The View From Here
Brasilia, Brasil, December 17, 1996
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Yanqui Go (make yourself feel at) Home
Cultural Imperialism at its most fashionable

IMAGINE, if you will, going to the largest and fanciest shopping mall in the most fashionable suburb of Washington, D.C. -- the nation's capital. Imagine that you notice one shop has a German name. Then imagine that you notice that the next store over also has a German name -- and that several German words appear in the signs hanging in the window. After strolling about for a bit, it suddenly dawns on you that something like a quarter or a half of the stores in the mall have German-language signs or German names. As you go into the stores, you notice many items have at least some German on the label, and many of the highest-priced items are festooned with signs saying IMPORTED! Sure enough, the products in question -- CDs, computers, clothes, kitchen gadgets, food items, just about anything -- are imported, but otherwise are of are perfectly ordinary quality. You start to get the impression that being imported is and of itself a good thing, which in turn carries with it the implicit assumption that anything of domestic manufacture is no good.

You start to notice the people in the mall, and what they are wearing. They are, for the most part, clearly dressed up in their finest "casual" clothes. They didn't leave their houses without first being sure to dress sharp. They want to be seen. Then suddenly you notice something else about their clothing: it quite literally has German written all over it. Many, or perhaps even most of the brand-new, gleaming-white tee-shirts have funny slogans in German, or advertise German tourist attractions, or German sports teams, or German cartoon characters, or German designer labels. People carry shopping bags with German company-names on them.

You turn your attention back to the stores, and recognize several actual German companies and restaurants that have opened local branches. Many local stores have obviously based themselves on German models, and have taken German names. Almost all the movies at the multiplex cinema are German. The bookstore has a special section of German-language books and another of German-language magazines. German music --even bad German music -- is all the rage in the music stores, and the mall's PA system is playing some schmaltzy muzak-version of an old German pop tune. It's Christmas time, and the mall is festooned with holiday decorations -- with a more-or-less accurate representation of the standard German Christmas symbols and images as the central motif.

And then you notice the strangest thing of all about what's going on. No one is bothered by it. No one thinks of it as strange. As best you can tell, no one feels any paranoia towards the Germans, or is up in arms about German cultural imperialism....

WELCOME to Brasilia, capital of Brazil. Go through the first section of this article, and change "Washington, D.C." to "Brasilia" and change the word "German" to "American" or "English-language" as appropriate, and you'd have an utterly non-exaggerated description of a visit to our local shopping mall. (For that matter, the mall itself is clearly patterned on an American model, and the name of the place is Park Shopping. In fact, "shopping," the gerund form of the English verb "to shop," has become a noun in Brazilian Portugeuse, meaning "shopping mall." The phrase "I am going to the mall" would be translated as something like "Eu vou ir a shopping.") Odds are that at least six of the eight movie screens will be showing American films. You can eat at McDonalds, treat yourself to a Dunkin Donut, bowl a few frames at the Brunswick bowling alley, pick up a copy of the latest Danielle Steele novel or any of several American or British magazines (which usually are about a month out of date), watch the kiddies sit on Santa's lap, buy yourself a Compaq computer, or even wander down to the General Nutrition Center to get yourself some brewer's yeast. My hunch is that some brands are so well-established that the locals don't even know they aren't local. Fanta, Coca-Cola, and Sprite are totally localized, to coin a term. (But if you want a Sprite, ask for a spreet-CHE. Unless, of course, you want a Sete-Uppe to wash down your Ruffles).

Everywhere you look at Park Shopping, you'll see people wearing their Disneyland regalia, their tee-shirts emblazoned with the image of Bugs Bunny, or the New York Giants logo, or this Las Vegas hotel or that Los Angeles night spot. Baseball-style caps with team names on them are very popular. Basketball is played a fair amount down here, and basketball teams are the most popular choice on hats and shirts, with football teams a close second, and baseball far behind. Certain teams and cities are the most popular. The Chicago Bulls and the New York Giants are very hot, understandably enough. Those are big towns, and very visible teams. Less explainable is the popularity of anything bearing the name of the Charlotte Hornets or the Georgetown Hoyas. And I'm not quite sure why University of Kansas Jayhawks caps were on sale in Forteleza, a city in the north of the country.

The choice of one logo over another might be mysterious, but the motive for wearing the caps and shirts is not. They are fashion statements and status symbols. If you wear a Giants tee-shirt down here, it proves (or at least suggests) you've been to New York, and proves you're hip, and stylish, and rich.

IT ISN'T JUST the shopping malls, either. Anything advertized in English becomes fashionable, and anything American is very chic. English language schools are all over the place. (My favorite advertizes itself as an academia de idiomatica, or, literally, academy of idiomatic expressions. The signs shows a cartoon figure with a globe of the world for its oversized head. The figure is wearing an Uncle-Sam hat, and has its hands splayed out of either side of its head, thumbs in its ears, while it sticks its tongue out through a goofy grin. I can't help wondering how strong their grasp of American idiom really is.) American news gets a fair degree of prominence in the papers and the TV news. In Veja , a news magazine comparable to TIME or NEWSWEEK, there is weekly two-page spread of celebrity gossip called Gente,very much like the "People" page in TIME. It is rare indeed forGenteto fail to mention at least one American film star or celebrity of one sort or another.

Many grocery stores have special import sections, where you can buy (allegedly) fancy delicacies from around the world. The English jams and jellies and the French canned mushrooms are there as well, but much of ths shelf-space is given over to such gormet items as Heintz ketchup. Shop-Rite salad dressing and other totally generic American store-brand or no-name products are also quite visible. (It makes me wonder just how fancy those Brit jellies really are.) Gatorade is very big. For no reason I can figure out, Pringles, the American potato-chip substitute, are wildly popular and very hip. I noticed recently that a common Brazilian brand of condom, Blotex (I swear I'm not making that name up) had vanished from the racks over the check-out stand at a local grocery store, to be replaced by Trojan brand condoms. The packets, in Portuguese, boasted that the Trojans were not only Importado but also aprovador pela o FDA. I'm not quite sure if this shoving-aside of domestic condom brand is the apex, or the nadir, of cultural imperialism, but at least it makes Saturday night just that bit more international.

NO DISCUSSION of American cultural imperialism in Brazil would be complete without a mention of Uncle Walt. More than fifty percent of Brazilians visa applicants list a desire to visit Disneyland or Disney World as a reason for wishing to visit the United States. It has become a terrifyingly expensive tradition for well-to-do fifteen-year-old girls to get trips to Disneyworld in lieu of the old-fashioned coming-out party. Any aircraft traveling from the United States to Brazil is likely to be carrying at least one such young lady (though they usually travel in groups). She'll be the one lugging back a Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck stuffed animal, which is, generally speaking, somewhat larger than herself.

Brazilian shoppers in Florida have been compared to clouds of locusts by frazzled but happy shopkeepers. As with locusts, there is nothing at all left once the Brazilians have swarmed through one's store. On my various trips from the U.S. to Brazil, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon at baggage claim: on average, for every one suitcase that trundles down the baggage conveyor, there is one box containing an electronic gizmo or consumer gadget of one sort or another. I've seen computers, computer printers, televisions, VCRs , fax machines, baby strollers, even an artificial Christmas tree in Brazilian luggage. Give the price differences between Brazil and the U.S., a clever shopper can actually finance his or her trip by bringing the goodies home and reselling them for enough of a profit to cover the cost of airfare, hotels, and so on. (All very illegal, of course, but that never stopped anyone.) There are, rumor has it, people who run whole cottage industries on this basis, for example, there is supposed to be a woman here in Brasilia who runs either a dress shop or a clothing store out of her house, with her entire stock coming in via suitcase express.

This sort of shopping has gotten so out of hand that some airlines that serve Brazil-US routes have let it be known they will no longer accept cardboard boxes as regular baggage during peak travel periods, for the very good reason that all those VCRs and TVs are crowding out the regular suitcases. I will omit any description of the various adventures with carry-on luggage I have witnessed, and leave them to the imagination of the reader. One bit of urban folklore has it that the Brazilian soccer team, in the US for the 1994 World Cup, chartered a plane just to carry back the results of their shopping spree. The customs official who actually dared suggest the team's luggage be searched was practically thrown in irons.

Thanks to the Disney connection, and to the climate (meteorlogical and social) that more or less resembles parts of Brazil, Florida has developed a fair-sized Brazilian colony. One such Brazilian ex-pat is a certain Senhor Fernando Collor de Mello, the disgraced former Brazilian president. After being impeached in a massive corruption scandal, he is now living very comfortably in Miami, thank you very much. Supposedly, he is, in effect, waiting for the statute of limitiations to run out, so he can come back and make another run at the Presidency. Collor, thank God, has no serious chance at the Presidency, because he was caught so very red-handed in such sleazy goings-on. It would be more or less comparable to Nixon running for a new term as President after Watergate.

But even if Collor has no realistic future, he does point up a very Brazilian attitude: money and power endow one with license. While this is true, to one degree or another, everywhere in the world, it is true to the Nth degree here. Rich people around the world around the world use whatever pull they have to get out of paying the fine when they get a traffic ticket. So too here in Brazil -- but here in Brazil they go the extra step and see if they can get someone to fire the cop who dared them a ticket.

Speaking English, and buying foreign products, and traveling overseas, fit into all this. Part of it is style, but part of it is demostrating one's wealth and status. Is it keeping up with the Oliveiras. It is classice nouveau riche behavior. But it would be unfair to paint it all such calculating, selfish terms. Well-off Brazilians dive into foreign travel and foreign products because they can -- which was not the case, not so very long ago. For both legal and economic reasons, which are beyond the scope of this article, it was very difficult for a Brazilian to travel abroad, as recently five or six years ago. Imported products were almost unobtainable just two or three years ago. Now the doors have been thrown wide, and people and products are moving through as fast as they can.

For many years, it was official government policy to limit foreign imports in order to encourage domestic production. Not very surprisingly, eliminating competition also eliminated the impetus to improve quality, with the result that many Brazilian products are second-rate -- a fact which became distressingly apparent when trade barriers were relaxed. For everything from condoms to canned goods to cars, Brazilians are discovering that the imported version really is better. Doubtless, competition will improve the Brazilian versions, but for now, it is taken as a given that the foreign version is better -- and there is a strong element of truth to this idea.

All of this cannot help but make English fashionable. And when a language is used more or less as a fashion accessory, coherence is all but sure sacrificed on the altar of attempted sophistication. The first morning my wife and arrived in Brazil, jet-lagged and staggering aroung the airport, we noticed a lunch counter advertizing "smell chicken." We decided not to try it. I doubt the smartly dressed young lady we saw the other night really understood all the layers of meaning there were in a South American person wearing a shirt that promoted the Banana Republic clothing store. And I certainly hope another young woman I saw didn't understand -- or at least didn't mean -- the satire of the Nike motto on her shirt. In letter eight inches high, the shirt read JUST DO ME. If Ford of Brasil decides to market their big, brawny, four-wheel-drive in an English-language country, they'll have a lot of trouble unless they change its name to something besides "Deserter." And I doubt many American visitors are eager to try the Brasilia airport restaurant, named (in English) THE ALBATROSS. The name of the airport bar (also in English) is Good Head. As they used to say on Mystery Science Theater when the set-up was just too obvious, insert joke here. I could offer plenty of other examples, such as the Tip Dog Restauranteand the Foot Free shoe store (for amputees?), but you get the idea. To be honest, I make so many appalling mistakes in Portuguese that I need no reminding of the old saying about people who live in glass houses.

But even if it is not always used perfectly, English is very big here, and there all lots of factors that will all but guarantee it will get bigger. Anything related to computers and electronics will almost certainly provide yet another avenue of invasion for the English language and for American culture. American brands -- Compaq, IBM, Hewlett-Packard -- dominate the market. As in the United States, Japanese brands, especially of printer, also do well -- but most of the Japanese (and other third-country brands) that arrive in Brazil are the American version, with English instructions. The same applies to legitimately imported TVs, stereos, and so on. One newspaper offered an English-Portuguese dictionary as a premium for subscribing, and the ads for it portrayed a frazzled consumer trying to make heads or tails of her stereo's instruction manual. Only her free dictionary could save the day. Having usable instructions is so rare that it is a selling point: some gizmos advertize themselves as including instructiuons in Portuguese. While a fair number of computer programs have been translated into Portugeuse, many have not. And, of course, English is the lingua franca of the Internet. Brazil's main "backbone" links to the Internet almost all pass through the United States. An email message going from one neighborhood in Rio to another would quite likely travel back and forth across the equator in order to travel a dozen miles.

CULTURAL IMPERIALISM could be said to start at home. Switch on the TV and the odds are very good that you'll see something American -- and the odds are also pretty good that it will be American trash. The Brazilians produce a lot of their own programming, and a lot of it is pretty slick -- but you can find plenty of badly-dubbed old American movies, along with badly-dubbed half-hour informercials for cleaning products and gizmos to help you stop smoking. If you have cable, you've got CNN, HBO, TNT, MTV in Portugeuse and Spanish, the Warner Brothers and Sony stations (featuring shows produced by those studios) and, of all things, Country Music Television. (Most of the music on MTV, and virtually all of the music on CMT, is American, or at least in English, with a smattering of Latin music thrown in. But there are these strange crossovers. Just last night I was treated to the sight of a Brazilian picking on his banjo.)

Shut off the tv, go for a walk, and wander into a bookstore. You'll see a large number of how-to books, in Portugeuse, explaining this or that computer program. Aside from a small section of books in English, and the American and British English-language magazines, you'll find that a large fraction of the current books in Portugeuse will be translated from English -- everything from Tolkein's THE LORD OF THE RINGS to Edward Bennet Williams' BOOK OF VIRTUES. It is far from unusual to see more English-Portuguese dictionaries than straight Portuguese dictionaries on sale.

Go back home, flip on the radio, and the odds are very good that what you'll hear will not be samba or bossa-nova, but Lionell Ritchie. (I just switched on the radio at random and got what sounds very much like the Pretenders doing the old Air Supply song "I'm Not In Love." What the hell is that doing on the air?) For some reason, the cheesiest 1970s English-language schlock is all over the airwaves. Maybe just because it's cheap. Show up at a party, and odds are the dance music will be -- get this -- disco from the paleolithic era. Donna Summer announcing "I Will Survive" is very big. (Now the radio is pumping out some generic cover of "Stop in the Name of Love." I may have to take an axe to it.) Just a note from later on in the process of writing this article: the same radio station just played at least six English-language songs in a row, most of them god-awful. Having had enough of listening in the interests of reporting, I have now shut the radio off with a distinct sense of relief.

THE BRAZILIANS, of all people, don't need to do this. If there is one country on Earth that doesn't need to import popular music from the Damned Yanquis, it is this one. Nor, in a larger sense, do they need any of the other cultural bric-a-brac they get from us. I feel more than a little uncomfortable with it all, and I am astonished that more of the Brazilians don't . There certainly were hard feelings in the past. Yankee Go Home used to be the flavor of the day, not so many years ago -- and with some justice. Uncle Sam can be a bit overbearing at times. Why there has been no backlash to the present cultural invasion is a mystery to me. Maybe the answer is that there has been no backlash -- yet.

Of course, there are still a few paranoid theories that float around. There are stories that the United States is out to snatch the Amazon. (What, exactly, would we do with it?) One weirdly racist version of that idea claims that black Americans are being secretly recruited, in essence to pre-colonize the Amazon prior to the formal seizure. Why only blacks are supposedly being recuited is not clear, but I expect it has something to do with some rather crude assumptions concerning African and tropical ancestry. An even weirder variant of this notion popped up at the U.S. Embassy here, when a Brazilian citizen came in to apply for a U.S. visa to visit the Brazilian state of Acre, in the west of the Amazon region. (This would be roughly equivalent to an American applying at the German Embassy for a visa to visit Idaho.) The applicant, it seemed, was under the impression that the U.S. already had snatched the Amazon, news which would come as a suprise to many. Then there was the story, spun out of absolutely nothing, to the effect that a U.S. atmospheric research plane, in Brazil as part of a long-range study of upper atmosphere smoke and climate change, was actually going to map all of Brazil's gold deposits. (No doubt, it didn't help matters that the aircraft in question was a retired U-2 spy plane that NASA had acquired.) The project was delayed for months while this and similar muddles were sorted out.

I can report one other event that is, perhaps, even further removed from reality. About a year or so back, a group representing the sem-terras(literally, no-lands) or landless peasants, burned an effigy of Uncle Sam in front of the U.S. embassy, demanding (on behalf of said landless peasants) that certain changes be made in U.S. intellectual property law, and that an American labor organizer found guilty of rape in Iowa in the 1980s be set free at once. As we all know, inequities in American patent and copyright law weigh heavily on the homeless throughout Latin America, and Iowan courts are notorious for building fraudulent sex-crime cases against labor leaders.

And that, too, in an odd way, is a useful snapshot. It's a pretty safe assumption that someone was manipulating the landless peasants in support of some other agenda. Whatever energy went into protests over U.S. patent laws could not go into getting the landless peasants a decent place to live. The things they were interested in were shoved to one side so whoever was manipulating them could get his bizarre demands aired.

That, I think, makes an important point about American cultural imperialism. It is, in large part, only for the rich -- and there are a lot more poor people than rich people in this country. Indeed, statistically speaking, Brazil has the most unequal division of wealth in the world. The radio and television filter down to the poor, but even if a poor household has access to a television or radio (and most do), they won't have the leisure time to spend watching or listening. Books are very expensive, and there is a very high rate of functional illiteracy: the poor can't do a lot of reading. They certainly can't buy computers, or fly to Disney World, or take many English lessons. In a nation with a huge wall between the few haves and the many have-nots, access to things American -- and, by extension, to the outside world in general -- is quite decidedly only for the haves. And whatever portion of Brazil's wealth goes into trips to Disney World for spoiled teenagers can't go into literacy programs, or preventive health care, or making Brazilian industry more competitive. The people with a lot of money in Brazil often don't put it to very good use.

It should be made clear that, in a sense, none of this is new in Brazil. In the nineteenth century, things French, and the French language, were once every bit as fashionable as things English and American are now. The wealthy sent their children off to Paris for their education, and French fashion was the be-all and end-all. The difference today, of course, is one of scale and speed. What was in the last century a small stream of information, carried by a small number of books and word of mouth on slow-moving ships, is today a flood carried by radio, television, video-tapes, and a vastly larger number of travelers on high-speed jetliners.

If I were Brazilian, this new cultural imperialism would bother me. For that matter, I'm American and it bothers me. American schlock is shoving aside Brazilian things of real value. If there were huge demostrations against the American cultural invasion I'd find myself more than a little sympathetic.

There's a lot Brazil could and should import from the United States, but for me, it ought to be such things as ideas: that one ought to pay one's taxes once in a while, or that the efficient distribution of goods is good business, or even that tap water can and should be safe to drink. I'd put that sort of thing first, and super-sized Tazmanian Devil dolls and the hit TV series "Friends" way down on the list.

I wish the Brazilians would import a bit more from the serious side of America, and a bit less from the silly and the frivolous. But there's another question I find myself wondering about as I consider the American stuff down here -- the McDonalds restaurants and the dumb 70s music and the designer-label jeans where the only thing the designer designed was the label. It's a question that, I think, might lead to a lot of somewhat disturbing places. Why is it, I wonder, that American junk is so much more attractive to foreigners than the American things of real quality they could take down off the same shelf?

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