The Brazilian Girl Who Shocked New York

Talk about cultural shocks! In 1960, when I was transferred from Brazil to the New York office, the employees of the office here were the ones who felt a culture shock.

They had expected a sweet blonde who probably had slept with the boss and they could not get over the tall brunette that arrived. And this Brazilian woman worked long hours, spoke Portuguese and did not know Spanish!

Furthermore she did not come from Rio but from São Paulo, a city that somehow they barely knew existed but now were told was bigger than New York.

“Are you sure she did not come from Buenos Aires?”

For my part and to everybody’s surprise, I was not overwhelmed to find that my new office was on the 54th floor of the RCA Building because in São Paulo our office was on the 36th floor.

“São Paulo had buildings that high?”

I was amazed to find that I was taller than all the other girls in the office. No exception. Where were the tall Americans? Some of the men were taller than I, but not that many.

Among the Brazilians living in New York in the 60’s I was different because I had arrived with a green card and a job. And I soon found out that I was the only one who had never planned to move to New York.

Although my English was considered excellent, I remember having trouble with, for instance, the cuts of meat. I would go to Gristede’s to buy meat and would not recognize any cut.

Frank, at the meat counter, became one of the men in my life, and an important one, as he patiently taught me what to use to make my Brazilian meals.

He explained that I was accustomed to the French cut but in the States they used the English cut. A culture shock.

Food in general required a lot of learning. Incredible that in New York one would find only one kind of banana, that you had to go to many places to locate a sweet potato, that eating delicious corn-on-the-cob at lunch time in the office was shocking, that my salary was not enough for me to eat steak every day.

On the other hand, chicken, then a very expensive item in Brazil, was so cheap in New York that for four or five months that was all I ate. It took all that time for me to look around and find that I could have beef, lamb, veal, pork and many kinds of unknown fish.

But this stranger adapted quickly and loved life in the United States. There were seven nights in the week for me to do as I pleased and that was altogether a new thing.

My mother had died when I was in my early twenties and, as the oldest of the four children, the responsibility for the house and the family fell on my shoulders.

As a matter of fact, when father learned that I had been transferred to New York, he forbade me to come. He felt it was my responsibility to stay home and take care of him and the house.

It took a lot of planning and convincing, but in the end it was agreed that I would come for one year only, not the three years that had been the company’s plan. However, he died of a heart attack just as I was planning my return and I am still here 45 years later.

In Brazil I had been the General Manager of the company and that meant that I knew personally all the important people of the New York office, starting with Nelson Rockefeller who was the chairman when I began working for the company in 1954.

That now put me in a special position in the office and I was able to work as the Assistant Director of Public Relations.

In New York, this transferred employee was the source of more and more cultural shocks as my colleagues learned about the different attitudes of an old and traditional Brazilian family. They could not believe those quaint customs still existed.

Then something happened that I recommend to everybody moving to another country. It is a sure way to make friends quickly. I broke my leg.

Barely three months after my arrival it happened. I had never seen snow and did not know the difference between snow and ice. Everybody in the office, from the Chairman of the Board to the messenger boy was horrified and sorry for the Southern butterfly that had to learn about snow the hard way.

It is difficult to describe the shower of kind gestures, visits and gifts that arrived at the St. Claire’s Hospital.

As a matter of fact, I was taken there in a police car with lights flashing as there were no more ambulances available. The weekend of snow had created a serious hazard in the city.

Three Brazilians walked down Park Avenue to Rockefeller Center that morning only to arrive and find that their respective offices were closed. What a shock! In Brazil offices do not close because of bad weather, although I admit we do not have snow.

During my first day in this American hospital I suddenly saw cousins who lived in Connecticut arriving to visit me. How did they know I was there? Then I remembered that I had put their names as next of kin in the forms I had signed on arrival.

As I admired the flowers they had brought, I heard Rusty say, “Clelia, you should have told us. We would have understood. After all we are your family.”

