Tag Archives: Brazil

A sexual harassment story

We are experiencing an interesting and refreshing cultural moment, in which sexual harassment has become a thing that we are talking about publicly. It’s remarkable; not only are we talking about it, but powerful men are being brought low by revelations that they’ve treated people (mostly women, but sometimes men) poorly. We’re finding out that powerful men from all walks of life — luminaries of the art world, successful businessmen, beloved politicians — have done awful, disgusting things with zero consequences. They’ve made degrading comments, they’ve touched and groped, they’ve exposed themselves, they’ve raped. They’ve wielded power to satisfy themselves and to make others feel small. They’ve been doing it for years, decades, centuries, but only now are we talking about it, or perhaps only now are we listening.

If you poke around the internet for even a few minutes, it becomes apparent that a lot of regular, non-famous, non-powerful men are surprised, even shocked, by these emerging stories of sexual harassment and abuse. I’m willing to bet, though, that not a single woman who has ever stepped foot outside her home is surprised or shocked by these stories. I am willing to bet that every woman has her own story (or, more likely, stories) of sexual harassment and/or abuse. These are stories that we don’t like to tell. They’re not fun. They’re embarrassing, even shameful. They make us feel stupid and small, looking back at how we were treated, how we let ourselves be talked to or touched. But now that people have started to bring these festering stories into the light, I think continuing to tell them is important. Exposure and momentum are important. And it can be cathartic to unburden yourself of some of the weight you’ve been lugging around by yourself.

But it’s also scary. I don’t want to be attacked for reporting what someone else did to me. And this is what happens, when people (especially women) speak up about being harassed. People who don’t want to believe them look for reasons to dismiss them, or silence them. Women who tell their stories are labeled as crazy, slutty, stupid, venal, asking for it. I don’t want to be accused of lying or profit-seeking, so when I tell my little sexual harassment story here, I won’t be identifying the man I’m talking about by name. It’s not worth it to me. But it is worth it to put the story itself out into the universe, even without the guy’s name. It’ll make me feel better, if nothing else. (Also, it would probably be REALLY easy to figure out who he is with basic internet research, but I’ll leave that to you, intrepid reader).

I’m sad to admit that I’ve been sexually harassed in some form in nearly every job I’ve had. Some of these instances were worse than others. Some I’ve probably forgotten. But the ones that really stick with me are the ones that happened to me early on, when I was just starting out in the working world.

A few months after I graduated college in 2005, I moved to São Paulo to take a job as a paralegal at an international law firm. I got the job through a Stanford alumnus who had somehow come across my resume. I’d already gotten into Harvard Law School but had decided to defer for a year, and this alum thought I’d be an asset to his firm’s Sao Paulo office. During the recruitment process, my future boss — let’s call him J — promised me a whole host of benefits: an apartment paid for by the firm, free meals, access to a car, fair pay. He set up a video interview for me with his bosses, the managing partners of the office. During the interview, one of the partners kept complaining that he couldn’t see my face clearly and wanted to know what I looked like. It was obvious from his repeated questions about my appearance during the interview that he wanted to make sure I was pretty. It made me squeamish, but I brushed it off, figuring this was the way of the world, especially in a Latin American outpost of a big firm. It wasn’t that bad, just a little uncomfortable.

After the video interview, I was offered the job and I accepted. I was giddy with excitement. I was willing to move to Brazil not knowing a single soul — I had never even met J, the guy who set up the job for me. It would be a grand adventure and a great learning opportunity. A few days before I was to depart for São Paulo, I contacted J, expecting him to let me know where my apartment would be and how I could access the car he’d promised me once I arrived. He informed me that I would be living with him until an apartment could be arranged. You might be thinking that this sounds highly inappropriate and unprofessional. It was. And it made me uncomfortable, just as the video interview had. But I felt there wasn’t much I could do. I was dependent on J to arrange everything for me. At that point, my Portuguese was rudimentary, I had never been to the city, I knew no one, and so felt I had no choice but to move in with J until he could sort out my living situation. I flew to São Paulo and took a taxi to J’s address. His cleaning lady let me in and showed me to the guest room. I was expecting I’d stay at J’s apartment for a couple of days, max. It turned out to be weeks. I felt so uncomfortable living there that I’d stay locked in my room, dreading coming out lest I run into my boss in his pajamas or worse.

