The Displaced Nation

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As an expat, is it my place to join another country’s political protest?

BrazilianProtest_ahpmJust after the street protests broke out in Brazil last month, Megan Farrell, an American who lives in São Paulo with her Brazilian spouse, contributed a guest post to the Displaced Nation.

Megan was very honest in admitting that she had previously taken little notice of politics or social issues in Brazil:

Being displaced … makes it easy to be in a bit of denial.

I, too, am an expat in São Paulo with a Brazilian spouse, albeit from the UK. Like Megan, I didn’t initially involve myself in Brazil’s latest political movement—but my reasoning was a little different from hers.

I’m someone who self-identifies as politically engaged and active. Back in the UK I was a union rep at my workplace and I’ve been involved in protest movements since my student days, the most prominent being those against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Additionally, as a social worker and student of social sciences, it’s second nature to be socially and politically aware of what is going on around me, whether that be at home or elsewhere.

Why, then, would I be reticent to involve myself in the politics of the protests that were going on around me here in São Paulo?

Not my fight to fight

Despite broadly agreeing with the objectives of the early protests (about a rise in bus fares which as a daily user of public transport, by which I was directly affected), I felt that as a gringo and a guest of Brazil, it wasn’t my place to get involved.

To be honest, I even felt a little reluctant to use social media to post articles or comment upon what was happening, and when I was asked to cover the protests for a site in the UK, my first inclination was to turn it down.

As a foreigner I was sensitive to being seen by Brazilians as poking my nose into their affairs. Additionally, I was also quite aware that there is a lot of history and background behind these protests that I am only, at best, partly aware of.

On top of this, Portuguese is my second language, so whilst I can read it without too much problem, I was apprehensive of inadvertently misconstruing a tweet, newspaper article or blog post, and using ill-informed or partly understood information to inform my opinions.

Eventually, however, I went out on the streets.

What led me to change my mind?

What was my impetus for joining the protests? I think it was seeing the extent of the violence (rubber bullets, tear gas, etc) the police used against what was widely reported as peaceful protest in São Paulo on 13 June.

And it wasn’t just me. The harsh police response was a turning point for many Brazilians as well, because while it may have successfully extinguished the 13 June protest, it also had the converse effect of igniting far broader outrage across the city and the whole of the country. At the same time, it provided an opportunity for a far wider array of grievances to be voiced (most of which Megan notes in her article so I won’t go into them again here).

Once I’d been out on the streets I felt a little bit more confident about joining in the discussion myself. When a couple of photographs I’d posted got a bit of attention on Twitter, and Planet Ivy in the UK—an online news magazine started up by a team of young, adventurous journalists—asked me to cover the protests, I agreed.

A duty to inform the folks back home

My decision was largely influenced by my realization that people at home in the UK—as first my mum and then Planet Ivy made me aware—were largely unaware of what was going on.

In Megan’s post, she mentioned her disbelief at how her friends and family members in the U.S. were still sharing updates on Facebook about their morning meals, their cats, and sports teams:

How could this be? How could they just not care?

Like her, I had the sense of being in the middle of something big and important, and for a while just assumed that everyone else around the world must be aware of it as well.

If I stopped to think about it, of course, no one is ever as interested in an event who are on the scene. But once I realized that there were people out there who wanted or needed to know more, I thought I could do my bit to inform them.

Another motivating factor was the need to correct the widespread misperceptions of the Brazil’s situation—in particular, the negative press the country has been receiving in the UK with regards to its preparations for the 2014 World Cup.

Whilst a fair amount of that criticism has been justified, it occasionally feels as though the UK press has some sort of vendetta against Brazil, with every news story seemingly inferring that “this once again casts doubts about the safety of Brazil and its ability to host a major international event.”

Alas, I thought, even if I am a naïve foreigner living in and writing about Brazil, I could at least provide some insight about what is actually going on at street level.

A closer connection with my adopted land

As an aside to this, one interesting thing about the protests is that they’ve helped alter my perception of the connection I have with São Paulo and Brazil.

Obviously, through my Brazilian wife and my residency in São Paulo, that connection is now much deeper than before. However, and as mentioned in my last post, in the 18 months since moving here I’ve evolved from whining expat (or “exbrat,” as Megan likes to say) to being an avid proponent of my new home.

My decision to join in the nation’s protests—whether participating on the streets or discussing and sharing the issues with people online—was a kind of watershed moment, effectively making the transition complete.

Of course, I’ll always primarily consider myself a Londoner, a Brit and a European (a fact I’m constantly reminded of by my Brazilian friends and family, who refer to me as “the gringo”), but increasingly I feel just as proud to be quasi-Paulistano*.

*People from São Paulo refer to themselves as Paulistanos.

* * *

COMING SOON: Andy’s interview Megan Farrell about her new book on expat life in São Paulo.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, from our travelogue writing coach Jack the Hack.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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images: Photo of protesters in São Paulo, June 2103, by Andy Martin. Go to his photo blog to see more.

21 responses to “As an expat, is it my place to join another country’s political protest?

  1. bornagainbrazilian July 9, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    Reblogged this on born again brazilian and commented:
    Some additional thoughts and views on the protests happening here in Brazil from another foreigner with a strong connection to the country.

      • bornagainbrazilian July 9, 2013 at 6:02 pm

        Great post! I agree, it is difficult to know what your role is in something like this as a foreigner. But as the real issues began to get exposed, I knew I wanted to do what I could to help make the country better for my daughter. Even if we don’t stay here long-term, she will always be a Brazilian.

        • andyhpmartin July 9, 2013 at 6:16 pm

          That’s an excellent point. Some of the other ‘gringos’ I know (who are also married / in a relationship with a Brazilian) said the same thing – i.e. that joining the protests was not about them but their children who could potentially be living in Brazil in years to come and who would benefit from any potential changes (or suffer through the lack of them).

  2. Jack Scott July 9, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    It’s a difficult dilemma for most expats – to comment or not to comment. It was certainly something I thought about a lot when I lived abroad. Presumably, you pay taxes and contribute to the economy by consuming goods and services, as I did. Therefore, I think you’ve a right to hold a view.

  3. William Shelton July 9, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    I’m a three-time expat, having lived in Mexico in the late 70s, São Paulo in the early-mid 90s, and I’ve been back now for two years and I am in Juiz de Fora. (I’ve had permanent residency here for some 20 years.) Like Andy, I have a long history of social and political activism and too am a student of social sciences. I am, however, much older. The beginnings of my political activism date to when I was serving in the US Air Force (only stateside) during the Vietnam War and haven’t really stopped.

    When the protests started here, I had no doubts about joining them. The embers from my commitment to social change — ignited so many years ago — have never been extinguished. As I had marched with the caras pintadas back when Collor was president, and I constantly find myself referring to Brazil and Brazlians as “we”, I saw my natural place as being in the streets. My children, (three, five and twenty-one) are all dual nationals and my spouse, like Andy’s, is also Brazilian.I have a deep and profound commitment to this country. Although I might not (yet) be a citizen, Brazil is also my country. Perhaps that major impact of these demonstrations has been that I realized that it is time to apply for citizenship here. That is all that is missing for me to be fully integrated into my adopted country. Its struggles are also mine. I’m here to stay.

  4. Victoria July 10, 2013 at 2:27 am

    Great post. This is something I’ve struggled with for years. I’m an American expat in France (lived here nearly 20 years). I’ve pretty much stayed out of my home AND host country politics until very recently. Because I’d been gone so long I was uneasy about getting involved in U.S. politics and in my host country I’m a long-term EU resident but not a citizen. Like you, and some of the people who have commented, I changed my mind. I started speaking out, commenting where I could and using my blog as a platform for expressing my views. I argued against a French policy called the Circulaire Guéant which had a terrible impact on foreign students here and then came out in favor of the Mariage pour Tous law (gay marriage). Concerning U.S. politics I’ve been more involved there too – writing about things like the Reed-Schumer amendment and trying to get the U.S. extraterritorial law, FATCA, mitigated so it doesn’t have such a terrible impact on Americans at home and abroad.

    The last has led to a very interesting situation – one that I did not fully understand until after the fact. Recently I went to the European Parliament in Bruxelles with a group of dual US/EU citizens (all private citizens and regular folks) to raise awareness about FATCA and to see what could be done to lessen the impact. We attended a meeting on the subject and lobbied hard before and after the meeting. And then it occurred to me as we came home that I had put on my EU long-term permanent resident and spouse of an EU citizen hat and had lobbied my host country government AGAINST my home country government. I spent a few days after thinking about it and the implications. I finally came to the conclusion that I’m perfectly comfortable with what I did and will do it again. On this and on any other issue where I think my home country or my host country is dead wrong then I will speak out. Not because I have a problem with either of them but because I care so deeply about both: the country of my birth and the country of my heart.

    “Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist?” G.K. Chesterton

    • andyhpmartin July 11, 2013 at 9:00 am

      Thanks Victoria. Good point about being critical of both your home country and that which you live in. It helps to give you a balanced and unbiased view of thing I think – it also shows the locals you’re not just another moaning ‘expat’!

  5. Virginia Lowe July 10, 2013 at 7:30 am

    As an expat of 15 years and a civil-rights and anti-war protestor from many years ago in the USA, I feel personally uncomfortable about getting out in the front lines in another country’s disputes. I’m also a bit too mobility-challenged to do so. However, I do feel that expats can support a protest they believe in by being in the back lines, by helping with the supplies. Here in Turkey, I supported the Gezi park protestors by cooking massive amounts of food, sending first-aid needs, cleaning and sanitary needs, changes of clothing and such.
    Of course I also posted relevant news to friends in the states so they would have a notion of what was going on half a world away.

    • andyhpmartin July 11, 2013 at 9:02 am

      I think your contribution is just as valid if not more so to be honest. It ‘s certainly probably more practical for the people involved to be receiving the support you provided.Thanks for sharing!

  6. jenny July 10, 2013 at 8:20 am

    As an African American I felt inclined to support the people of Turkey. I mean just look at the ugly history of america. If it wasnt for people who had nothing to do with the situation joining blacks and taking a stand against the slavery, inequality, discrimination, and dehumanizing actions they were faced with who knows where America would be today. The government organizations just get more global and if we the citizens are going to keep our governments in check, then we ought to as well.
    “First they came for the communists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

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  8. ML Awanohara July 11, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Andy, thank you for this post. It has clearly hit a nerve with quite a lot of us who’ve found ourselves in politically charged situations while living abroad, without necessarily seeking them out.

    In my case, you reminded me of an incident that took place in the workplace during my stay in Japan. I was working for a small Japanese ad agency that did English-language ads for Japanese companies wishing to advertise overseas. Most of the rank-and-file workers and all of the managers were Japanese. They’d hired around four of us foreigners for our English-language skills (to write copy, stories for PR magazines, etc.).

    About a year after I’d started working there, the Japanese workers decided to go on strike. (The company was family owned and very badly managed.) We foreigners had no choice but to continue reporting to work with the managers, as gaijin aren’t allowed in Japanese unions.

    Sitting at our desks with a bunch of inept managers watching us like hawks as our co-workers paraded around with red armbands was passing strange. The union leaders definitely had my sympathies, but as the strike wore on, I felt as though I were immersed in a sociological experience rather than earning a living. Ultimately, I left for another job (working for an American organization albeit in an all-Japanese setting).

    I remember thinking then, and I still think now, that you can’t join in another country’s protest movement unless you’ve basically gone native (as some of the other commenters have) — ie, you understand the language and culture perfectly and are fully integrated. As I had no intention of “going native” in Japan, I would always be stuck in the role of observer.

    Observer — and influencer. You may have heard the term gaiatsu in reference to Japan — literally, “foreign pressure.” The Japanese government likes it when Western countries like the United States put pressure on it to go in directions that various interest groups have been resisting. Likewise, my co-workers in this dysfunctional company didn’t mind it if I stood up and said something they were all thinking. I was serving the useful purpose of airing a common grievance, which for them was much harder to do.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I influenced my co-workers to go on strike, but I definitely contributed in some way. It was a smoking office, and I was getting sore nasal passages and laryngitis from all the passive smoking. One day, I decided to speak out against the management (all of the much-loathed managers were heavy smokers). Several of my co-workers told me privately they agreed with me and were grateful for my demand for healthier work conditions. The labor unrest began not long after that confrontation…

    Longer term, though, I would not have been satisfied with the role of observer and gaiatsu. When I at last repatriated to my native East Coast USA, I remember feeling glad that I would no longer be disempowered by not having a vote nor would I be restricted to being a catalyst, rather than driver of, change.

  9. Juan Cifrian (@10kJuan) July 15, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Another great post, Andy. I was hesitant to write about the protests for the same reasons as you, mostly because I didn’t think it was my place to get involved, but as a fellow quasi-paulistano, I’m happy I participated, showed my support and helped spread the word and keep people informed in other places, both in Brazil and abroad. Keep fighting the good fight, brother!

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  12. Reilly March 29, 2017 at 7:49 am

    This is kind of late but I just stumbled across this forum now…and would just like to say something. There are a fair number of countries that do not appreciate foreigners getting involved in the political process at all. Not to mention ill paid and corrupt policemen who if they see an expat getting involved might think “Hey let’s trump up a few charges and arrest and slap some whopping fines…hey they’re foreigners they can afford it” (This mentality “all foreigners are rich” is still very much in place in a number of Third World and developing countries). Which could mean things ending up badly for you if you actually don’t have the money, and they don’t believe you.

    This is also illegal in quite a few countries around the globe. For instance, when I worked as an expat in South Korea I had to sign a paper saying that I wouldn’t involve myself in any political groups or protest on any political issue.

    So as an expat I would say be very careful…even if it is not illegal you might still run into some xenophobes who just might enjoy nothing more then taking some rich “gringo” apart.

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