The Displaced Nation

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Why “exbrats” in São Paulo need their own book to appreciate life in Brazil’s largest city

MeganFarrell CollageThis week’s guest interviewee is Megan Farrell, who like myself is an estrangeiro (foreigner) in São Paulo and married to a Brazilianalthough unlike my good British self, Megan is American and also has a young daughter (sounds like far too much responsibility if you ask me!).

Megan and her family previously lived in New York, but she took a sabbatical from her job on Wall Street in 2009 to become a full-time mum. Then, when her husband was offered a job opportunity here in São Paulo in 2010, they decided it would be a perfect opportunity for Megan and their daughter to learn Portuguese, experience life in a different culture, and learn more about Dad’s home country.

I first came to know of Megan when I moved to São Paulo myself at the start of 2012 and found her blog Born Again Brazilian whilst doing some research for my own blog. Ever since, I’ve kept up-to-date with her tales and travails, and was pleasantly surprisedif not a little enviouswhen she announced earlier this year that she would be releasing a step-by-step guide for foreigners who are living (or planning to) in São Paulo: American Exbrat in São Paulo: Advice, Stories, Tips and Tricks for Surviving South America’s Largest City.

I say envious because a similar idea had occasionally cropped up in my mind, but having read Megan’s book, I’m actually rather glad I didn’t attempt it myselfthere’s no way I could have had done the topic justice to the same extent. Megan has done her research, even offering advice on visas, taxes and other mundanebut extremely importantdetails that a move to São Paulo can entail. She includes things I would definitely not have thought of or, to be honest, had the patience to cover.

My only quibble—which perhaps tells you more about me than it does about the book, which is excellent—is that it reflects the experiences of a small minority in Brazil: exbrats. As someone who loves history as well as current affairs, I tend to prefer books that provide a holistic overview of life in a particular country. What’s more, the life of the exbrat seems completely outside my realm of experience. Though a cynic might suggest that I’m on an extended holiday, I didn’t move to Brazil on an all-expenses paid work package.

And to be fair, Megan doesn’t fall into the “exbrat” category either: her husband is Brazilian so didn’t qualify for the relocation package that makes countries like Brazil so enticing to non-Brazilians.

So, who exactly are these exbrats? And why write a book for them? Megan and I had the pleasure of meeting up I person a few days ago and talking about the audience she had in mind for her book. The following are some highlights from our conversation.

* * *

AmericanExbratinSaoPaulo_cover_pmHi, Megan. Tudo bem? Why did you decide to write a guidebook for non-Brazilians who come to live in Sao Paulo?
If you are making a move to a country such as Brazil, you need to have your expectations managed appropriately. Much of the pain my fellow expats have experienced has been because they were unprepared to deal with some of the idiosyncrasies of life in São Paulo.

What do you mean by an “exbrat”? Was the book specifically aimed at them?
I used “exbrat” because it feels rather fitting of the collection of people I’ve come across here. Expats, including myself, often stomp their feet over inconveniences they’ve encountered here, yet still expect and enjoy all the benefits of being in Brazil. Not necessarily in a pejorative way, but it felt very bratty to me. You also meet people who were previously army brats and were never able to shake their nomadic waysso “exbrat” is also an adult term for these foreigners.

So exbrats are primarily the foreigners who move to Brazil because of job opportunities?
Yes, the target audience is largely people who are moving to São Paulo or have recently arrived in the city for work, as well as human resource managers at companies who send employees to Brazil.

You included yourself just now in the “exbrat” category. But you are married to a Brazilian who didn’t get an expat package.
Believe me, some aspects of the things I’ve experienced here in Brazil have been a shock, as they probably were to you as well. So, while the book is definitely aimed at exbrats, I don’t think it’s too “exclusive.” There is an element of the “exbrat” in all of us. Some people are never able to get out of the exbrat cycle and as a result, fail to take advantage of the opportunities living in this country offers. My hope is that my book will give them a clearer picture of what to expect, and how they can prepare for that reality, so that they can get over the culture shock and go exploring. One of the world’s most fascinating countries awaits.

