As in previous years, preparation for the big Fourth of July celebration started early. At lunch time, the sweet aroma of Jersey corn filled the air, while a sea of red, blue and white balloons nudged against each other, blown by the gentle July breeze. Here and there families chatted idly as the children came and went, alternating between the moon bouncer and the hot dog stand. Then, as the sun finally waned down, they all sat together, and the fireworks began. Just another Fourth of July, any town, USA...
Wrong! The event we just described took place in Rio de Janeiro, and it's an annual tradition carried on by the members of the local American Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated, among other activities, to promoting and observing the traditional holidays of the United States.
Although on a much smaller scale than the migration of Brazilians to the US, the flow of Americans to Brazil has been constant and can be tracked down to the Civil War, when Southern refugees fled to what is today the city of Americana, in the State of São Paulo.
However, unlike most Brazilians who leave for the dream of financial security -- often an unreachable proposition in an economy plagued by instability -- Americans, for the most part, immigrate due to job relocation. Which is not to say that's the only reason. Throughout the years they came as businessmen and entrepreneurs, missionaries and adventurers.
They came on educational and research missions; they came for love and refuge like the scores of young people trying to escape the Vietnam draft in the late 60s and early 70s. Less frequently, they came to get away from a not so clean past, as in the case of deadbeat spouses, con artists, and others fleeing prosecution in the United States
The exact number of Americans in Brazil is not known. For one, not all expatriates register with local consulates, and the ones who do so are protected by the Privacy Act, which prevents consulates from releasing data on new arrivals. Therefore, one can only guess, and institutions like the American Society of Rio de Janeiro and others are the unofficial barometers of American immigration to Brazil.
In Rio alone it is estimated that there are approximately 500 Americans, although that number seems to be on the rise after a stagnation period of four to five years. As Plano Real (the economic plan launched by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso) gets more credibility among the international community, foreign investments are pouring into the country again, and American companies are either returning or just discovering the potential of business opportunities that lie ahead.
So, how is life for Americans in a culture that, in many instances, is the antithesis of their own culture? How do Americans, analytical and structured by nature, interact with the passionate, sometimes all but inconsequential behavior of Brazilians? Apparently, they all get along very well... with, obviously, a few inevitable exceptions.
Our survey of past and present expatriates revealed, first of all, an amazing understanding and acceptance of the Brazilian culture in general. Granted, they all experienced the difficulties that follow the transition to any new culture. And as is often the case, the language barrier was unanimously cited as the major obstacle.
While most believe that speaking Portuguese can make life much easier for the new arrival, one can still get by without the language. That, the expatriates agree, is due to Brazilians' extreme kindness and patience, and willingness to help foreigners. "They will go out of their way to help a foreign person", says Patricia Cavalcanti, of Connecticut, 25 years in Brazil. Besides, she adds, "I was only embarrassed to speak Portuguese until I realized that people were not really laughing at me but with me."
Steven Yolen, of New York, who before moving to Brazil lived in Puerto Rico and Argentina, agrees: "Brazilians are most kind with foreigners unlike other Latin American people, who tend to be more antagonistic and arrogant." Yet, despite all the help, the feeling of isolation can be overwhelming because, suddenly, everything that was familiar is gone.
All said and done, potential expatriates are strongly advised to learn some Portuguese before moving to Brazil. If that is not possible, the 'veterans' suggest that once in Brazil one should get beyond the business contacts and get to know Brazilian families instead of mixing only with other Americans. By doing so, not only will the language skills improve, but it is also a sure way to understand the culture beyond what one sees.
According to several of the people interviewed, the stress of relocation can be very tough on families, and many marriages have succumbed to the pressures. It can be particularly hard on women who, in order to follow their husbands, will often leave a career behind to suddenly find themselves restricted to their notsoperfect new homes.
Unable to find a job due to their lack of Portuguese, and too scared to move around for the same reason, it may take months until they finally venture outside their houses by themselves. Some will never get over the initial shock, and will resent their husbands whose jobs usually make the adjustment process easier for them.
When children are involved, parents agree that their response to the new environment will reflect the parents' attitudes. Most of the time, though, kids are much more open to new experiences and will adjust more easily than adults.
Marsha Lutostanski, of New Jersey, mother of three, reckons she is still struggling after 2 years in Brazil. Her children, however, seem to be doing just fine. "Yet'', she says, I'd think it's easier for boys to get acquainted with new friends than it is for girls. Girls' activities usually require more conversation while boys tend to get involved in activities that are more physical, like soccer, for instance."
Another scenario is where one of the spouses is Brazilian, which can make the transition smoother for the expatriate, although not without pains. Cavalcanti remembers keeping her doubts and anxieties from her Brazilian husband. "He was already so worried I wouldn't adjust and might want to go back home!.. Besides, if I told him what I was really thinking about the place and things, I might hurt his feelings, so I kept it to myself."
