A reader once posted a comment suggesting I write a post on integrating and adapting to the Brazilian way of life. I do not consider myself an expert on this subject, but I can tell you about my conclusions and personal experiences during the almost 24 years I have lived in Brazil.
Integration vs. Adaptation
First, we have to separate integration from adaptation. To integrate is a lot harder than adapting. To integrate means you have to do as Brazilians do and almost merge into the culture, while adaptation can mean adapting your way of doing things to the Brazilian way of doing things. Integration requires more sacrifice, while adaptation requires a lot more patience. I have never integrated although many Brazilians think I am Brazilian, which should be a plus, so I will mostly write about adapting.
The first thing you do when you move to Brazil is compare. It´s inevitable and you probably won´t every stop comparing your native country or any other country you have lived in with Brazil. It´s useless to even talk about not doing that, as you just won´t be able to unless you are a born integrator! I have met some expats who never compared, and that is an essential requirement of full adaptation. If you compare, you will find it harder to adapt much less integrate.
I have found that the easiest way to ease this pain is to find the things you cherish most about your native country, in the new country. For example, if you rode your bike in the park, find a park that is good for biking and visit it frequently. If you liked good cinema or a certain type of music, look for theatres that show the films you like (independent, etc.) or a place that plays that music. If you like a specific type of cereal for breakfast, find a place that sells them. For the other things, try and experiment with local products and try to get used to them. Believe me. You will eventually craze feijão and novelas if you try hard enough, like everyone else.
Secondly, it is important to talk about misconceptions. Foreigners usually have a more or less fixed idea of what they think Brazil is like. These preconceptions or misconceptions have to eradicated from your mind. Seriously. The most powerful and devastating misconceptions are:
1. Brazil is a liberal country where sex and sexual diversity are openly discussed and accepted. You will soon discover that most sex-related subjects including exposure, orientation and nudity are absolutely taboo. Although people are virtually naked in Carnival, they are not actually naked. And that is how these matters are treated in Brazil: “Almost, but not totally”. There is a lot of prostitution and some nasty sex-related problems here but that does not mean they are openly discussed or accepted. Brazil is also a matriarchal society, so men are very depended on women and usually raised by them. This mysteriously leads to homophobia and the annoying and repetitive occurrence of homophobic jokes.
2. As a foreigner, you will make lots of money here and have great job opportunities. Unless you are hired before you leave, you will probably end up working in a back office in some company that desperately needs people that speak English or any other foreign language, or teaching. Innovative entrepreneurs with some capital are usually successful when they start a business that attracts both foreigners in Brazil and Brazilians, like an acquaintance of mine who opened the All Black Pub in São Paulo. You will also be successful if you have a skill that is rare in Brazil, and are able to relate to people the Brazilian way while maintaining total professionalism, like a friend who became one of the first Lotus Notes specialists in Brazil.
3. Brazilians are very friendly. I will make friends in a second. Brazilians are kind and cordial but it is not easy to make real friends here. They are very friendly insofar as things are maintained at an almost superficial level. Most Brazilians do not like deep, overly intellectual or emotionally intense conversation. One-to-one friendship is almost non-existent. I have friends in Argentina and many European countries, but I do not have a single real all-Brazilian friend here. All my “Brazilian” friends are foreigners living in Brazil. You might be more successful if you enter a group of friends.
I could go on for days with this list, but I honestly believe these three points are the most important misconceptions foreigners must eliminate before coming to Brazil.
I have travelled all over Brazil looking for the right place to live. Brazil is so vast and diverse that no two places are alike. The South is or was considered the most “civilized” region of Brazil (self-proclaimed, by the way. The South has sought independence from the rest of Brazil in the past) which is probably why my mother was so eager to move there. She is incredibly fussy and did not adapt to other regions she visited. It was a mistake. Our entire family moved there at one point and we all moved away a year later. The South is very different to what we expected. We thought it would be full of small Italian style towns with the smell of pasta and pesto, freshly baked bread and great quality wine. It is not. All the towns I visited are exactly the same, with nuances of German and Italian traditions that are just too weak to notice or savour. The people I met and lived with were descendants of Azores (have you been to Azores? No, seriously) and the cultural diversity it is so famous for was virtually nil. There is actually a lot more tradition and variety in the North-east, although obviously from very different origins. I personally thought the South was a huge disappointment.