I think I know what you mean. I particularly remember reading in the book about your shock of attending an officially organized children’s “play-date” and there being seven paid staff to run it, as well as each child returning home afterwards with a crystal tea set as a parting gift!
Yes, exactly! That is far removed from my experiences in New York but is not so uncommon if you and your family start to mix in the same social circles with people towards the very top end of society in Brazilwhether that be through expat communities, your child’s school, or spouse’s workplace.

Has the book reached other audiences besides those who are moving to São Paulo? Perhaps people moving to other South American countries or those where English is not the first language?
Thus far the audience has been very specific to people moving to São Paulo, as opposed to other countries in South America—or even other cities in Brazil. It’s also attracted a few readers who work with Brazilians but in other countries.

Injecting her own anecdotes, and photos, into the book

Which section of the book are readers enjoying the most?
People tell me that they really enjoy the humorous stories I’ve included, which are based on some of my most painful and awkward experiences. For example, I tell the story of how I visited the same bakery for over a year before someone explained that because I wasn’t emphasizing the appropriate accent in the word pão (bread), to a Brazilian ear it sounded like I was asking for pau (penis)! Living in a non-English-speaking country provides plenty of opportunities for embarrassment or frustration, but when something goes wrong, I’m the kind of person who chooses to laugh, not cry.

Did you connect with the city in any new ways in the process of writing the book?
Definitely. I wanted the book to be as complete as possible (without taking ten years to write) and so I did more exploring on some of the subjects I wanted to include. Also, the photos in the book, minus a few I purchased the rights to, are ones I took. Much of the photography I already had in my collection. But there were gaps, so I had to get out and take pictures, which always gives you a second perspective on what you are seeingmore removed and analytical.

The topic of domestic servants

What was your most displaced moment when doing the research for the book, when you wondered why you’d embarked on this mission?
Trying to explain the culture of the people who might work in your homethe culture of the working poor in Brazil.

What do you mean when you say “culture of the working poor”? In your book you seem to suggest that household workers, who are of a far less lower rung on the lady in Brazilian society, are just taking advantage of the situation that they are in. Do you think this is cultural, or the impact of their socio-economic circumstances?
Half and half. I think it is definitely a Brazilian thing to try to take advantage of different situationsand this exists at all levels of society. For example, there’s the term jeitinho Brasileiro, which Brazilians use for situations in which they “creatively” try to get round complications in life.

However, yes, there is also a socio-economic component. If you are from a poor neighborhood and are working in the home of a rich family or person, it’s probably not too surprising that you might want to take advantage of your situation by asking for a loan or a raise.

From blogging to book-writing (she hasn’t looked back!)

Why a book instead of a series of blog posts?
Believe it or not, people still like reading books! HA. Over the past three years, since I’ve written my blog, I’ve received a number of questions about moving to São Paulo and life here. Most of the answers were already within the posts of my blog. I wanted to create a document that was more comprehensive, arranged by topic and easier to navigate. I also did a survey of my expat friends, and almost all of them said they would have purchased at least three books about moving to São Paulo before they camehad any actually existed. So I decided there was at least a bit of demand. Blogs are great, but sometimes you want to read a story from beginning to end. Plus, I’ve always just wanted to write a book.

What was the most challenging part of the book-writing process?
Editing. The editing process was a collaboration with my awesome friends, as well as my mother. It’s difficult to edit yourself. Actually, it is impossible to edit yourself. And when you have a pile of people helping you sort through the stories and facts, you get lots of opinions. But it was all good. However, I don’t think I can advantage of my friends again, so I’ll probably hire an editor for the next one.