I was miserable and asked about my apartment every day until finally, one was procured for me. However, J informed me, quite nonchalantly, that the firm would not be paying for my apartment after all. And the car? That wasn’t happening either. The meal vouchers he’d promised me? No, they couldn’t make that happen; sorry. And the fair pay? Also not going to happen. I was not paid enough to live on. My monthly rent consumed almost my entire paycheck, so I ended up with about $250 per month to live on in a very expensive city.

Here’s part of an email I wrote to my parents a few weeks after starting my job and moved into my own place: 

The apartment is still more expensive than I had bargained for. Now I have to pay for my utilities, which J assures me is cheap (under 100 R a month) but STILL. I almost started crying when [the office manager] told me that — I didn’t though, don’t worry Dad — because honestly. One thing after another. PLUS they require a 1000 R deposit, which of course the office is deducting from my pay, so in August I will only get paid 600 R. Ummm yes. And I haven’t even gone grocery shopping yet or bought myself a towel for the gym, although the flat has some old ratty ones in the closet. I know we will be able to cover all this and I shouldn’t get so worked up about stuff but it really drives me nuts that [the firm] thinks it’s ok to not adjust my pay when they know I don’t have enough to live on. J said in the elevator just now that he would see what he could do, and he thought maybe [managing partner] might give me a raise later on if I proved myself to be a good worker. I guess we’ll see. 

After being at the office for three months, I found out that my bosses were paying a male trainee (a similar position to mine) significantly more than me. I wrote my mom and told her about a conversation I’d had with the male trainee (let’s call him P):

P asked how much they were paying me, and I told him, and he was like, Wow, and I thought they paid ME nothing. So it turns out they paid him significantly more than me (I think like $2500 reais a month), for the same position. Should I bring this up assuming they decide to extend my contract? Because it seems entirely unfair that they should pay me so much less than they paid him for doing the same job… I am presuming it is because he is male. There is a very Boys Club attitude in the office, despite the fact that all the Brazilian lawyers here are female. There is no question that [managing partners] run the place, and they are very Old School with regards to gender, esp. [main managing partner]. Like remember when he interviewed me and was all put out that he couldn’t see me in the videoconference? Because it mattered to him what I looked like in his decision about whether or not to hire me! Anyway what do you think about the salary issue? It kinda pisses me off, esp. since I had a meeting with [office manager] the other day in which she informed me that I still “owe” the office and they won’t be paying me full salary till next month. Long story… oh and she tried to totally f*ck me over by saying that they were going to subtract my meal tickets from my salary, as if we hadn’t been over that before. I put my foot down with her and said that that was NOT the understanding, and she backed off and said, ok, ok, we’ll give you the meal vouchers. I mean, for Pete’s sake. I am trying not to obsess about money but I just feel like I am getting jerked around here. It’s a matter of principal more than of money at this point, because I understand that I am essentially paying for the experience of being here, but they shouldn’t be able to keep me as an indentured servant, you know?

My work life was miserable. I was constantly worried about money and my job performance. To try to save money, I would walk to and from work, over a mile along busy, sidewalk-less São Paulo streets. When a receptionist in the office found out I was doing this, she scolded me, saying that I could get robbed or even murdered and that I had to pay for a taxi instead, fim. I grudgingly agreed. Taxis were expensive and took forever in the brutal São Paulo traffic. I would watch the meter tick up and up and feel like I was watching my money trickle away.

I knew I was being treated unfairly but I was afraid to advocate for myself too strongly lest I be shipped back home, jobless. This was the headspace I was in when J started making inappropriate comments to me. One time, he asked me when I usually went to the gym. I told him I went in the morning. He said he would have to start going in the morning, too, so he could see me in workout clothes. “I bet you look really good in shorts,” he said. Gross. Another time, he said he was going to have a barbecue at his house and I could come, if I promised to wear my bikini.

