Brazil is not a country of intellectuals. In fact, president Lula could only ever be president in a country like Brazil. There is a certain beauty to that if it were not for the vertiginous gap between public and private, formal and informal, upper and lower, in all senses.
A private company, or any company that requires some form of intellectual skills, such as a bank, wouldn´t dream of hiring someone with anything less than a university degree. This immediately eliminates a massive portion of the population, even most university students. In countries such as the US, aspiring employees have the chance of filling a position that might not match their expertise simply because attending university is enough proof of professionalism and determination to most recruiters. That is unimaginable in Brazil. If you studied accounting, you can only be an accountant. End of story.
There is this frigidity about employment here, which is one of the reasons English-speaking seemingly unskilled ex-pats (basically, without a degree) can only teach English.
On the other side of this horrifying coin lies the average Brazilian public school attendee. It never fails to amaze me just how little most of the population learns at (public) school.
As always, I have an example:
The other day I was measuring something with a ruler. An acquaintance asked me what I was doing and offered to help. He is a professional carpenter (take note). To make this exceedingly long story short, I realized that he counted from the 1 of the ruler, as opposed to the zero. My husband, his co-worker, told me that the construction they were working on had to be partially re-done due to miscalculations. “There you have it, ” I told him. “They don´t know basic maths!”
As always, I was almost slaughtered, being the only gringa and all, but I stood my ground. “Just listen, ” I said to them. “How old were you when you were born?” They all looked at me in silence. I tried again. “How long did you have to wait until you were one year old?” Silence. “You can´t count one unless you have the 0.1, 0.2, 0.3 that precede it. One is a something, it does not come from nothing.” At this point I was desperately trying to mark the difference between zero and one by slamming my hands on the table in a gesture of measurement.
They all nodded, too ashamed to admit they had never even considered that possibility.
I affectionately remember my math teacher teaching those essential concepts such as fractions (not the adding and subtracting, just understanding 1/4 of something), negative numbers, circumference (most people I´ve talked to don´t know what 180 degrees really means), and the concept of zero.
There deficiencies affect the lives of millions of people in Brazil, and no one cares. Everyone is kind, but the caller still shouts “quem fala” when you pick up the ringing phone. Everything is fun, but bank employees all go to lunch at the same time other people get their one-hour break to go the bank, resulting in massive queues and no one at the cashier´s counter.
This can all seem funny to fresh arrivals, or people that live in the “elite” bubble in Brazil (a very nicely dressed lady asked me if she had to queue in the post-office. She was genuinely surprised when I said, “yes”….. and left), but it´s not so funny when you have to make a serious living, rub shoulders with just about everyone and try to spark conversations that remotely resemble those you had back home. I seriously believe this problem is one of the main reasons some expats are so bitter. They love living here, but they sense something is very wrong and it´s making life much harder than they thought it would be.
Brazil is a country growing from one. It has not even built the basics on zero and is already planning on hosting the Olympic Games. There is something drastically missing from the entire equation.