Why did you self-publish the book?
A few of my writer friends encouraged me to try and find a publisher. But I just couldn’t figure out what a publisher was going to do for me that I couldn’t do for myself. I have a strong network and a background that includes marketing. I also don’t have the patience to go through a bureaucratic publishing process with an extended timeline. I knew that even if I did manage to find a publisher, I would not be their priority. The market for this is not on the level that would make a publisher move fast.

What’s next? Are you working on any other writing projects?
I am. I’ll probably update this book sometime in the next year. I also plan to write one for Rio. My husband is from Rio, and most of my experiences in Brazil (prior to moving to São Paulo) were in that city, so I know it pretty well.

You mentioned at the outset that you like broader books. I’d love to write something about Brazil as a wholeto counter the focus I put in this one on the expat life. It won’t be another step-by-step guide but a more of a general analysis, including politics, culture and so forth.

Finally, I’m working on some fiction stories that take place in Brazil. When living in New York, I did a screenplay course so have some experience in writing fiction. Currently, my idea is to write two series of short stories. The first will be based around Brazilian folklore, and the second, around some real-life episodes I’ve witnessed that are difficult to record in a blog or non-fiction format.

Ten Questions for Megan Farrell

Finally, we’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:

1. Last truly great book you read: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems. I have a five-year-old. But we’ve read it more than a hundred times and it still makes me laugh. Okay, Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late is another contender. Mo Willems is a genius.
2. Favorite literary genre: I’d love to lie and offer up a more intellectual answer, but my favorite genre has always been horror. I enjoy a good creepy tale. After that, humorous memoirs from people who have overcome great obstacles, like Jeannette Walls‘s The Glass Castle.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I’m most happy if I have a copy of The Economist with me on a plane
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: I wish Michael Bloomberg would write a book that Obama could read, because I think the USA would benefit by being run more like a business. But since Bloomberg has yet to put pen to paper, I’d have to say Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.
5. Favorite books as a child: I loved any book that involved a child in a new world. James and the Giant Peach. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Little Prince. The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Pippi Longstocking.
6. Favorite heroine: Wonder Woman. I think if Brazil had a Wonder Woman, or the collection of super heroes that we have in the States as—albeit fictional—role models, people would emulate change for the good of the people. Brazil needs to believe in something other than futebol—but that seems to be in the process of changing, as Andy and I discussed last month on this blog.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Hands down, Stephen King. I hope he doesn’t die before I get to meet him. I just need to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t involve stalking.
8. Your reading habits: I used to spend the weekends (sometimes all weekend) reading. But now that I have a child, I usually read right before I go to bed—in bed.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: American Exbrat in São Paulo, of course!
10. The book you plan to read next: I suppose I should say Fifty Shades of Grey, because I haven’t read much of it and people keep bugging me about it. But if you’ve read Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy (I only read the first), Fifty Shades is like reading Judy Blume. Yawn. I think I’ll wait for Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. How could anyone resist a sequel to The Shining?

* * *

Readers, as I said, Megan was a delight to meet in person, a sense of which I hope I’ve conveyed above. Any further questions? Have I pressed her too hard on the “exbrat” point?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a new episode in our “Location, Locution” series, by JJ Marsh.

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images: Megan Farrell’s author image and book cover; photo of Sao Paulo from MorgueFile.

15 responses to “Why “exbrats” in São Paulo need their own book to appreciate life in Brazil’s largest city

  1. bornagainbrazilian July 24, 2013 at 7:36 am

    Reblogged this on born again brazilian and commented:
    My favorite expat blog interviewed me on my book American Exbrat! Check it out! Would love to hear your comments. (I can anticipate some… )

  2. ML Awanohara July 24, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    I very much enjoyed reading this interview-cum-review-of-Megan’s book. I’ve actually read Megan’s book — even though I have never lived, nor do I plan to live, in São Paulo (though I do hope to have the chance to visit one day!).

