Sunday, May 30, 2010

Markuza's Folly?

Weighing the options between another depressing post (and I have one) and something different...

Depressing post...

Something different...

I'm going to write something different.

I don't write much about what I do, how I make money, what fills (or empties) the coffers. And I'm probably not going to do so tonight, because at this point the topic in question is merely a concept of wealth, a figment of income, doing more emptying than filling of coffers.

I recently built a website called www.milmuros.com, or if you prefer, www.milmuros.com.br, as I registered both names. I'm trying to fill a gap I discovered here in the virtual Brazil, that being the absence of a fully functional online store to buy graffiti supplies. There are several websites for graffiti stores here in Brazil, but none of them offer a shopping cart and online payment except for one, and they don't even have spray paint. I'm trying to change that by building an attractive, easy to use store with everything a graffiteiro might want, from spray paint, to big fat markers, to respirators, etc.

So why is this a folly? Well, mostly because I don't think there's a lot of money in it, at least not yet. There appears to be demand, this country is filthy with graffiteiros and the stores to buy decent supplies are few and far between, so interest in theory should be substantial. Problem is that profit margins are low, material is difficult and expensive to obtain, and the stuff (spray paint at least) is allegedly spontaneously explosive.

Not to worry! My first ill-fated attempt at e-commerce, which never actually made it to the 'e' part, involved exporting material related to Capoeira. Although there's lots of stuff you can buy related to Capoeira, shirts, bells, stretchy pants, the principal item of interest is the berimbau, which is nearly impossible to ship internationally because it is just a tad too long. Since this new project is not an international endeavor, shipping little pressurized paint bombs around the country is a relative cake walk.

I got into this whole thing when I agreed to create an online store for my friend and ex-owner of the only graffiti shop in town, Bomb Bahia. Like a fool, I agreed to do this for nothing, an agreement that in retrospect I would have had to back out of. Not because I've shelled out a lot of cash- building and maintaining my site will be quite inexpensive for me, and I have very little in the way of operating costs at this point. The program which manages the whole store for me I downloaded and installed for free, and I'm almost smart enough to know how to use it. The real problem is the time involved in putting everything together, which is substantial. And filling orders so far has been quite time consuming, all three of them.

What makes this project so great is that I'm enjoying it. Thoroughly. Mostly because it's a change of pace for me, and ties in to my other interests. The problem is that it robs me of the time to pursue those other interests, and, as my wife keeps reminding me, it distracts me from making real money. Which is true. It does distract me. But the other reality is that my other work has dropped off substantially in recent months so I need to be pursuing other avenues. And what about my previous observation that there's probably not much money in this? Well, my mentor at college was fond of telling us that we could never see the end from the beginning- that by working on something for countless hours ultimately we would arrive at a conclusion that was far more interesting than that which we had conceived at the outset. Perhaps that will be the case here as well, with the hopeful addition of the word 'lucrative' right next to 'interesting.'

After Bomb Bahia closed its doors, I decided, after much internal debate, to proceed with the project on my own. Truth be told, I'd spent a lot of time with the owner thinking about how I would run his business differently, sometimes making suggestions to that effect, some of which he followed. I briefly considered opening my own retail store, but that plan was upended by two things: first, I didn't have the money to invest in inventory or the means to take on a lot of operating expenses, and second, two stores opened in the city while I was mulling it over. I was ready to call it quits when I had an epiphany of sorts- why not put their inventory on my site? That, my friends, is what I did and what MilMuros.com.br is today. Their stuff (mostly), my site (entirely), and a small commission on each item sold.

So far, so good. As I mentioned previously, there have only been three sales so far but the last one was a biggie- over thirty cans of paint. It was a ridiculous amount of running around and phone calls and emails but I learned a lot even if I didn't make much money. I have people checking out the site from all over Brazil, and some inquiries, and an active social-networking component on Orkut, by far the most popular social networking site in Brazil. People aren't buying, yet, but at least they're having a look. And they appear to be interested.

Before I wrap this up I have to give a shout-out to Fabio, frequent contributor to this blog, who has been an immense help in proofreading and straightening out my sometimes strangled Portuguese. I can speak Portuguese fluently, even if I still screw up the gender of nouns and misuse prepositions from time to time- I doubt I'll ever stop doing that 100%. But writing it is another beast entirely, and I don't want to come off as an uneducated fool. I doubt I could learn to write Portuguese properly without a serious effort that would probably involve taking classes. Very frustrating! But then it occurred to me that Fabio might be the perfect person to help out, as he is also bilingual, and his primary language is Portuguese. He proofread the whole site and made numerous corrections. Thanks Fabio! You rock.

To conclude, this is the plan for the future of the project. I'm going to pursue this for a year. If it's too much of a hassle, or it doesn't make me any money, or I decide to move back to the States, I'll ditch the thing and move on. I doubt I'll lose much money as anything I invest in merchandise will be relatively easy to recoup, as it's in high demand. Maybe I'll end up selling the whole system to one of the stores I buy paint from.

But maybe, just maybe, it will be a success.

I think I'd enjoy that.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sticks and Stones, the Response

I tried to post my replies to the comments on my previous post, but what I ended up writing was so long that Blogger wouldn't accept it, so I'm publishing it as a separate post. I'm overdue for one anyways.

I want to say thank you to everyone who left a comment on this post- it was a tough one for me to write, and I guess that's why I haven't responded to the comments until now. I'm impressed by the thoughtfulness and breadth of opinions that went into these comments, and you all deserve more of a response than I'm going to give you, but here goes!

Claudia- I agree with you that there is no translation for culture, but I also think that it's worth trying to explain and to understand. I would certainly want to know if a word I was using was offensive or not to someone of another culture. What I found most interesting was your comment about 'the forced Afro-Americanism.' This isn't something I have thought all that much about, but I believe there are lots of minorities that assume these definitions, even if they are clumsy, as better than the alternatives. And to be fair I should probably start calling myself a 'European American.'

Daniel- my friend used another example, the word 'rapariga' which is little girl in Portugal, and a prostitute in Brazil. I don't think that's really what's going on here, as the n-word has no meanings outside of the US (that I know of), and I really hope nobody tries to create one.

Stephanie- I understand what you mean about feeling uncomfortable with the 'color talk' as it were, I actually find it kind of nice most of the time because it's so much easier to refer to these things- I used to find myself at times trying to describe someone in the United States (to another American) and not wanting to say that they were black so as not to come off as racist, which is just silly. Plus my wife is 'Negona' to many of her friends so I'm pretty thoroughly desensitized.

Elena- you summed up a couple issues better than I did. Regarding the conversation I hope to have with my friend, I don't know how much I'm going to get into it. It might just be me telling her that I'll never be able to hear that word without a strong visceral reaction and hope that she understands that.

TLC- laughter, as I learned from Reader's Digest, is the best medicine. I know a guy who everyone calls 'Capenga,' which means 'cripple,' and another called 'Mario Gago' which is 'Mario with the stutter.' Gasp!! To be honest, those nicknames bother me too, but that's what everyone calls them, so what am I going to do? On the other hand, 'politically correct' shouldn't mean 'sweep it under the rug.'

Fabio- good point, and something I've considered asking my friend, how she would feel if the tables were turned in terms of an offensive word used as a name. In Capoeira it's common to give Portuguese nicknames to the players, even in the 'Exterior' where most people just take the mestre's translation on faith. Lots of these words can't be found in a dictionary although you can find most of them online now. Wouldn't it be crazy if a mestre gave all his students really inappropriate names like Safada and Tarada and they had no idea? I wonder if it's happened. Regarding the pronunciation: she isn't off the hook if she can't pronounce the word, the intent is the same.

Mae- I was struck that you have actually had conversations about this subject with white Brazilians, I never have. I realize that I'm not actually friends with any white Brazilians, which is a bit odd, at least not good friends. Now that I think of it, I do have a couple white Brazilian friends, but they all live in New York- now that's ironic! The things I've learned from my friends and especially my wife about their experiences have made me realize just how much I don't (or didn't) know about the minority experience, either here or there, if you can refer to a single 'minority experience' which of course you can't. I often find myself wondering how far the similarities go between the Afro-Brazilian and African-American experiences. That came out totally jumbled, it's 2:40 in the morning. Got... to... finish!!! My friend does not fall into the category you described- privilege has not left her blind to these things. Regarding the conversations you refer to, you're absolutely right, they don't happen, or they don't happen often enough. I find myself desperately wanting to give a shout out to Michel Martin and her NPR program Tell Me More, which has given me more insight into more angles on more minority experiences than anything else in my life, with the obvious exception of my marriage.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sticks and Stones...

First it was Chinese babykillers, now it's a cat named Nigger. Sometimes I think my excursions into the world of social networking aren't quite what they might be in an ideal world.

