Bureaucracy & Belonging (Audio Available)
Big Booth Words is now available in AUDIO! Click to listen along!
There’s a telltale sign I’ve made it, truly made it, here in Brazil. It’s sublime in its unadorned simplicity. Others don’t see it. Foreigners at home in their own foreign lands don’t see it. Locals don’t see it, and those who are directed to it fail to grasp what massive hurdle I’ve laboriously scaled and finally conquered: good old, home-grown bureaucracy. I’ve walked in, dodged the security guard telling me it’s five minutes to closing, made it through five, six, ten lines on three or four separate occasions, argued with the paper-pusher at the local Department of Motor Vehicles and worked my accent-filled charm into a spirited conversation with the scowling civil servant at the office of the notary public more than once, and emerged triumphant – that paper in hand, the residency card now tucked into my wallet, that one last stamp or signature I needed for some now-forgotten reason right there for all to see in clear, blue ink – the indelible mark of localness sambaing through my veins.
Far more than this country’s healthcare or some random company’s products, what is genuinely cradle-to-grave here is the bureaucracy. If I want to make it here (literally, like if I want to actually have the papers I need to live and work here legally; and figuratively, like if I want to grasp the subtleties of attitude and action so I can interact with Brazilians, not just ex-pats), this is one thing I absolutely need to understand. It is not enough to just navigate the system or call upon some inner alternate mellow me to keep from blowing up at the guy who keeps writing my name down as a coffee filter brand – Melita, although these are essential skills. If I want the stamps, the papers, and the visa, and if I want it all without a headache or complaining of time lost, and if I want it all without looking disparagingly at the country that has generously taken me in, and if I want to feel genuine gratitude in the process and product, making it means facing the most basic idiosyncrasies of Brazil to the point that I no longer see them as idiosyncrasies (or at least bearable ones). Making it means whittling down my own cultural judgments, smiling as the unassuming guy in the snaking line next to me whistles and my instantly recognizing the tune as the iconic Samba de Uma Nota Só – One Note Samba. Making it means coming home and laughing appreciatively at my most recent, three-hour, exhausting government-office adventure as I ferociously type out how strangely part of my adopted country it made me feel.
After fifteen years, I guess I really do belong. And if I had any musical skill at all, now is probably when I’d score my Samba de Uma Gringa Só – One Gringa Samba.
* Lest you walk away thinking I have overlooked the universal pervasiveness of bureaucracy, and to catch the five words I will use in next month’s post, read “Bureaucracy Must Die” by Gary Hamel for the Harvard Business Review:
- TEMPER, TO
- FETTER, TO
- STALL, TO
- SUITED, TO BE