Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Life Isn't Always Easy in Paradise

My life as an expat was the topic of conversation with numerous people today. While I realize I have a positive spin to the blog, I want to clarify something.

Being an expat is hard. While I may seem on top of it now, it would have been a very different blog if I had started writing my first few years.

I had many many days where I hated everything Brazilian. I could not imagine living here. I could never imagine actually having conversation in a language other than my own. I didn't know if it would ever be possible for me to understand the crazy way Brazilians think (and by crazy I mean different, or that is how I finally understand it to be.)

And most people will say things along the line of: You live in such a great place! It's so exotic! How could you complain?

Let me break it down for you. Have you tried to do the day to day annoying bullshit in a second language, not to mention in a bureaucratic maze that even Houdini would have a hard time getting himself out of?

I will never forget telling a friend I was jealous of her living in Spain. How amazing it must be to wake up there every day. She looked at me and said "You know, once you settle, regardless of where, it turns into daily life." Such true words that my little 20 yr old soul couldn't grasp.

The thing is that it is not easy to find your place anywhere. The complexities can seem insurmountable when you can't figure out which freaking sign means starting point.

As for me, I was the biggest and most horrible of the whiny baby expats in the world when I first got here. I can even prove it. At the end of my 3 week intensive Portuguese course at PUC the teacher broke us into groups and asked us to make skits about our fellow classmates. I was in one of the skits... whining and complaining. It was one of the most embarrassing and honest moments of my life. I sat there with the "Oh Shit that is SO me" look on my face. I was that girl.

I couldn't dig a hole and die there because, let's be honest, the cat was out of the bag. Time to either go home or make a change.

I'm happy I got it thrown in my face because I was being a big old baby. It forced me to take a painful look in the mirror. Time to suck it up. I had a choice, either I was going to let Rio de Janeiro bitch slap me around or I was going to stand up to the bully. Funny thing was that when I went to stand up I realized that I was the one I had to stand up to. Perspective is a bitch like that.

It was hard at first but I grew up with Rio de Janeiro. Now we are brothers from another Mother.

In the end it is your life and your choice. You don't ever have to be anywhere you don't want to be, and that doesn't necessarily mean moving. You can change where you are just by adjusting your head.

And now that I have fully made all of you throw up in your mouth a little bit with my corniness, I leave you with this note: Life can still be a bitch even when it's surrounded by caipirinhas and palm trees. I just decided one day to focus on the palms instead of the bitch while drinking the caipirinha. 


  1. You nailed it.

    I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Your blog always has the best graphics. hehe

  2. SO true. Every time I´m back in the states I constantly hear, "living in South American must be SO EXOTIC, what's it like?" and I always try to explain that, you know, you go to work, you go to the grocery store, you go anywhere else in the world. Funnily enough, the bureaucracy crap annoys me, but I'm much less tolerant when I'm in the states. And it's weird always feeling slightly outside the local culture (always being the foreigner), but I do feel like it can give you a certain degree of freedom as well.

  3. Incredibly appropriate post to read after a long discussion with another expat about if we could ever see ourselves moving back to the US. Of course we went over the good stuff in the States, the bad stuff, the good here and the many layers of ridiculousness that we have slowly learned to tolerate but will never fully understand.

    Being an expat is never easy. It makes even "going home" harder because after a while you become acclimated enough to the crazy brazilianess that "home" is no longer here nor there, and you are stick wonderfully, but often unfomortably in the middle. You can't really explain the awesomeness or the pain of daily life anywhere without sounding obnoxious (either like a braggard or a whiner).

    Thanks for writing a solid blog to which other expats can relate.

  4. Hahahaha...I love it that you weren't going to let Rio bitch slap you! I'm taking that image into my I gonna get slapped around by Buritis?! Heck no!!!!! I'm stronger than that!

  5. But ordering "warm fresh penis" at the bakery, for weeks on end, is a great story and one you might never have experienced elsewhere!