I did not know what he was talking about, and suddenly Joan saw my confusion and asked me “Do you know where you are, Clelia?”

“Sure. In a very crowded hospital, near the office.”

“Yes, Clelia, but you are in the Maternity Ward.”

Maternity Ward! What a shock! We really had a good laugh.

And here is another shock. Nobody, but nobody told me I was beautiful. I was different. Many said I was always elegant, but what I heard most of all here was that I had such a beautiful posture. A good posture? Is that a compliment? Not in Brazil.

Touches and kisses. Americans are afraid to touch you. Not Brazilians. We give emphasis to what we are saying by touching your arm, for instance. And we kiss a lot.

I remember visiting cousins in Denver soon after I arrived in the States and kissing the young children. They loved it and the parents would call us the kissing cousins as we kissed in the morning and in the evening, when we parted and when we met again.

And two kisses, if you please, one on each cheek. They still do this but not with everybody, just this kissing cousin.

As a matter of fact, I made a decision soon after I arrived here. Should I absorb all customs and become Americanized? Or should I stick to my Brazilian habits and be different? I opted for the latter.

As a result, guests arriving at my apartment get two kisses on arrival and two when they leave. They are so accustomed to this, that they offer their cheeks at the same time I offer mine. I love it.

Another shock for me was to learn that I simply could not afford to live in New York as I had lived in São Paulo. There I used to have my hair and nails done every week, I would have weekly visits to a health club for massages, saunas, exercises and even a once-a-month leg waxing. And I had a full time maid.

How could I survive without these amenities? After a while I decided that my hair and my nails came first and the rest would have to wait. I should add that today I do all these things and my friends think I am a millionaire. In fact, it is a question of priorities and I do without things that are less important to me.

Fortunately I love to cook, so I decided that another priority was to have a cleaning woman once a week because I hate to clean. It works out very well and I live a happy and contented life, with more comfort than many wealthy friends of mine.

Still another shock was to learn that living in New York I did not need a car. I could walk everywhere. How wonderful! Since I have always walked miles every day, this was not a great change in my life. But dinner hours were.

In Brazil I used to eat an apple for lunch every day because I had so many household chores to do at lunch time. No time for more. When I arrived here I learned that Americans eat a sandwich for lunch and have dinner at what is really tea time.

I saw Americans sitting down for dinner at 5:30 or even 5:00 pm. And I would be hungry at 8:00 or 8:30 if I had lunch. I don’t like sandwiches and after the initial shock I adapted again and reverted to my daily apple for lunch, to the surprise of all my friends.

Customs are so different from country to country. In Brazil I have three godchildren, one of whom I baptized when I was 23. He was the youngest of 11 children with a very strict father.

The boy learned to kiss my hand and ask for my blessing. He is over 50 today and his hair is all white but he still kisses my hand. I feel like a real godmother.

In Brazil this means a lot and it is an important role as you are supposed to substitute for the parents in case of need.

I remember paying for Paulo’s piano lessons because he wanted very much to learn to play and the family would not have been able to afford it.

Here in the States I have a young cousin who is named after me because her father and I had been pen pals, corresponding in English for years when we were still in school.

Upon my arrival in this country I learned that the parents had not yet baptized the three children. I said I would like to be Clelia’s godmother and asked to be informed about the baptism date. Time passed and one day I asked my cousin when they were going to baptize Clelia. “We have,” he replied.

“What do you mean you have? I am supposed to be Clelia’s godmother.”

“You are. I have put your name in the papers.” I was speechless. There are godmothers and godmothers.

This series of cultural shocks is autobiographical but happened to many of the new friends I made here too.

We talked about them and shared many laughs. They definitely contributed to make life in this country very interesting but also a challenge.

Clelia Leite Moraes was born in a coffee “fazenda” in the State of São Paulo into an old and traditional Brazilian family. In the early 60’s she was working for a company of the Rockefeller Group that transferred her to the head office in New York City.


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