Things got worse when one of my best friends came to visit me in Brazil. I was allowed to bring her as my guest to a fancy firm dinner, and we were excited to drink wine and eat steak with important lawyers from all over the firm. J made sure he sat next to my friend and hit on her mercilessly throughout the dinner. At one point, he told her, loudly enough for me to hear, “If you were my girlfriend, you’d eat steak every day.” She was 23; he was in his mid-thirties and divorced. Also, as a reminder: HE WAS MY BOSS. Later that night, J and another attorney invited themselves back to my apartment. The other attorney was married, and I saw him slip off his ring as he sat on my couch. They tried to make my friend and I dance with them. We were embarrassed and wanted them to leave. We finally got rid of them but not before the married guy tried to kiss my friend.

Then, my cousin came to visit. J invited us over to his apartment for a cocktail, and we went. While I stepped out of the room to go to the bathroom, my boss grabbed my cousin’s rear. When I came back into the room, she told me we needed to leave, right then, so we did. When she told me what he had done to her, I was livid. But I felt like I couldn’t say anything to him without risking my job, so I didn’t. Instead, I apologized to my cousin for putting her in that situation, and fumed privately, resenting him for being such a dickhead in every possible way while having so much power over my circumstances.

I worked in that office for nine months before I quit. I haven’t spoken to J in years. He is now pretty high up in the Virginia state government. Very accomplished. Very lauded. He ran for Virginia State Senate a few years back and lost (ha). I’m sure he’ll try again. I wonder how many of his female employees and volunteers and supporters he’s mistreated over the years. Probably a lot. And you know what? He’s just one small-fry example of this type of bullshit. He might not have the power of a Harvey Weinstein or a Roy Moore, but he certainly had a lot of sway over my life for the nine months that I was his (underpaid, harassed, fraudulently contracted) employee. The truth is, he’ll probably never face consequences for being a dirtbag. But I sure feel better for having written this. 

Expat Thanksgivings

I have celebrated many a Thanksgiving outside of the United States. My first foreign Thanksgiving was in 2003 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I was with some of my best friends from college and we were on a weeklong vacation from studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. We were all so caught up in the excitement of being in Rio for the first time (read: drunk), none of us remembered that it was Thanksgiving until close to midnight on Thursday, at which point we left whatever sweaty club we were patronizing and made our way to an open-air pizza parlor and ordered a bunch of pizzas, which we decided would have to substitute for turkey. In 2005, I celebrated Thanksgiving in Rio again, with my dear friend Julia. We met some Americans in a bar and hunted around until we found an Irish pub serving something that approximated turkey. Chicken, maybe? I don’t really remember. Alcohol may have been involved in the decision. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)

I also spent Thanksgiving 2010 in Brazil, this time in São Paulo. I got together with a bunch of friends — mostly Brazilian but with a few Canadian, English, and German people thrown into the mix, as well — and we cooked a proper Thanksgiving dinner with a real turkey, apple pie, and mashed potatoes. Pumpkin was nowhere to be found (seriously, Brazil?) so we did without, but I seem to recall that there were a lot of Brazilian goodies to be had, like brigadeiros, which make up for a lot.

And last year, Al and I celebrated Thanksgiving in Cape Town, to which I transported my labor of love, my from-SCRATCH pumpkin pie. This year, I’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving in London, with Al and my cousin John and a bunch of John’s friends. It’ll be the first non-US Thanksgiving I’ve had with any of my extended family in attendance, so that’ll be a nice change.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - always a classic!

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving – always a classic!

Expat Thanksgiving is always an odd experience — especially if you’re in a place where it’s hot in November and essential Thanksgiving food supplies are scarce, a la Brazil — but it can also be a really unique, wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. The thing is, when you celebrate Thanksgiving  outside of America, odds are, you’ll be spending it with at least some non-Americans who are interested in the holiday and think it’s a cool idea. And that’s kind of awesome, isn’t it? It’s cool to be able to share Thanksgiving dinner with people who aren’t gathering just for the turkey or pie or football or because that’s just what you do on the fourth Thursday in November, but because they value and admire the spirit behind the holiday: the idea of getting together with people you love to express gratitude. I love Thanksgiving because even though it’s a very American holiday (and yes, Canadian, too, but Canadians will readily agree that it’s a much bigger deal in America), the concept behind it translates universally: giving thanks for what we have. I love that non-Americans can get into the spirit of Thanksgiving just as easily and authentically as Americans. It’s just a lovely holiday all around.

