Thursday, June 16, 2005

Pedestrian v. Car

I was in Rio in April and just thought of an interesting cultural difference worth writing about here. There are probably more but life has been a whirlwind since I got back, so I will have to catch them as they come to me. This phenomenon involves the difference in attitude toward pedestrians v. cars on streets in Brazil from America. What is even more interesting is that the attitude varies from city to city in Brazil.

In Rio De Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Belo Horizonte, Brazil's three largest cities, you cross the street at your own risk. Even when you are on a crosswalk with a light. Basically pedestrians are regarded as obstacles and nothing else. If you get hit, it is your fault for being there, not the drivers' fault for hitting you. And I am told it would be unlikely someone would be convicted for vehicular homicide for pedestrians struck by his or her car in this manner and killed. Now, in the U.S., of course, pedestrians have the right of way -- as long as they cross in a lawful manner -- even though most drivers tend to forget this from the quick read of the driving laws booklet given to them by the DMV. I mean, after all, we all skimmed it just enough to pass the test. The only time reading it was even partially serious was in high school drivers' ed. And even then, how many really read it thoroughly? But definately, in the U.S., if you hit someone with your car you would be sued and could lose your license. And if they died, you could go to prison for murder, voluntary or involuntary, depending on circumstances. Pretty much if you danced around with glee afterwards, you would likely get voluntary.

Anyway, in Varginha, Minas Gerais, Brazil, a smaller city in the interior, I found the attitude was much different. While Brazilian drivers there were as reckless as ever, crossing the street mid-sidewalk was generally much easier and safer than in the larger cities, and required less running for your life. Locals also told me, unlike those in big cities, that pedestrians were much more respected there. And I certainly felt that as I walked around. I will still never forget my first time in belo Horizonte when pedestrians in a crosswalk with a green walking light scattered in all directions as a car came racing blindly up a steep hill and plowed through the middle of them without applying brakes.

All of this points to the difference different cultures place on the value of human life and of personal responsibility. In the U.S., human life is quite valuable and the drivers' are held responsible. In Brazil, the car wins and you were stupid to be there. I am not passing judgement on which is better, but I certainly think drivers do stupid things, too. Some kind of mutual responsibility seems more equitable to me. Maybe that's why I liked Varginha's attitude better. But in the dog eat dog world of cities like Rio, I doubt this will change any time soon. After all, Rio De Janeiro has more murders per capita than any city in the U.S. People are regularly subjected to a level of death and violence that most Americanos cannot imagine. Maybe this in itself desensitizes people to death and thus decreases the value of human life. Maybe death by such a manner is just more accepted as natural and part of the reality of existence because of it. I don't know. I do know I will never casually cross the street in Brazil like I do at home.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Continent-AL Divide

I recently got into an argument with my girlfriend from Rio because their country teaches that the two Americas, South America and North America, are one continent. My geography is a bit rusty, but I remember being taught they are separate continents, and looking at them on a map or globe, this seems clear to me. Yes, Central America runs as a trail down connecting them, but then the Panama Canal completely divides Central America in two (and Panama, too). So, I still think they are not the same continent. They look like landmasses that are totally different in shape and form. And culturally, there is little connection, other than the fact that American cultural influence (North America I mean) is so predominant the world over.

I know this seems like a silly thing to argue about and be concerned with. But then again, what happens if I marry her and we have kids and then my kids start learning this stuff. Do I want them to feel stupid around their friends at school or be mocked because they are learning different truths about geology than their friends? I guess it would depend on where we live. But these kinds of issues can be important to think about, and the truth is, it has me wondering how crosscultural couples deal with it. I also wonder how the world came to have such division in science. Why, for example, does my country still use miles and inches and yards when the rest of the world uses kilometers and centemeters and meters? Why do we use gallons when the rest of the world uses liters? And why are we learning a different system of continents than the rest of the world? How does this help our children be competitive on the world stage and how does it help us understand and communicate in a world which increasingly requires cross-cultural interaction in business and daily living?

I mean, I still have a hard time with Bianca's argument. To me there is Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, South America, Antartica and Australia. To her North and South America are combined and Australia is part of Oceana with New Zealand and other islands clearly not connected to it by any land mass if you just use common sense and look at a map. Does it matter for our relationship? Probably not. But it is something we can continue to argue about. She hates when I tell her she is on a different continent. And that cracks me up. But what about children? How will they handle such confusing information? They will be born into a world that increasingly will require them to know how to talk across cultures with people who have learned something that is supposedly scientific yet may be completely different from what they know and have come to believe. How will they do it? Will they become frustrated and angry? Science, as I was taught to believe, is not perfect, and is full of theories, but there are certain indisputable facts, and I guess I thought the continents was one of them. Certainly it ought to be something we can all agree on. I mean, how much is there to debate about? But what about our children? How will they function in such confusion?

Not that I personally put too much stock in science. As a Christian, I don't believe in a lot of scientific theories. A lot of it is just plain bunk based on false pretenses that come from lack of faith in God. Nothing founded without belief in that, in my opinion, is worth much. But a lot of people live their lives that way. And the confusion that is resulting could be very harmful. Don't you think so?