    Call it expat envy. My own expat days are over for now, and besides I could never live in all the countries I’d like to. So I enjoy reading accounts that give me a bird’s-eye view of life as a foreigner in various cultures that I haven’t experienced, Brazil being one of them.

    Brazil is also a place for which I’ve developed a kind of obsession of late: is it the World Cup, the Olympics, the 2013 riots, or the caipirinhas I had at the home of a friend who used to live in Rio? All of the above, perhaps. (I’ve even started fantasizing about staying at one of the pousadas on Alison McGowan’s list!)

    Megan’s book drew me in still further. Strangely, it reminded me of the period before I went off to live in Japan–another country that requires some special preparations if you want to hit the ground running and don’t plan (aren’t able at such an advanced age?) to master the language.

    What I love about Megan’s work is that it captures the “through the looking glass” quality of being a newbie expat — her equivalent of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of course being the Brazilian child’s birthday party. What a palaver! (Question: Is that particularly true of São Paulo, or do such lavish celebrations take place all over Brazil?)

    Thus, while I take Andy’s point about the lack of an historical/socioeconomic/cultural perspective, I like that Megan keeps her focus exclusively on the exbrat, something we’ve all been at one time or another, I fear — even Alice, who says some mildly bratty things about the Wonderland creatures!

    Been there, done that and moved on from it (thank goodness). All power to Megan for wanting to help others do the same, that’s what I say…

  3. bornagainbrazilian July 24, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    Thanks ML and Andy for the opportunity to talk to you all about the book. To answer the birthday party question, while Sao Paulo is the center for extravagance in Brazil, the lavish birthday parties take place across the country. So if an exbrat in Brazil, you are sure to come across one at some point!

  4. Cristina July 25, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    This is good. I just disagree with the part that says a “working poor” asking for a raise or asking for a loan is “taking advantage”. This was something terrible to say. My own “working poor” helper is someone I cherish, she helps my family so much!! I am happy to help her back, to pay her as much as I can, and loan her money if she needs. She also has kids of her own, and she needs help too – just like me. And I am not rich at all! All those rich families in São Paulo (and everywhere else) should be ashamed of thinking their “domestic servants” are taking advantage of them by asking for a raise.

    • bornagainbrazilian July 25, 2013 at 8:32 pm

      Yes, I can understand your comment. No, I don’t think they are taking advantage by asking for a raise after a certain period of work. Not at all. But a lot of people I know, including myself, have had people ask for not only a substantial increase once the family begins to have an emotional bond with the employee, but also ask for significant loans and purchases that they promise to pay back. None of the expats I know would ever try and take advantage of someone that worked in their house or with their children. But it is a complicated relationship. If you give in to these demands, it doesn’t stop. I know a woman that I trusted to stay with my daughter and I still trust to this day. But I recommended her full time to a friend, and she began to request rather extravagant things from this family. The family gave her what she wanted, but it didn’t stop. This is not an isolated incident. I can tell you about a number of similar stories. We don’t dictate the minimum pay for certain tasks, the government does. Expats usually pay much higher that this amount. My message is not to get disappointed by some of the cultural nuances in the relationships with people that might work in your home. You won’t understand them or where they are coming from, and they will not understand you and where you are coming from. If you accept this, your heart won’t be broken (has happened so many times to people I know) and you won’t get frustrated.

      • Cristina July 25, 2013 at 9:21 pm

        Yes, it is a complicated relationship. It is too close, a lot harder than being a boss at some firm. But still, we should have in mind that these people need a good salary and some extra help sometimes. And if we need them, we should at least respect their needs. If they do something wrong, or dishonest, of course we can fire the person (like in any other type of job).