Speaking of gratitude, I saw this video a while ago. Take the seven minutes and watch it, if you haven’t seen it already. It’s about the huge happiness boost we experience from expressing gratitude to the people in our lives who we love. I think Thanksgiving is the perfect, non-cheesy opportunity to grab your own happiness boost by letting your loved one(s) know that you appreciate them, don’t you? This year, as always, I’m really grateful for my husband, my parents, my cousins, and my friends, who, in my completely unbiased opinion, are all the absolute best. I’m also exceedingly grateful to still be plugging away at making my dream of becoming a professional writer come true. (Fittingly, today I completed 50,000 words in the third manuscript I’ve written since quitting my lawyer job a little over a year ago, so things are coming up Stephanie over here). So, all in all, I’m feeling good and grateful today. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!


First(ish) World problems

On our recent trip to Mozambique, we met a lot of expats who live in other countries in southern Africa, including Mozambique and Malawi, and it made us realize, again, how (relatively) easy we have it living in Joburg. When it comes down to it, living here is a pretty cushy developing world experience. Most things work. We have electricity and hot water and fancy shopping malls. There are gyms and knitting stores and nice restaurants. And although Joburg can be irritating and slow and backwards, the annoyances we face are nothing compared to those faced by people living in less developed countries or in more rustic areas. For example, we met a Canadian woman on Ilha who lives in Pemba, in northern Mozambique, and she was telling us how the only fresh produce she can find in the entire city are beat up tomatoes, onions, and an assortment of mixed greens that look like weeds.

I would die.

Well, no, I wouldn’t, because I have lived in places like that before (see, e.g., Cuba, 2004), and it was actually fine, because you can get used to anything, and I ate a lot of ice cream, but man, I devoured vegetables like they were going out of style for weeks after I got back to the US.

Map courtesy of coha.org

We’re in the orange, hooray! (Map courtesy of coha.org)

I have thought and written about this before. A couple years ago, when I was living in Brazil, I wrote this post about all of the annoying little things that conspire to make daily life in Sao Paulo difficult. Joburg is similar; actually, I’d say Joburg is more developed than Sao Paulo in a lot of key ways. Mostly, life here is easy. We have a car so we don’t have to take the crappy (and dangerous) public transport, we eat at good restaurants, there’s plenty of fresh produce, the grocery store stocks fancy products like soy milk and pre-made curry paste, our power only goes out occasionally, and we even have cable and wireless internet.

But life here is not perfect. Things go wrong more frequently than they do back home in the States. For example, yesterday I spent my entire day – literally, from 8 am to almost 5 pm – doing errands that in the US would have taken me half the time to accomplish — except This is Africa.

First, I had to go to the post office to pick up a package. When I got to the window and presented my package notification slip, the woman asked for ID. I showed her my driver’s license and she said she needed my passport, or at least my passport number. I had neither, so I tried to call Al to get my passport number, but my phone was out of credit AND out of data, so I couldn’t email him either. The post office employee and I argued back and forth about whether or not my passport was necessary to pick up a package in my name, given that I had other forms of ID and my passport number was not in their system anyway, and the discussion ended with her avoiding eye contact and telling me to come back with my passport. The end. Next I went to the Vodacom shop to buy more credit on my phone – which, by the way, you can only purchase based on monetary value rather than on the number of minutes purchased, which makes NO SENSE, Vodacom – but the shop was closed. Then I went to the grocery store to buy some cleaning stuff, and the woman charged me for a bag, which I didn’t need since I had brought my own bag, and in order to void the approximately $.04 charge, she needed to call a manager, but the manager didn’t come, so after five minutes of the cashier trying to flag down a manager, I said forget it, just charge me for the bag, and then she tried to give me the bag but she had already loaded my stuff into the bag I brought and UGH I JUST WANTED TO SLAP EVERYONE IN THE FACE. Then I went to the doctor’s office, and the doctor was running half an hour late, because, of course. Then I came home to do the piles of laundry we had accumulated over vacation, and the washer started spewing water and soap all over the kitchen floor, so I called the plumber. The plumber came and could not fix the washer. Then, I went back to the post office with my passport and waited in a half-hour line. When I finally reached the window, not one but TWO separate people decided to walk up to the window and argue with the employee about various things. By this time it was 4:30 PM, and I still had to go to the pharmacy. When I got home at five, exhausted and annoyed and with a wet kitchen floor, I felt annoyed at how wasteful and inefficient my day had been, despite my best efforts to get things done quickly. I had barely had time to write a blog post, let alone work on other writing projects, and for what? (And our washer’s still broken, by the way.)

