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May 2003

Why I Couldn't Take Brazil

São Paulo was a ruthless and merciless environment for a novice
job seeker. I soon learned that teachers of English were a dime
a dozen in São Paulo. The continued bleak outlook for the Brazilian
economy and the rising crime and unemployment rates conspired to
finally force me to face reality: we were going broke.

Joe Lopes

I read with keen interest John Fitzpatrick's article regarding looking for employment in Brazil ("For Job Seekers Brazil Is No Eldorado - www.brazzil.com/p108may03.htm). I, too, followed a similar career path, but with very different results. Hopefully, my experiences will shed some needed light on this area, which seems to be one perpetually shrouded in mystery and misinformation.

To begin with, I am a naturalized American citizen, born in Brazil, who came to New York in 1959 with my parents. I was raised in the city, went to school, graduated and worked there most of my adult life. After many frustrating years in the financial sector, and certainly after the birth of my two daughters, I decided on a major lifestyle change and immigrated with my Brazilian wife and family back to the mother country.

John's excellent advice to learn Portuguese is an absolutely essential one. Let me just reiterate it: don't expect to get by on your high school Spanish. You will not make yourself understood, you will not understand the local lingo, and you will offend many Brazilians by attempting to converse in the wrong language. Luckily, I still spoke enough Portuguese to survive.

In 1996, I left New York for São Paulo, and spent the next four and a half years living and working there. Obviously, I fit into the second category of a professional who went to Brazil with no job, a spouse and two children to care for. We were luckier than most because we had my wife's family to help us during this transition period. In addition, we owned our own apartment, out of which I gave EFL lessons.

I obtained my carteira de trabalho (work permit), permanent residency and CPF (a document used for financial transactions) without too much hassle—again, I have to say I was luckier than most immigrants, who, like the general populace, are "treated like dirt" by most Brazilian agencies and authorities.

Before my move, however, I had prepared myself for the transition by spending two years in pursuit of my teaching certificate at the New School in New York. I was taught by some of the best teachers in the country, people with master's degrees and PhD's from NYU, Columbia, Cambridge and the like. I passed my course work and was highly commended for my efforts by all of my teachers. One would think this background, along with my previous Wall Street experience, would have entitled me to "streets paved with gold" in São Paulo.

Not so. I must concur completely with John's truthful assessment of the hazards of job hunting and living in the big abacaxi, as I like to call it. São Paulo was a ruthless and merciless environment for a novice job seeker. At the start of my teaching career, I had a few students at home, but in order to supplement my meager earnings, and to pay for my ever increasing light, phone, gas, energy, food, school and insurance bills, I had to seek some type of regular full-time employment.

I interviewed for and obtained entry into Cultura Inglesa, a well-known English language school. Imagine my surprise and dismay when I was told I would have to undergo a two-month training program (unremunerated, of course) after having completed TWO YEARS of one in New York. Besides the personal humiliation of having to prove myself all over again, and despite my teaching certificate in tow, I gamely plugged on. I even gained entry into another teacher training program at the Alumni School in the Morumbi neighborhood.

Teacher for Two Days

Unfortunately, I couldn't handle the stress and travel of "training" in two places at once, so I dropped out of Alumni and opted to teach at Cultura instead. After completing their so-called training, I waited a month and a half until Cultura sent me to teach at a local branch right in my own neighborhood. Sounds great, right? No, not really. The hourly wage at the time was a miserable R$7 an hour, with an additional R$2 for expenses.

I realized to my horror I had wasted three and a half months of valuable job search time in a fruitless pursuit of permanent employment with an entity that was paying paltry starvation wages. I also learned, much to my bitter chagrin, that teachers of English were a dime a dozen in São Paulo.

I abruptly left Cultura after only two days and went looking for teaching positions in the pages of the local newspapers. As the Brazzil article so rightly pointed out, São Paulo is not the U.S. (or Europe, for that matter) when it comes to finding work via the want ads. Networking with relatives, friends and acquaintances is the preferred and more results-oriented method.

Again, I lucked out, and through an ad in the Estadão newspaper, I was able to secure a teaching position with a multi-national accounting firm in downtown São Paulo. The salary there was about R$30 an hour and I enjoyed the challenge of teaching adult learners rather than the bratty, spoiled and inattentive Cultura school kids.