    Seriously, though, it isn't easy being an expat and anyone who says it is hasn't likely moved to a foreign Country cold turkey, arriving with minimal language skills. That challenge was actually part of the reason I stayed in Rio (after 3 or 4 visits), the adventure and my life long frustrated desire to learn a foreign language also motivated me.

    The challenges haven't stopped, and those still include learning THIS foreign language. But, once I was here, Rio grabbed me and would not let go. I have honestly never given one moment of thought to moving back to the US, though I visit family there regularly.

  6. I don't mean to make light of the situation but these last two posts brought to memory a song we were forced to sing in Music Class Choir, during Elementary School. Anyway I found it on YouTube.


    I think the song was so appropriate at the time since it seems to be custom made for kids and their short attention spans, plus mood swings. The thing is it kind of relates to the rollercoaster of emotions I go thru here on certain days, too many days.

    Yeah, I'm gonna have some ribs so to feel better. Perhaps afterwards I will listen to this one which was also fed to us at the time.

    I bet ol' Mrs. Rains never imagined these memories would appear in this context: a comment in blog about expat life in Brazil.

  7. Rachael,
    I read your blog often and a lot of time, I disagree with you. However, I have never needed to read this one more than I did today. You are right...u can either stand up for yourself, or end up in the mental institution. Starting tonight, I'm changing the way I think...hopefully;). Great article!!!

  8. Well said Rachel! I, too, had a hard time in the beginning (been here 13.5 months), and as soon as I let go and went with the flow, things fell into place, piece by piece. Funny how that happens.

    I often say that in the beginning Rio wore me down and defeated me that eventually I succumbed. But coincidentally, that's also when I started to feel settled.

    Whenever someone asks me if I like it here, my standard response is that I may never love it here, but I have gotten used to it. There are definitely moments that I love being here, and definitely moments that I don't. But overall, I have gotten used to my life in Rio and (gasp!) even enjoy it! (shhhh, don't tell my hubby! lol)


  9. I know exactly what you mean. When I was living in the States people would make comments about how different my life must have been all the time. I'd just shrug and say: meh! Since I've come back the questions are about how I like life in SP, and back in Brazil, same: meh! Then people accuse me of being a giant whiny baby because I'm *complaining* about what I have. Don't wanna hear it don't ask, first of all. For me, it's just daily life. Wake up, go to work, come back home, take a nap, go to work, come back home, sleep. SP just happens to be the best place for me to do these things right now. Nothing to rave about as people seem to suspect.

  10. Anon, Glad I could help (and finally get something right ;)! :D

  11. I've come to terms with Salvador, but I still have to resist the urge, when someone says "OMG you're soooo lucky to live here!!!" - to tell them about all the downsides.

    Actually, I've been feeling lately like Brazil has lost its challenge for me - like I'm so comfortable here and the only problems I have are pretty much the same as I did in the States (too much work, etc) - which makes me want to go somewhere else and experience the joys of culture shock and limited language capability all over again :-p

  12. I'm SOOO happy you guys have felt this way too!

  13. Being just two weeks (today) into my expat life in Rio, this post and all the comments couldn't have come at a better time. It sounds silly, but I hit a low point yesterday after nearly poking an old woman's eye out on the bus on my way to work. It was raining, so I had my giant purse, laptop bag, AND my long, pointy umbrella, which proved too much for me and those damn turnstiles you have to go through to board... I felt so terrible and couldn't even apologize adequately to the woman (who was fine, but PISSED) because my Portuguese is still so pathetic. At dinner later with my Carioca husband, I got the typical "you need to try harder, you're making too big a deal of everything," type of comment (I also have a tendency to complain too much) and I just started crying. I know I need to try harder, and I need to look on the bright side, but I also wish my husband/boss/co-workers could understand how difficult this transition is. Things go awry (e.g. no water at our apartment since Tuesday, our kitchen sink is falling out of the cabinet but it's "too expensive to fix," we have a billion mosquitoes in our bedroom every night... I should stop) and I can't call anyone to fix them, since I can't speak the language, which means nagging my husband to get everything solved - fun for both of us! When my husband came to live in the US, he already spoke English, so while it was still a challenge for him, I don't think he can truly appreciate or understand my simple, daily/hourly frustrations. Of course, then we'll pass by a favela and I'll feel like a total b*tch for whining about my problems. Ah, perspective...