But this is what you sign on for when you come to live in a developing country, and the annoyances in my day are so minor compared to what people living in, say, the bush in Mpumalanga put up with day to day, it seems silly to complain. Sure, in general, life in a developing country can be more difficult, annoying, challenging, and slow than life in the cushy developed world – but that doesn’t mean it’s worse, necessarily. There are drawbacks and benefits to living in a place like South Africa. Drawbacks include things not working, power outages, slow bureaucracies, inefficiencies, and the lack of certain creature comforts. Benefits include a much lower cost of living, simplicity, experiencing a different culture, and learning patience.

I am still working on that last one.

The Wizard of Loneliness

The Wizard of Loneliness was the title of a book I read in middle school.  I remember literally nothing about the book other than the title.  I even looked it up on Amazon and read the description and still didn’t remember anything about it.  It obviously made a big impression on me.  Nonetheless, the title popped into my head today because I’ve been thinking a lot about loneliness.

Being lonely when you’re actually alone somewhere is a heavy burden, and I’ve experienced it several times.  I’ve brought it on myself, of course.  Over the past eight years or so, I’ve had the habit of showing up places where I know absolutely no one – or close to absolutely no one – and staying a while.  I did this in Cuba (2004), Argentina (2009), and Brazil (2005 and 2010).  The times I’ve felt most acutely lonely in my life were these times, when I found myself in a foreign country with few friends and, even worse, few distractions.

I distinctly remember dreading Sundays in Brazil, both times that I lived there, because Sundays are family days, when Brazilians get together with their loved ones to eat long lunches, drink beer, and catch up.  On Sundays, I’d take myself to the movies or go to the gym or sit in my apartment doing crossword puzzles, waiting for the day to be over.

When I went back to Brazil in 2010 for work, I wasn’t prepared for the riptide of loneliness that sucked me out to sea as soon as I got there.  It was easier the first time I had moved by myself to Brazil, in 2005, because I had been truly alone – no boyfriend back home – and I was twenty-three.  It must be said that meeting people tends to be easier when you’re single and twenty-three. But in 2010, I had left behind my then-boyfriend (now husband) and it hurt, almost physically, to know that he was still in Boston with our friends, while I was completely and utterly alone in a city of 20 million people.

It took me a long time to make good friends in Brazil, both times that I lived there.  Making friends as an expat in Sao Paulo requires a Herculean effort.  I forced myself to go to Meetups and Internations events and then forced myself to introduce myself to strangers, to walk up to clusters of people talking and ask if I could join.  I set myself up on blind friend dates.  I accepted every social invitation I received, even if it was for something I didn’t particularly want to do.  Eventually, it paid off, and I made friends, some of whom I’m still close to.  But man, it was hard.

Here in Johannesburg, things are different.  I feel a small tug of loneliness during the day, as I begin to write, take my gym break, eat a solitary lunch, and return to my writing.  Usually, by the time I wrap up my work for the day, there are several long hours before Al will return from work.  Without friends to visit or talk to, those hours can drag by.  But I’m not experiencing loneliness as a lodestone around my neck the way I have before.  I know that, no matter what, on weekends, I have my husband to cook dinner with.  I won’t ever have to go to the movies alone.

But while I relish the solitary lifestyle of the writer (I have always worked best when left alone), I also want to have the option to close my computer and go meet friends for drinks or dinner.  It’s a big burden on Al to have to be my only companion in this country.  Even though he is endlessly fascinating and wonderful and I love being with him, we both realize I’m going to be miserable if I spend the next eight months here without my own group of friends.

So, I’m starting the process again of reaching out, of joining Meetups, of contacting friends of friends.  It’s hard. And slow. And difficult without a car and GPS.  But it’ll happen.  No Wizard of Loneliness in this house.