For Americans relocating to Brazil the move is frequently
a cultural shock. How do Americans adapt to the sometimes inconsequential
behavior of Brazilians? And how about Brazilian high cost of living, lack
of punctuality and bureaucracy? The adaptation won’t occur before the Yankee
expatriate can learn the so-called jeitinho brasileiro (the Brazilian
way of making things happen). Some of those who learned it share here their
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
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”,
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:
- . Learn the language as fast as you can.
- . Try to learn about the place before moving and have an understanding
of where the country comes from.
- . Be openminded and accepting — there isn’t only one way to do things.
- . Lower your expectations and don’t make comparisons.
- . Be yourself, but willing to try new things.
- . Be patient.
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!”!
THE AMERICAN SOCIETY
OF RIO DE JANEIRO
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
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.
So, you want
to go to Brazil
A word from the Brazilian consulate.
Requirements for permanent residence in Brazil:
- Passport or travel document valid for at least six months.
- Birth certificate.
- Two visa application forms provided by the consulate completed and
signed by the applicant.
- Two passport photos (size 2″x2″, color or black and white).
- Police Clearance furnished by the local Police Department, issued within
the last three months, certifying absence of criminal record.
- Proof of residence in the area of the consular jurisdiction during
the last 12 months preceding the date of the application.
- Birth certificate for every minor under 18 years of age
- Marriage certificate. In case of previous marriage, presentation of
final divorce judgment or death certificate is required.
- International certificate of polio vaccination for children between
three months and six years of age.
- Consular fee of $200 for each visa, to be paid after petition is approved
by the authority in Brazil. There is and additional $10 fee for each applicant
if the application is neither submitted in person nor by a direct family
member, or processed through the mail. All payments are payable in cash
or money order made out to Consulate of Brazil. (Personal checks will not
Do you have a chance?
These are the categories most likely to get a permanent residence
- Industrialists and businessmen willing to transfer $200,000 to Brazil.
- Retired individuals with a minimum pension of $2,000 a month.
- Anyone married to a Brazilian citizen.
- Immediate family member of Brazilian permanent resident
- Post-graduate degree and professionals with certification in highly
specialized field if such professionals are in demand in Brazil, at the
time the application is submitted. A work contract may be required.
- Work contract for at least three years. Employer must be a Brazilian
or a foreign company established in Brazil. In this case, application must
be initiated by the sponsoring company in Brazil. Petition should be submitted
to the Brazilian Labor Department: SIMIG – Secretaria de Imigração
– Ministério do Trabalho – Esplanada dos Ministérios, Bloco
F, 8° andar – 70059 Brasília, DF – Brazil – Phones: (061) 226-2555
and (061) 225-6842