    After two weeks, the thing I miss most is my independence. I need to get this language under my belt so that I can go out and do things on my own without fear. After that, I'm sure I'll get hit in the face with all the other expat and cultural frustrations... one step at a time :)

    Overall, I am happy to be here, though, and I'm glad to have the experience of being an expat since I have never lived outside the US before (3 months in China doesn't really count - though that was MUCH more difficult). We might live here permanently, so I know these short-term frustrations will subside and I'll figure things out with time, and with any luck, I'll stop being a whiny American b*tch in the process. Learning to embrace choppinhos after work is helping :)

    Anyway, thanks again for the post!!! Your blog has been super helpful for this newly arrived expat.

  14. Oh, querida, to the rescue once again! Having just addressed a mini-version of my own wild and woolly parachuting into Rio process in my blog last week, it is finally dawning on me that I am an "ex-pat"...whatever that means!! In NYC they're called "immigrants".... You keep me ROTFL, Rachel...

  15. Amy, Rachel mentioned an intensive Portuguese language course at the PUC. That might be a good place to start. Your frustation is good, it is a sign you are trying. I do not know the details of the PUC course, or I would share them here.

    I learned Portuguese by reading the newspaper, front to back every day with a dictionary by my side, but by doing so I learned "correct" Portuguese, and not much pronounciation. "Correct" Portuguese is seldom spoken outside courtrooms and other formal locations. I am still learning "Streetuguese", the make it up as you go langauge most seem to speak here. Worst of all, the Carioca accent is to me the most difficult of all to understand.

    My favorite language book is the "100" or "500" verbs series. There is a 500 verbs book of Brasilian Portuguese, it is a godsend for tackling one verb tense at a time and recognizing irregular verbs.

    I have also found that three cuba libres helps my language skills tremendously! At least in my mind. All the best.

  16. Amy, I feel your pain!
    There is nothing worst in Rio then getting a bus during the rain. I also HATE (!!!) those turnstiles (known as catracas) and my purse always get stuck in it, even the tiny ones! I'm also caring a lot of junk all the time in the bus with me (I am a art major, so imagine the amout of work that got stuck there!) and I know exactly what kind of pissy-look you got. Let me tell you a secret: I've come to find that those bus ladies are always pissed, it dosen't matter the reason. So don't feel bad about your portuguese! Ignore them and just enjoy your ride!

    Good Luck!

  17. This post really hit home with me too. It has been raining for the past 3 days and if one more friend from home tells me it must so great to be in sunny Brazil, I might cry!!
    My boyfriend and his mum keep telling me to 'fala, fala' in Portuguese. I know I need to try and practise more but surely telling me to pluck some random conversation out of my ass in a language I don't know yet is not going to help!!!
    oh the things we do for love!

  18. Over the course of the last three and a half years I've now spent about 11 months in Brazil. Just in the last month or two I've finally, FINALLY lost my anxiety about the language. I'm not totally fluent, but good enough to get my daily errands run, ask questions and have great conversations with our friends.

    The daily life stuff has begun to fall into place now that I don't panic every time someone looks like they might talk to me, and now that I don't get nervous sweats when I have to talk to someone else.

    It gives me a little bit of empathy for a family member who has anxiety disorder and feels like that all the time. Simple stuff can really trip you up.

    So, a year (sort of) in to my expat life and I'm finally feeling adjusted.

    Thanks for writing this, Rachel! You always seem to write the right things at the right time for so many of us.