Dennis Klumpp, of Michigan, in Brazil since 1978, has been married to a Mineira (from Minas Gerais) for over 20 years. The father of two Brazilianborn children believes that being married to a native helps, specially when the kids go through the adolescence stage. "Whereas in the United States social functions start and finish early'', he says, "in Brazil they don't start until 11:00 PM, and won't finish until 3:00 or 4:00 AM. The Brazilian spouse is usually more understanding of the lifestyle than an expatriate would be." He adds that "It's probably harder to raise kids in Brazil, but at least we don't have the gang problem as there is in the United States."
Getting to understand Brazilians' work ethics can pose one of the biggest challenges to foreigners as far as cultural assimilation is concerned. Lack of punctuality. Unreliability. Laid-back attitude. Bureaucracy. The whole experience can be most frustrating to the unsuspected expatriate. According to Lutostanski, who is currently president of the International Newcomers Club in Rio, and deals with all sorts of complaints from the new arrivals, "It can drive a person crazy. Right now we have this one girl who has unsuccessfully tried to have a stove installed for the past two weeks. She is going nuts."
Similar stories abound. Only when the expatriate starts to grasp the concept of the jeitinho brasileiro (the Brazilian way of doing things) and its subtleties, is he able to go through the maze of a system that is full of hidden codes. When he realizes, for instance, that Brazilians seldom say 'no' he will then understand that 'maybe' or 'tomorrow', coming from a Brazilian, will often mean 'no' and 'never' respectively.
Milton Volan, of New York, 3 years in Brazil, seems to be getting the idea. Recently, when his telephone line was down for two weeks without any explanation from the telephone company, he and his business partner devised this plan: "My partner called the company up and told them I was a sick American senior citizen who desperately needed to contact my doctor and wife in New York. Soon afterwards the line was reinstated. What caused the interruption of service? Who knows and who cares?! If things don't happen, you make them happen."
Bureaucracy, by its turn, tops the list as one of the most dreadful things the expatriates have to deal with in Brazil while corruption is regarded as being not worse than in the US, just more obvious.
Kenneth O'Bryhim, of Washington, DC, seven years in Brazil, has learned how to deal with such problems: "I've long realized that the more paper you have the more legal you look at the eyes of Brazilian authorities. Therefore, I always make sure to have my papers in hand -- from my driver's license to my taxrelated documents -- in case I may be pulled over by police officers, as I have been in the past. Besides, this is a very serviceoriented society, so you can always hire someone to do the bureaucratic work for you, and spare yourself the aggravation of standing in lines for endless hours."
The expatriates' perspective on violence in Brazil is amazingly calm and detached from the hysterical overtones often seen in the media -- both local and international -- and even among Brazilian people themselves. Although not unmoved by the thefts, robberies and other crimes perpetrated against the community on a daily basis, the expatriates are also aware that extreme poverty is the main reason behind criminality in the country. The way they see it there may be more crimes in Brazil, statistically speaking, but when measured in a degree of violence, crimes committed in the United States are much more vicious.
O'Bryhim, who was robbed of $5 by a street kid recounts his experience: "The kid even apologized to me for the inconvenience, and explained he really needed the money... Then, we both walked in different directions, and that was it."
Volan, who was also robbed by a street kid, was so impressed by how fast things happened that "I felt like congratulating the kid for his performance, but he ran away so fast!.. For a moment I thought he was practicing for the Olympic Games."
Jokes aside, the expatriates realize that urban violence in Brazil is a fact (as it is all over the world) but, in many ways, much milder than in the US, where senseless driveby shootings, kidnapping of children for sexual purposes instead of ransom and other types of crimes are much more cruel in nature.
The consensus among American expatriates is that the Brazilian economy is finally on the right path to stability. Yolen, an author and freelance writer for the Wall Street Journal, who has lived in Brazil since 1970 says: "In Brazil things don't get better in a constant curve. I've seen many economic plans come and go, and I can say this is the best time ever. Brazil is on the way to become a worldclass economy."
Yes, there are problems, but that's because people and businesses are adjusting to the new reality. Some local industries, for instance, still refuse to cut down on their profit margin after having capitalized on inflation for so long. Another problem is the cost of living which expatriates estimate to be two to three times higher than in the United States.
However, because inflation is under control, Brazilians are finally beginning to understand the true value of goods and services. They are complaining at stores; they are bargaining at gas stations, now that gas prices, no longer controlled by the federal government, have become very competitive. The general perception is that Brazilians are becoming more aware as consumers as they learn how to budget their money.
