traveling to the U.S. One of my favorite songs of his, Bom Senso, I thought was a deeply motivating song about the struggles he had faced and overcome until I discovered later he wrote it while immersed in a cult. I realized that in the voiceover parts, which I had previously ignored, he was telling the listener to read Universo em Desencanto, the cult’s holy book. (Fun fact: he sent out copies  to a number of famous musicians. John Lennon wrote him back: “Dear freak, I don’t understand Portuguese. What about LISTEN to this photo?” and enclosed a naked picture of himself.)

Going back to the concert, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of songs I recognized. The crowd was huge (nearing 180 thousand) and the energy from both the people and band was infectious. However as Criolo started a song and a woman gasped, “Aiii!” with delight and shock that he would dare attempt this musical gem (unfamiliar to me), I realized a disconnect I had from the rest. While for the Brazilian crowd, which ranged from old to young, this music made up the soundtrack of their culture, this was relatively new music for me. As much as I can sing every song, read up on the references, go down the YouTube rabbit hole with old videos,  it’s not going to resonate with me the way it will with others. It’s simply not a part of my cultural history. The music you hear growing up, whether you enjoy it or not, has a special significance that later music doesn’t. It’s linked to memories, your formative years, and it will always sound different than something you discovered as an adult.

Don’t get me wrong, I had an incredible time at the show. I simply realized that permeating another culture only goes so far. Although we all squealed like children when the fireworks went off in the end.


Acceptance and Serenity


“I won’t be here for the World Cup,” said a fellow classmate at our Portuguese class a few months back. “I’m leaving Brazil.”

I was immediately struck with a sense of dismay, exacerbated when another student announced their plans to leave soon. Then again last month, I discovered a fellow expat blogger was planning to leave, and I had the same reaction. I’m not particularly close to any of these people, but I always feel a bit of insecurity when an expat — of any country, not just the U.S. — decides to leave. In my head I plead, Wait, I thought we were in this together. Again, I’m not close to these people. Some I’ve barely even spoken to.

I’ve been asked many times how long I intend to stay in Brazil, and the truth is, I have no idea. “I’ll stay until I leave,” is my lame answer. But others’ departures trigger the tiniest doubts in the back of my mind about whether living here is doable. And I remember the moment when I told my friend I was planning to move and she responded with, “You know, usually people leave those countries to come here to the U.S.”

It’s not easy. It requires patience and an open mind. It requires talking to people to find out how the hell to get the government to work for you, learning which are the best routes by trial and error, researching the difference between alvejante and água sanitária before I go to the store, and being prepared for the occasional misunderstanding as people try to decipher your accent.

But it’s also a lesson in recognizing what can or cannot be changed, as well as appreciating things for what they are. I value the way people will invite you over after just meeting you or how in the face of chaos people will creatively find a way to get around. They’re skills I strive to have.

While others may have their reasons for staying or leaving, I can’t compare my journey to others. And if eventually I do leave, the time I’ve spent here isn’t any less worthwhile.

I May Be a Foreigner, But I’m No Longer a Stranger

December 2013

December 2013

I take pride in knowing my neighborhood and its details. I like knowing that at the Sunday feira, there’s a man with a thick northeastern accent who spends the morning shredding coconut with a knife and sells it by the cupful. I like knowing which house has the six cats and that the Siamese one will ignore you, but the tabby will come running and demand to be petted. I’ve even come to appreciate knowing what time the gas truck passes by, announcing its presence with dinky music.

I like recognizing what’s constant, but I feel especially good about recognizing what’s changed. After all, it takes a true resident to know that the large white wall used to have a Japanese-themed mural, but has been since painted over. Or that it didn’t used to be this noisy at night, but they changed the bus routes so now buses pass through this street until late. Even knowing the minor fact that the guava tree in the park was cleared away makes me feel proud.

I’ve come to realize that this knowledge and awareness are key in combatting my foreigner mentality, the belittling feeling that I don’t belong. Even though I still struggle saying the word Anhangabaú, I can tell people which buses pass through here. When I leave the house, I walk down the street with comfort, with familiarity, with perception. I have a growing sense of context and memory that give me a sense of place.

I can’t wait to see how much more I will learn about my neighborhood in a year.

August 2014

August 2014