  19. Hi, Rachel.

    It's a very pertinent post!
    Being an expat myself, sometimes I get sick of expatitis too. It seems to come with the territory for all of us living outside of our comfort zone.
    Adjusting to a different culture may be a work always in progress. Speaking of my (Brazilian) perspective living in the U.S. for 15 long years, I have had my share of cultural related issues as well. Today I manage just fine although some of them still get on my nerves the same way it happens to you in Rio de Janeiro. But I've learned that there's no such thing as bad or good culture. It's all a matter of perspectives and perception getting permanently interfered by the culture we were brought up in while living in a foreign country. Hence the need of, at least, some cultural affinity with the host country, some willing, tolerance and tons of PATIENCE in order to get along with our new "extended family" (the locals). I know my future lies in Brazil. Once I'm back there I'm sure it's going to be just the same, because now I'm a Brazilian-American hybrid.
    All I know is that being outside Brazil for so may years I see my own country with very different eyes now. I still see all the old flaws, but I also see more clearly the good, specially the people that makes Brazil such a special place for a lot of foreigners. Brazil tends to absorb instead of separate. We are not American-Brazilians or Japanese-Brazilians or African-Brazilians or Native-Brazilians or Hispanic-Brazilians, we are JUST all Brazilians and in general, no matter your accent or your broken Portuguese, you will be treated just as another Brazilian (maybe that's exactly the problem for some gringos, LOL). That's the magic of Brazil, and I really hope it never ever changes.
    I agree that at the end of the day any paradise turns into plain and simple daily life, even if this paradise happens to be in Spain.
    Finally, the last but not the least, it's all about having head and heart well aligned wherever you are. If they are not, it surely will rain sh*t sometime down the road and it's not going to have anything to do with the local weather.
    Talk about being corny : ))


  20. Thanks for the post, Rachel! I think much of what I experience is just age appropriate stuff that would be going on no matter where I lived, and most of the rest is my frustration with language. Luckily mu husband is really sweet when I'm being a big baby, ad Skype/Google Voice lets me cry to my friends back in the USA. It helps me to remember, everything changes!

  21. Yes, really good post Rachel. And great comments - this clearly resonated with a lot of people. Joss and Amy, it was really good to hear of your frustrations / exasperations - I have felt exactly the same for long periods. I have lost count of the number of times I've been told off by friends and family of my wife: "You and Manuela have to stop speaking English. You will learn more quickly". The most annoying part is that they're right and I know it. But I really don't have anyone else to talk to and I feel isolated enough as it is!

    And *every*, *single* time I got to a family do, *everyone* will ask, over and over, "And how is your Portuguese coming along?" - in the end I want to scream: "I'm still SHIT!!" (I resist the temptation!).

    After almost 18 months I still have down days and not being able to answer back properly to the grumpy people on the bus (or wherever) makes me so angry (more with myself for being so slow with the language). But not having friends and family so easily accessible has brought unexpected benefits. I've found myself using all this extra spare time to learn more about photography, write a blog, plus a whole bunch of other stuff I never had time for back home. Slim comfort when I'm feeling sad and lonely, but like Jennifer says, that's when Skype comes to the rescue. A quick phonecall and a chat can really help.

  22. It has been so long since I felt like this, paralyzed and furstrated by language and culture shock. My husband came to the States and adjusted so seamlessly I feel like the bar for my adjustment to Brazilian culture has been set really high! Good to know I'll be in good company.

  23. I've been an expat myself, and I would say that doesn't matter where you're from or where you're gonna live, it's a process that everyone has to go through to succed.It's a new language, talking over the phone, trying to figure out how to behave, how to withdraw money, the best brands at the supermarket, new flavours, new scents, realizing the jokes... and, after all, being able to laught at all insane situations you've been trhough. At the end, you'll fall in a kind of dark room where you will never have a place where you'll fit in 100% anymore... because you're now a mix of things. You kind of became an expax in the new and in your own culture. That's the best and the worse thing to experience. It's freedom in a delightful and scary way. =)

    All the best.

  24. This post is right on the money. Daily life happens, no matter what corner of paradise you happen to live in.