Klumpp illustrates: "When I came to Brazil, I brought with me the doityourself mentality so common among Americans. I mowed my own lawn; I fixed things around the house. My Brazilian neighbors couldn't understand why I wouldn't hire someone to do such menial jobs, which for them was almost a social requirement, kind of a status thing. Nowadays, I see them doing more and more and that's because they aren't willing to pay for the high cost of services."
O'Bryhim, who is the director of the International Baccalaureate Program at the American School in Rio, also compares: "When I first came to Brazil in the 80s, I lived like a king. No more..."
What if Plano Real fails, like so many others have in the past? Brazilians will somehow survive. That's because they possess the one trait that the American expatriates consider as their most precious asset: resilience.
Graham Davies, whose missionary parents moved to Southern Brazil when he was only an infant, left the country some five decades ago, and now lives in California. Since then, he's been back several times and has seen innumerable changes as one would expect. Except for one thing: "Brazilians have survived crisis after crisis. However, when everything seems hopeless, a light of hope emerges from their souls and it keeps them going... Brazilians' resilience and ingenuity to overcome difficult times is without a doubt their most admirable characteristic."
Yet, it can be hard for some to understand the source of such widespread optimism considering all the problems faced by Brazilians throughout history. Sandow Birk, of California, who lived in Brazil for three years, thinks "Brazilians' sense of optimism about their country's future is bizarrely fanatical. I'm afraid I'll never fully understand the Brazilian people", he says.
To most expatriates getting to appreciate the Brazilian cuisine is a matter of acquired taste, but the vast majority comes to enjoy it very much after a while. Among the favorites: feijoada (a concoction of black beans cooked with different types of meat); picanha (barbecued tri tip); vatapá (sea food dish from Bahia), and the very Mineiro (from the state of Minas Gerais) feijão tropeiro (a mixture of beans, manioc flour, bacon and sausages). All of which would make healthconscious Americans have a heart attack just at the mention of it, but not the intrepid expatriates who, after much trial and error, are pretty much at ease with such hearty meals.
The nonos include: farofa (manioc flour sauteed in butter); shredded kale; carne de sol (sundried meat); rice and beans as a daily staple.
For those considering making the move -- willingly or not -- American expatriates offered the following advice:
If there's a genuine effort to assimilate the new culture, the experience can be very rewarding. Just ask Kenneth O'Bryhim whose final thought about his expatriate journey was: "Thank you, Brazil!"!
Since its creation 79 years ago as an attempt at organized support to the efforts of American ladies who got together to make bandages for World War I, much has changed around the American Society of Rio de Janeiro. The host city, for instance, went from being a tranquil South American town to becoming the capital of Brazil and one of the world's most prominent financial and cultural centers.
In its heyday, the Society enjoyed so much prestige that it was considered the unofficial representative of American foreign policy in the country. And so it remained until Rio, no longer the capital of Brazil, started to lose a great number of American businesses to São Paulo and other Brazilian cities. Seeing its membership decline drastically, the Society could no longer afford to be an elitist organization headed by an exclusive group of CEOs of big multinational American companies.
A restructuring plan was set in motion. Today, the Society not only reaches a much broader gamut of American expatriates in Rio, but it has also opened its doors to Brazilian citizens, who are now eligible for election to the Board of Governors a privilege previously reserved for American members only.
One of the Society's main goals, however, has always been to give to and participate in local charities. Its members have been active in a variety of fundraising projects, especially the Feira da Providência. The Feira, an indoor show that displays and sells food and general merchandise from foreign countries and Brazilian states, is an annual event and one of Rio's largest initiatives to finance a wide range of charities.
Over the years the US stand -- organized and run by the American Society -- has been steadily among the top three in sales. The best selling products are usually inexpensive, and include chewing gum, aspirins, vitamins tablets, Christmas wrapping paper and small plastic toys, just to name a few.
Also, in its continued effort to promote harmonious Brazilian-American relations, the Society is currently running an experiment with a local English school by encouraging its Brazilian students to participate in the Society' weekly meetings. Since English is the only spoken language in those occasions, it gives the students an opportunity to practice their English skills outside the school setting.
Membership fees are $16 for singles and $32 for families/per year. For more information contact Luz Wright (the American Society's secretary for 30 years) at Av. Rio Branco, 123, room 2105 Centro Rio de Janeiro RJ Brazil. Phone when dialing from the US: 01155212311563 or Fax: 01155212327638.
President: Marsha Lutostanski
Phone: (021) 5217014.
Nonprofit social organization that assists new arrivals by providing not only emotional support but also useful information on topics ranging from local customs and transportation to shopping tips and household help. Activities include picnics and regular meetings. Membership is open to Englishspeaking women, of all nationalities who live in Rio de Janeiro.
These are the categories most likely to get a permanent residence visa: