Life as an American Expat in Brazil

Life as an American Expat in Brazil

Hi there! Thanks for visiting! Today, per reader’s request, I’m digging deep again for another reflective post. I’m going to talk about some surprising aspects of life as an American expat in Brazil. Each item on this list addresses an aspect of culture shock that may not be talked about so much.

Today I’m going beyond the “cutsie” parts of culture shock like, “Brazilians greet each other with hugs and kisses,” and, “Full grown men use the kissing face emoji and its not creepy,” and, “They eat beans and rice every day,” and, “They use weird napkins that don’t absorb anything.” Yep… all true! But I’d really like to talk about some of the more complex aspects of culture shock that I experienced, particularly related to living as an American expat in Brazil. I’m going to speak frankly, but never with the intention of criticizing. I love Brazil, and it’s my beloved country and home just as much as the United States! So without further introduction, let’s jump right in!

1. People wonder why you left your American life to become an expat in Brazil.

When people find out that I’m American, one of their first questions is, “Why are you living here in Brazil?” People want to know why I chose to live in Brazil instead of the United States, if I like it here, and when – not if, but when – I plan on moving back to the U.S. They understand and expect American tourists, especially around the time of Carnival, and especially in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the two largest cities. But in Belo Horizonte, as an American expat with a permanent visa and no plans to repatriate, I am quite the enigma.

You see, Brazilians think I’m crazy to leave the land of “golden opportunities” and… well… “gold”, to come to Brazil where the economy is struggling, people are pissed off with a hoard of corrupt politicians and discouraged with the moral decline of a restless and disenchanted generation X. Not that the United States doesn’t have it’s own economic, societal, and political (cough… orange-haired-child-in-man-body) struggles. It most certainly does!

But you’ve got to understand that the picture of the United States portrayed in movies is enticing. From conversing with many Brazilians, I get the impression that most people here believe there are better/more job opportunities in the US, better education, better food, better homes… it seems the general consensus is that everything is better in the United States. And for those who haven’t experienced, first hand, the slow and steady starvation of the American Dream, the US is the place to be.

The American Dream is still cherished… in the hearts of people less privileged… in countries where a minimum-wage job might pay 1 or 2 dollars per hour. It’s the dream of so many Brazilians to live in the United States. Everyone wants to visit. And teenagers dream of doing their “intercambio” (foreign academic exchange) in the United States.

One could almost say that the Brazilian dream is the “American Dream.”

I remember talking with one girl who enthusiastically described her vision of riding her vintage-style bike to and from classes in San Francisco. Looking concerned and defeated, her mother explained to me she’d been watching a lot of hollywood films. You can imagine the uncomfortable, awkward, vibe of that conversation! I felt embarrassed for the mother! I can only imagine how it must feel to work so hard to provide the utmost quality of life for my child and then hear her pining for life in another country… and to an American. Brazilians tend to feel self-conscious in the presence of American privilege.

I had to bite my tongue to avoid rebuking the girl for acting so entitled. If only she could realize how fortunate she really is! This encounter hit really close to home because my Grandfather always said to me as a child, “You don’t know how fortunate you are.” I had compassion for her, remembering how Grandpa’s comment always perplexed me because I’d never known anything other than my middle-class American life. After my first three years as an American expat in Brazil, not knowing how we’d have money to pay bills, rent, and buy groceries from month to month, I understood what Grandpa meant.

I was envious of this girl! She lived in an apartment that made mine seem like a dingy hole in the wall. And she was riding in her mother’s beautiful car telling me about how she was dying to get out of Brazil and go to school in the United States. She had no clue that, if she went there, the kids in school might not be so friendly. Depending on what family environment they come from, they might be really nice… OR they might make prejudiced jokes and tell her to “go back to where she came from.” They might not make any distinction between Mexican and Brazilian, Spanish and Portuguese, taco and tapioca. My heart ached for her because, if she went, chances are she’d be in for the culture shock of her life.

She thought I was crazy to move to Brazil, and I thought she was crazy for wanting so badly to leave.

C’est la vie!

2. People tend to think you’re rich.

This one follows along with what I’ve said already. If everything in the US is better, then everyone in the US must be richer, right? This is kind of how the thinking goes. And I can’t blame people for assuming so. In addition, anyone using American currency in Brazil is comparatively rich when you consider the exchange rate currently floats around 4 Brazilian Reais to 1 American Dollar. Yikes! Time to schedule your tropical Christmas vacation guys!! But as an American expat in Brazil, the reality may be that you’re financial life closely resembles that of other Brazilians. I’ve learned not to take it personally when I’m actually legit broke and someone thinks I have money to spend on an expensive item.