The cat belongs to some friends of mine here in Salvador. I was browsing pictures of their pets (clearly a valuable use of my time) when I found a photo that made reference to the aforementioned cat. I was shocked, and I made a comment to the effect that in English you wouldn't be able to use that name.

Here in Brazil, or at least in Bahia, Negão is a common name for animals, and also a nickname (for humans), and even a term of endearment. Negão does not have the same connotations as the n-word, although I've heard that it can be considered hate speech in certain contexts. Then again, I've also known people to call one another Preto (black, male) and Pretinha (little black female) affectionately here, mostly by blacks but also by whites. These words, which would be super-charged and almost impossible to use comfortably in English, at least in the United States, at least by a white guy like me, don't have the same bite here. Although I'm sure they could under the right (I mean 'wrong') circumstances. I thought that might be what my friends' were thinking when they gave the cat this name- trying to translate the n-word as something more like Negão.

My friend replied to my comment, directing me to another photo of the cat, where a discussion had already played out about the dubious moniker. She had explained to someone else that she knew the word was offensive in the United States, but she lives in Brazil, and has both blacks and whites in her family, and they were using the word 'without negative connotations'.

Okay, I have to admit I was upset. Growing up in the States, with huge helpings of racial guilt, this word was, and still is, strictly verboten. But it's complicated. I remember when nigga started its rise in the hip hop community, and although it hasn't de-stigmatized the word, it has created a new context for it, even an affectionate one, for some in the African American community. I've even been called nigga in Brooklyn (but I assure you there was nothing affectionate about it). I also read a bit of the history of the word online, and apparently it was not originally an offensive term, back in the 17th century.

So how much of this is my problem, my hang-up? If she was African-American and named her cat 'nigga' would I be as bothered by it?

I've had some bad experiences writing down stuff related to strong emotions, so I either avoid doing so, or write very carefully and deliberately when I do. I thought a lot about what I wanted to say about this name, and then I replied to the effect that yes, she's in Brazil, so she can do what she wants, but "essa palavra eh palavrão mesmo para gente de meu pais, não se traduz como 'negão' mas significa odeio e racismo, mesmo com os B-boys falando 'nigga' estes 20 anos" or, to translate, "the word is a swear word for people from my country, you can't translate it like negão, and it signifies hate and racism, even with the B-boys saying 'nigga' for twenty years."

I don't think my friend has the same compunction as I do regarding choosing her words carefully, but then again, I don't know if she found the subject as uncomfortable as I did. She wrote me a fairly lengthy comment back, the kind of thing that makes me want to take my Portuguese to the next level, because my vocabulary and comprehension hit the wall pretty quickly when the subject matter gets more abstract and complicated.

I'm not going to quote her, but eventually I puzzled out that she was saying that no, she doesn't take the attitude that she can do what she wants because she lives in Brazil, she told me that hate and racism are not in the translation for the word nigger, and that I as an American know that if I translate the word nigger I won't find the words 'I hate' in there, and that it's all in the 'attitude' you bring to the word, and the negative attitude implicit in the word only exists in my country (the U.S), and here it doesn't have that because most people don't know what it means.

Well, maybe she did feel strongly about the subject. And I did pretty much quote her after all.

I had to disengage. I knew that the conversation was going to go downhill, and really we should talk about the subject face to face and not on Facebook. So I didn't reply, but I really wanted to. Mostly I wanted to tell her that my computer's dictionary (the iDictionary?) tells me that nigger "remains one of the most racially offensive words in the language." I also wanted to tell her that I hope she doesn't try to create a Brazilian usage for the word, one free from negative attitude.

But basically I don't agree with her. I think she is trying to do what she wants because she's in Brazil, and I don't think you should try to redefine hate speech if it suits you, or if it's even possible. I like to think that if I found out 'Kuza' meant 'genocide' in... Hindi or something, I'd stop using it. As it is, it's already uncomfortably close to 'Yakuza' which I find troubling.

I really have to stop doing this. I get into these sticky conversations on Facebook, which I bail out on, and then I go and write about it on my blog. I think it's some weird manifestation of passive-aggression. The first time it was about someone I didn't know, this time it's about a friend of mine. Well, sort of a friend. I happen to know that very few of my friends, and almost nobody in my family, reads this blog, so I could probably write a lot more about them and nobody would be the wiser. But I don't think I will. And I should stop writing posts like these. And I should continue the conversation with my friend the next time I see her.

But let me just make this absolutely clear, in case I've been vague or equivocal, that I think Nigger is a really stupid name for a cat.