to napkin or not to napkin?: blending in vs being yourself

We’ve been here almost 3 wks now and I’ve come to realize that there is clearly a different standard of food etiquette in Brazil. Not surprisingly it falls on the more formal side than what I think most are used to in the US. Takeout food delivered to Joseph’s office is re-plated on real china and eaten with real silverware. It is not uncommon for you to go through 3 or so new plates while sitting down at one meal, and a knife and fork are used with most foods as eating something with your bare hands is quite uncommon.

In any bar/restaurant on any given night you are sure to see people eating “finger foods” one of two ways: 1) with a knife & fork 2) holding said finger food in a napkin. I get it- germs are real no matter where you come from and eating less germs can’t possibly be a bad thing. Buuuut it is incredibly awkward to try to eat a sandwich, hamburger, or bar snack with a napkin. Plus- what happens to the last bite in the napkin? Do you just leave it? Abandon the last savory bite of each piece for the sake of avoiding a few bacteria? Or does it take years of practice to master getting the last bite free from the napkin and into your mouth germ free? Adding to my confusion is the inconsistency of the napkin vs bare hand rule. Recently spotted in the food court at the grocery store (yes, there is a food court at the grocery store) were numerous people holding their McDonalds hamburgers in a napkin while eating their french fries with bare hands. I don’t get it…but I’ve tried it.

It seems sort of silly and insignificant but I think that these little things have the potential to be something foreigners in any country can struggle with. If you’ve grown up doing something one way, you’ve spent your whole life believing this is correct or polite or better or easier or whatever the case may be, and then all of a sudden those beliefs/habits/customs/etc are challenged you’re left wondering where you stand in all of it. Obviously how you eat your french fry is not a life altering decision with catastrophic effects but merely a silly example. However, when you move out of your comfort zone, whether it be a new country, a new career field, or even settling in with a new group of friends, don’t you have to do some sort of adapting?

Call it cultural immersion, call it having the true experience, or simply call it blending in. I’ve had breakfast at our hotel but since I have yet to see anyone enjoying their coffee and pão de queijo (delicious bread, cheese balls) in anything but their dressed for the day clothes, I have yet to go in my pajamas. If this were a hotel in the US, I would have no issue showing up in sweats and yesterday’s makeup. So what gives?

I’m reminded of a sociology course I took in college where we studied different behaviors, specifically the Asch Experiment. You can watch it here:

I want to blend in while I’m living here, at least somewhat. I want to do what the locals do, eat what the locals eat (whether it’s in my hand or in a napkin). I want to live like the Paulistas live and truly experience Brazil in an authentic way. But I still want to be me…

1 comment
  1. Deborah Luis said:

    I could not stop laughing at the napkin storm

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