3. You’ll often receive preferential treatment because you’re American

Brazilians and Americans have enjoyed a friendly cultural exchange for quite some time now, and Americans are held in high esteem. Generally. With the exception of… you know… that one president. But no worries… Some might say Brazil’s current president is quite the doppelgänger! So from narcissistic, bigoted, misogynist presidents to undying love of Hollywood movies, cheese, and that one girl from Ipanema, our two countries have a lot in common! “…por causa do amorrrrrrr…. por causa do amorrrrr…” Ahhh! I do love a good bit of Bossa Nova with my coffee on a Sunday morning!

(This is a digression, but let’s just take a moment and geek out together. Below, I’m including Gisele Bündchen’s Rio Olympics catwalk, accompanied by Tom Jobim’s famous tune, “Garota de Ipanema,” and a little video about the woman who inspired the song. Yes! How excited was I to discover that the girl from Ipanema is a real person!)

But seriously, from the wave of immigrants seeking new life in Brazil, Americans are often singled out and shown special hospitality. In my experience, this means people will go out of their way to offer help, translate for you, give you rides, recommendations, and show you around the city. At doctors appointments, you’ll often be given more than the average 15-20 minutes. My prenatal doctor often stayed with my husband and I for an hour or more, patiently answering our barrage of questions! She was probably thinking what my sister-in-law told us: “Guys! Relax! It’s not a monster with seven heads!” I laugh to this day remembering how “extra” we were as expecting parents. But that’s probably normal.

Anyway, only later did I find out that our prenatal care experience far exceeded the norm. I remembering feeling equal parts grateful and frustrated that we received so much more than every other, equally deserving couple. And this is a constant theme in the life of an American expat in Brazil – this mix of gratefulness and frustration. It’s so flattering to be received with such hospitality, and yet frustrating to realize that you’re experiencing prejudice… prejudice in your favor but perhaps to someone else’s detriment.

4. Some people will treat you differently because they’re jealous

Because of the afore discussed tendency to unquestioningly shower Americans with favor and hospitality, you’ll get some lashback. And not due to any fault of your own. There will be folks who won’t respond so well to your American privilege, whether or not you’re actually that well off.

When they ask where you’re from, and you say, “Eu sou dos Estados Unidos,” their body will stiffen. They might say, “Que chic,” (how chic) a complimentary expression, sometimes used sarcastically when someone feels resentful of what you have that they don’t. (Or what they think you have.)

And I don’t hold animosity toward people who feel this way. Some folks in Brazil struggle and work so hard to earn enough money. People here who work full-time, minimum-wage jobs almost sweat blood just to have the money to pay rent on a small apartment and buy beans and rice. The struggle is real! And the fact is, there are families in the United States who also fight to have a home and food. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to any particular country. It’s a problem of human greed. But that’s an entirely different conversation.

5. Your “American-ness” may intimidate people…

Brazilians want to impress Americans and you’ll want to be sensitive to this fact. They may be nervous when meeting you in their professional environment, feeling extra pressure to perform well and avoid offending or disappointing you in any way. The responsibility of representing their employer and company weighs heavily on the person charged with serving an American customer.

When I was pregnant and trying to decide where I wanted to give birth, we took a tour of the Hospital Sofia Feldman. My parents, who flew from Michigan to be with me for my son’s birth, accompanied my husband and I on this tour. The woman who led us through the hospital shook from head to toe and, as the Mineiro expression goes, “almost laid an egg” working  to assure my parents and husband that I’d receive the best care. I noticed her discomfort and asked my husband if I’d committed any cultural phopas. He laughed and said, “Nooo, dear. She’s nervous. She knows you’re American and she’s afraid you’ll find the hospital too different from the United States.”

(In the end, she had nothing to worry about. I gave birth to my son at the Hospital Sofia Feldman and received the most respectful, tender, compassionate care. My birth experience was characterized by “carinho” (word to describe warmth and affection), and it brings tears to my eyes to remember what a dream come true it was to give birth naturally, surrounded by doctors, nurses, and family who supported me. My son’s entrance into this world was peaceful and joyful. I often suspect that’s part of the reason why he is such a sweet, fearless, charismatic, happy little boy!)

6. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb at first

As an American expat living in Brazil, you’re going to stand out from the crowd. Everything from your clothes, shoes, and accessories, to your accent, body language, and facial expressions will scream, “American!” This made me extremely uncomfortable! Since I considered Brazil my new home, I just wanted to fit in and feel at home. But this took a while. And there are still times when my “cover” is “blown” depending on the environment and situation.

It’s not that I’m ashamed of being an American, or that I want to renounce my roots. I just feel like the best way to feel at home in Brazil is to be seen as a Brazilian. The way people treat their fellow Brazilians is different than how they treat Americans. When people treat me as an American, I feel like a guest in my own country. (Is that ok? If I claim Brazil as my country? I love Brazil, and I’m proud to live here!)

When you want to fly under the radar, there are some things you can do to hide our “American-ness” from strangers.

  • Imitate Brazilian fashion.
  • Speak as little as possible in public, unless you’re super fluent in Portuguese and have flawless pronunciation.
  • Don’t carry around wads of cash.
  • Observe and master non-verbal communication.
  • Dress to match your environment. Don’t wear big, expensive-looking sunglasses and beach hats. This screams tourist.

7. As an expat in Brazil you’re an American ambassador

Everywhere you go, everything you do and say –  people will be comparing this to their mental library of hollywood gifs, trying to understand more about what the United States is really like. Brazilians are fascinated with American culture, food, art… and they’ll look to you for a clearer picture. Most times, people will be thrilled to meet someone from the United States, and they’ll have lots of questions about life there. Enjoy answering these questions and return them with questions of your own about Brazil. These conversations can form the basis of a new friendship!

8. You may live surrounded by “fans” yet feel very lonely…

All this said, don’t be surprised if you reach a place where you feel totally adored, idolized, flattered and doted upon, yet hopelessly misunderstood. There are things about life as an American expat in Brazil that Brazilians will not automatically understand. And you may not feel comfortable sharing for fear that it won’t make sense. Which brings me to the final unexpected truth about being an American in Brazil…

9. Your life as an American expat in Brazil will feature irony…

While reading through this post, you probably picked up on hints of the irony of life as an American expat in Brazil. The previous point serves as a perfect example – Living surrounded by welcoming, curious people yet feeling alone. Well, I’m sorry to tell you, it doesn’t end there. Financial irony is real too. It’s humbling to go to the mall with fifty rios for a simple pair of shoes and explain in my broken Portuguese that, no, I’m not interested in those gorgeous stilettos for 400 reais. Because those shoes cost more than I spend on my electric, internet, and phone bill combined.

At its best, it’s entertaining, and at worst cruelly ironic, that people think I have money because I’m American… when it reality, I may actually be broke, waiting right along with my fellow Brazilians on a paycheck that’s two months late and doesn’t show signs of showing up any time soon. (Based on a true story.)

Once again,

C’est la vie!


Well folks… that’s the end of my little “surprising truths” list.

I know some of the subjects I touched upon in this post are more serious. Hopefully my attempts at humor helped lighten the mood. And I’ve shared a lot from my personal experiences. I hope that’s ok. It’s not my intention to use our time together to complain or criticize. My hope is that I’ve created some space for conversation, reflection, and understanding between Americans and Brazilians.

I know culture is such a delicate subject. But it’s also something I’m passionate about because it kinda turned my life upside down. Heh heh.  I also stepped out on the limb of personal disclosure because I wish, with all my heart, that I’d found an article like this when I first arrived in Brazil. It would have been so comforting to read someone else’s experiences and think, “Ok! So this is what’s going on. And I’m not losing my mind for no reason.”

So whether you’re an American in the United States who’s curious about Brazilian culture and expat life, an American expat forging your own path in Brazil, or a Brazilian who’s trying to understand the “estrangeiro” experience, I hope you’ve found this post valuable in some way.

As always, I love to hear your thoughts and reactions, so please! Do feel free to leave a comment below. And if you someone who would benefit from reading this, please share away! The whole point of this blog is to build community for Americans, Expats, and Brazilians!

Thanks once more for stopping by, and I’ll see you again for tomorrow’s post! Tchau tchau!

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2 thoughts on “Life as an American Expat in Brazil”

  • So true! All things you have shared with me since you moved. If I had never heard them before we made our trip to Brazil it would have been helpful to read this post before our visit.

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