When the Brazilian economy started to sputter in 1998, I lost more students than I gained, so I was forced to find additional work elsewhere. An English teacher in Brazil never just "teaches." He or she must learn to adapt and find other odd jobs (called bicos) to survive. After heavy word of mouth, I was able to get some translation work for several companies, in addition to doing work for a colleague at HBO of Brazil. I got into the subtitling/dubbing sideline through her, and even urged my wife to get involved in it, as well. She took the HBO course, which led nowhere because of the recession.

In point of fact, the work was scattershot at best. Sometimes, I would get two or three films to work on, other times I would get nothing for weeks. When I did get work, I would spend many days, nights and weekends at the computer terminal, away from my family, friends and relatives, while I was involved in the transcribing process. The pay was decent enough, but I still needed to teach to pay the bills, plus I really wanted a less ephemeral and time-consuming occupation.

This was not to be. When the HBO work eventually dried up due to the devaluation of the real and the still stagnant economy, I hooked up in 1999 with another colleague who was a full-time lawyer and EFL teacher, and started teaching mini-courses for her students. I would serve as a substitute teacher for when my colleague traveled, and was even able to teach my own courses, which I had developed based on the American legal system—I had been a certified litigation paralegal in the U.S. for several years.

While these courses were reasonably successful, the continued bleak outlook for the Brazilian economy, the rising crime and unemployment rates, and the loss of more and more of my students due to financial hardships, conspired to finally force me to face my own ever-mounting personal financial problems: we were going broke.

Time to Go Back

My decision to return to the U.S. and start afresh in Raleigh, North Carolina, was an extremely painful and heart-rending one, but one I resolutely made with my family in the hope of securing steadier employment and a more secure financial foothold than I ever had in Brazil. Our relatives offered to help us through our difficulties in Brazil, but I could no longer impose upon their generosity. Besides, I had my own children's welfare and future to think about.

Reluctantly, but with much optimism, we left São Paulo in January 2001 for Raleigh. Since then, I have worked for three different corporations here, some better and some worse than the ones I worked for in New York. I was even laid off last year due to downsizing (welcome to the U.S.A. reality!), but quickly found a job with a CRO (contract research organization).

Raleigh and the surrounding Research Triangle Park area is a constantly expanding and vital center, well-known for its medical, pharmaceutical, research, and university facilities. I think my family and I chose wisely. Without a doubt, my daughters will be better off, school- and career-wise, than they would ever have been in São Paulo.

In summation, I tried very hard to make a go at teaching English. But no matter how many new students I found, I would inevitably be forced into looking for new ones, or new lines of work, just to make ends meet. This was the sad, hard, and unmentioned reality of teaching in Brazil. I don't wish to discourage potential adventurers out there, but I sure wish I had someone to point these things out to me BEFORE I made my decision to return to São Paulo.

Still, it was a most remarkable learning experience, and one I heartily recommend to young, single persons with the requisite courage, patience, flexibility, and stamina for the teaching lifestyle.

As a postscript let me also emphasize the long distances involved in traveling to and from one's various teaching jobs, usually done "in-company," and the extremely precarious state of São Paulo's public transportation system. These must be taken into account at all costs. If at all possible, avoid the city buses, especially during peak hours, which are packed and crawling with lice and other unpleasant infestations. The subway system is much safer, much cleaner, and tends to get you (more or less) to where you want to go in much less time.

There's also the inordinately long working hours you must contend with, commencing around the ungodly hour of 7 AM or so, through a working lunch somewhere around 12 noon to 2 PM (and oftentimes later), and then regular afternoon and evening classes ending at about 10 PM. In-company evening classes generally go from 6 PM to 7:30 PM, although I've heard of later starting and closing times.

Oh, and don't forget Saturday mornings and afternoons, too. You'll want to keep those hours available, as well, in addition to what's called in the trade as janelinhas or windows, in case of student cancellations or teacher illness. You'll want to use these mostly for make-up classes. It's a rather busy and lengthy work schedule to test the mettle of only the fittest teaching souls. Better pray that it doesn't rain in the midst of all this, which will tend to throw a spanner into the works (monkey wrench for you native American English speakers) and bring the heavy São Paulo traffic to an endless standstill.

Joe Lopes, an American citizen born in Brazil, was raised in New York City where he also graduated and worked in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his Brazilian wife and two daughters. The experience lasted until January 2001, when the packed and came back to the US. You can email the author at JosmarLopes@msn.com  

 



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