        Minimum pay here in Brazil shouldn’t even be an option for a rich family! How could someone who pays very high prices for futilities pay minimum wage (R$ 678) to a housekeeper or nanny? Or even R$ 1,000? That is the question. I am not talking only about expats (although I thought you would be more considerate because most of you are used to do all the housework and baby caring yourselves) – I know many, many brazilian people who complain about their house employees costs but at the same time spend crazy amounts of money on designer clothes and super fancy cars. I mean, a person can’t pay a very good salary for the nanny who takes care of her children, but can afford a R$ 1,500 purse? Or a R$ 100,000 car??
        Yes, I had my heart broken twice by “working poors”. I give too much of me, my trust and friendship, to people, including “domestic servants”. But I refuse to act differently. I refuse to take the risk of not helping someone who is in need and of not trying to do my very small part at a little income distribution for the sake of having more money for my luxuries or for the sake of not getting hurt.

        • bornagainbrazilian July 26, 2013 at 9:53 am

          Yes, I agree. I was often disturbed at those who managed to spend plenty on luxury items yet complain about the cost of the people who took care of their children day in and day out. But I’d never met an expat who fell into that category (though they may be out there). And expats seem to pay far more in salary than the Brazilians I know, and also often treat their employees differently because, as you eluded to, there is little distance between what we ask our household help to do and what we are willing to do ourselves. Also, just to clarify, the “help” that I warn about isn’t help putting food into the mouths of children – no one I know would ever deny their employee that kind of help. But as examples – one request for help was to buy an employee’s son a cell phone far fancier that the employer would every consider buying for themselves. One friend wound up with a situation in which the relationship was more that of her adopting a teenager (who was past the teen years) than someone who helped her and spent a lot of time sitting on her couch watching television and eating cereal. Another example is our first housekeeper, who after two months of employment asked us to help her buy a house (I don’t have a house.) I’m not saying these are bad people – I care for very much still for those that have helped us. And I don’t want to generalize. We currently have a young woman who is wonderful, whom my daughter adores, who I trust completely, and who I have to insist that she stop working when her day has ended. Just that as a foreigner, you cannot assume that someone who works for you thinks in the same matter that you do. You are better off understanding that you don’t, and probably never will, understand. Thanks so much for your comments and perspective. It is always very valuable to me to have another Brazilian perspective on what I write!

          • Cristina July 28, 2013 at 7:34 am

            I think now I understand what you are saying. But it is not what it seems on the interview. When you say that there is a “culture of the ‘working poor'” and explain like that, you are generalizing in a very pejorative way. And yes, I’ve met 2 American mothers who paid minimum wage to their “domestis servants” ($545 at the time) who did everything in the apartment. One of them incredibly did not sign her carteira de trabalho. And she used to travel to the USA twice a year and got back with tons of designer’s clothes and stuff for her and the daughters. Anyways, I am tired of people not being generous and living within their own belly button, whether they are Brazilian, American, British or whatever….When I lived in the USA I saw many cultural differences I really did not like, and many other I loved. That is not the point…I think we are all mostly learning to be “successfull” and earn tons of money and buy buy buy crap we don’t really need and this is just not right.
            I also like seeing the perspective of foreigners about the good and the bad. I love talking to foreigners, it is so enriching. Thank you for “listening”.

  5. globalhub (@globalhub1) July 25, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    I like your explanation of exbrat. You can add your definition to my glossary @

  6. Jay Artale (@rovingjay) July 27, 2013 at 10:53 am

    The explanation of Exbrat .. definitely captures the imagination. I went to Sao Paulo on a business trip, and I definitely wasn’t ready for the culture-shock. I’ve traveled all over the world, but this is the one city that took me my surprise.

    It was refreshing to read your perception around Fifty Shades of Grey — I really didn’t understand all the fuss. I bowed to peer pressure and started reading it … but didn’t get past the first chapter It seemed like teen-steam to me. Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty was a far superior, knee-squeezing read!

    thanks to both of you for a great article, Jay

  7. bornagainbrazilian July 27, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Yes, Sao Paulo is full of surprises! I only got past the first chapter or so of Fifty Shades too… but people seem to love it. I see someone with a copy of it here all the time. Thank for your comments! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

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