I've begun to realize the class differences here.
The economic power I'm used to having-- that is, the amount of money I have to spend and what it can buy-- is roughly equivalent between the US and here. Money goes a little further here, especially in some areas (I can get a dozen Brazilian haircuts for one in the US!), but generally it doesn't go much further.
However in the US, that economic standing characterizes me as upper-middle class, and here it's distinctly upper class. And people treat themselves like the upper class, but they do it with the means I'm accustomed to. The basics of their lifestyle-- work, after-work friends, the role of home-- are the same as mine. They often struggle to make ends meet and quibble over their Real's worth. But they have hired help, wear jewelry all the time, have art all around their homes, and discuss society from a privileged and empowered standpoint. Stores that I think of as middle class, like C&A, are the domain of the upper class here.
Of course, there's a lot more upper class above us, particularly in other parts of Brazil. My friends don't have helicopters, like the elite of Sao Paulo, but they or their parents have gorgeous beach-side houses and top-notch apartments, business-relations, and jobs in law, medicine, and university. There's a sense, as my new friends introduce me around that I'm rubbing shoulders with the most important people to know in town.
The class lines here aren't hard or consistent, but they are pervasive. The group I'm referring to often lives, works, shops, and eats in different places than most of society. They're much whiter and more European looking. They went to private primary schools and public University, and didn't do much work until afterwards. And they wouldn't be caught dead in a uniform, as a store clerk, or being on of the hordes of people who sells on the street.
This may all just be part of the Brazilian imperative to always look good and talk big. Button-down shirts and slacks are very common in both work and play. The prototypical Brazilian is loud, uses big motions, and makes talk like a Harvard student.
The causes go very deep. Brazilians are always concerned about what other people think of them. Jokerman had me change out of a shirt because it wasn't ironed. Jokerman's girlfriend, Tesão, a ridiculously hot woman, was embarrassed to go to the movies without a change of clothes. They're also always a little afraid. Jokerman got me a blackout curtain, and plans to get me a lock on the door to my room-- but the house is already impervious. But he won't drive away when he drops me off until he sees me padlock the outside gate.
My Brazilian friends are particularly confused about me. I've been dressing young, to look as not-ripe as I feel, and to go with my complete inability to hold a conversation. My uncombed hair looks crazy to them, and a bit low-class. But I found out that I make about as much as a doctor here. As I edge my way into Brazilian society, I'm discovering that it's high society, and I need to act the part.