The North-east is preferred by Europeans because it fits perfectly with their original idea of Brazil. It is chaotic, intense, full of flavours, sounds, smells and sensations. The North-East is not as liberal as people think it is, but there is something captivating about it. I personally think it´s the atmosphere. There is nothing like it in the rest of Brazil. If you are shocked by extreme poverty and feel uncomfortable in anything less than 2 stars, the North-East is not for you. It´s charm in the in details. To enjoy and truly savour the North-East you have to roll up your sleeves and stick your hands in the mud. It´s raw and almost wild, and can be a little overpowering, but it´s unique. I lived in Itacará, Ilhéus, Salvador, Una and visited some other small towns. I would not live in the North-East again, but I would definitely visit at least once a year.
I initially and eventually moved to the South-Central Region. I visited Rio, lived in São Paulo and the interior, which is totally different to the city. These cities are preferred by North Americans because it is easier for them to adapt to life in a city. They like the comfort and the opportunities these cities offer, especially São Paulo. São Paulo is the only city in Brazil that has almost everything you need and it grows almost every day. I personally prefer the interior because I do not like the chaos of São Paulo. You have to be wealthy to live there without being affected by the homeless (much worse than in other cities I´ve visited or lived in), the crack problem, the dirty streets (in some locations), the crammed subway… but if you are used to large cities and are out to make major bucks or get a decent job in the corporate world, it´s definitely the best place to live.
The interior of São Paulo was my chosen location. All the cities in the interior are close enough to the largest and most resourceful city of Brazil and the cost of living in 50% lower or less. I live in front of my daughter´s massive school with two sports arenas, gardens and two Olympic-size pools, pay 80% less than I paid in São Paulo, and live in a huge, ancient house that I love for the same price that I paid to live in a ridiculously small flat in São Paulo. There is no traffic, no pollution, no hassle, although boredom or cultural/intellectual famine, as I call it, is frequent.
Back to the topic…
As for integration and adaptation, I have never truly adapted to the Brazilian way of life. The same things that bothered me 20 years ago still bother me and most of the expats I know. No country is perfect, I know. In Brazil, you are virtually on your own with your own complaints and ways to solve them as few people will listen. Life is full of adventure, insane events and unbelievable outcomes. Life in Brazil is exciting but sometimes frustrating. The most difficult things to adapt to, according to my experience and long conversations with foreigners I know here, are the total lack of importance Brazilians give to providing good (customer) services, aesthetics, comfort and quality, education, literature and knowledge. Brazilians lack the curiosity you would expect from people of a developing country. They are emotional people, not intellectual people. Connections, family and home are the most important things in their lives, not knowledge, individuality or even variety. They are not bothered about anything that they feel does not personally or directly affect them, including littering or crime, so yes, you will probably get really annoyed when you see someone simply drop that plastic cup on the floor and walk away. They are hard-workers, but education and knowledge is only minimal, only the absolutely necessary, so you might feel frustrated when that builder builds a crocked wall or when your kids´ text books contain mistakes or when someone does not know where London is, or when you find a product in a store that the sales assistance insisted they did not have, or when the guy in the music store does not know who your favourite and very popular-outside-of-Brazil singer is… Lack of (civic) education and knowledge in Brazil is the biggest problem you will face if those things are important to you. The culture is to know what you must know to pass the test, the job interview or the vestibular. To know more is considered unnecessary as there is not real purpose.
There are, of course, lots of people who adapt very well to the Brazilian way of life. It´s all about affinity. If you are demanding and like things in their proper place, Brazil can be a frustrating experience. I have meet too many expats who simply say, “it was not what I expected”. Maybe the secret is not to expect anything. In my case, being half South American and half European, I have some minimal requirements that I did not find here, but sometimes the people, their kind spirit, their incredible talent to turn the most informal of situations into something very informal, their sensitivity, their sameness, their arroz-and-feijão-ness, their childishness and their amazing ability to laugh about almost anything outweighs the frustration of not being able to have a deep conversation, not seeing a reaction when politicians steal or lie in their faces, not being able to believe that someone means it when they invite you over… sometimes.
In summary, adapting or integrating is a personal choice. No one can tell you if you will like Brazil or not. It all depends on the emotional or cultural baggage you already carry. It all depends on your priorities and needs. My advice is keep a clear mind, eliminate all preconceptions, be fair when you compare and when you criticize and do what you possibly can to make your Brazilian experience as pleasant and enlightening as possible.