This article was originally written in Brazilian Portuguese and posted at Huffington Post in September, 2015. Since then, it has been re-published by several other Brazilian websites and quoted in Gloria Kalil’s newest book, “Chic Profissional”.
Now that the Brazilian economy is not going so well, many people say they want to move abroad. But is it really something for them or are they just romanticizing the idea of living in a different country?
I’ve been living in the Netherlands for three years. Before that, I lived in Hungary for a little bit more than a year. I came to Europe to get a master’s degree and ended up staying for good because I found a job and a boyfriend. If you’re interested in exploring the world, perhaps you’d like to hear my experience.
I wholeheartedly recommend emigrating to anyone who wants and is able to do so — even if it’s just for a few months. Getting in touch with other cultures and ways of life is an excellent way to learn and evolve. Unfortunately, such knowledge cannot be acquired by just traveling. It takes time. You can’t just be out and about, on vacation. You need to live everyday life, rent an apartment, pay bills, go to the supermarket and the doctor, build a network of local friends, deal with work colleagues. That is how you can slowly discover the small details that make an American be American, a Spaniard be Spanish and a Chinese be Chinese. However, when living in another country, the most important lessons you’ll learn will be about yourself rather than others. When people around us are not exactly like us, we are prompted to reflect upon what makes us the way we are.
I recommend moving abroad because it’s an experience at the same time wonderful and painful. If you dream about leaving because you think life will be a lot easier in a “first world country”, think again. There is so much more to a place than its economy. Do you think it’s hard finding a job in Brazil? Try seeking a job in a country with a completely different culture and language, where you have no previous contacts or experience!
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to discourage you by saying an immigrant’s life is hard. Actually, the best thing about emigrating is that it’s not easy. It’s like solving a puzzle with 3,000 pieces: it’s at the same time terrifying and fascinating, fun and boring, frustrating and rewarding. I love it, but big puzzles aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Here are a few things you must demystify before considering moving abroad:
1. Not everyone is rich in a rich country
A lot of Brazilians believe the average American or European sleeps on a pile of cash. Sometimes, when I tell Brazilians where I live, they react by saying: “how fancy!” Wait, what do you mean, fancy? I immediately think of Dutch cows carrying diamond bells and fields being watered with Veuve Clicquot. It’s just a place, you guys.
Many people have written about this better than me, but it bears repeating: if you’re part of the Brazilian middle class, you probably have a lot more than a middle class person in Europe. After all, the wage gap in most European countries is not as abysmal as it is in Brazil. Consequently, the average European cannot afford to have a cleaning lady, a nanny and a gardener, as those professionals earn a decent wage. Yes, most Europeans clean their own toilets. They put their own groceries in the bag. They don’t get a mani pedi every week. The buildings where most of them live do not have a doorman or a separate elevator for the maids. People are much more independent. Guess what? Your hand will not fall off if you pack your own groceries. I know, I know, take a moment to let that sink in.
It must also be said that there is a direct relationship between cleaning your own toilet and being able to use your iPhone on the street with no fear of being mugged. The issue of street violence in Brazil will never get better as long as income and opportunities are not well distributed. Having to barricade in condos and armored cars is the price the Brazilian middle class pays for not washing their own dishes.
Developed countries are those where most people (or all people) have access to a quality life: a roof over their heads, food, clothing, education. It’s not a democracy of Chanel bags. Most Europeans lead far more simple lives than you do. Their kids have small, low key birthday parties. They have less pairs of shoes. They don’t have a marble floor and don’t care about having a design sink. After all, they don’t need to show off to differentiate themselves from the poor and thus be respected, like the Brazilian middle class does.
If you like constantly receiving special treatment due to your social status, being born in the middle class of an unequal country like Brazil is the best thing that could have happened to you. Over here, even ministers take the subway to work and showing off is frowned upon.
2. Not all services work flawlessly
I always complain about the Dutch health system, which is almost entirely focused on cure. They don’t really seem to have a prevention mentality. The Netherlands are the European country with the highest rates of people dying from cancer, for example, because people find out about it way too late. The general culture here is that you don’t need to go to the doctor for “small” issues. My boyfriend has never had a blood test in his life! Even if you do go to the doctor, there’s a chance the doctor himself will not consider your complaint to be that serious and send you back home with Paracetamol pills. I posted about this on Facebook the other day and got the following comment: “wow, but I thought things over there worked perfectly!”
How could it be perfect? Systems and institutions are run by humans. What if I told you even English trains do get delayed sometimes? Humans! Of course things tend to be better managed in a country with more resources, but perfection only exists in the world of ideas. In the real world, things are influenced by a lot more variables than just money.
3. You will not miss home as much as you think you will
If the only thing keeping you from starting an adventure abroad is your fear of missing home too much, stop hesitating. It won’t be as bad as you think. Of course that depends on how attached to people you are, but if you already consider moving abroad, I assume you are not the overly attached type. If you are, then why on earth would you want to cause such distress to yourself?
The ugly truth is that you’ll get used to the absence of your family and friends — which does not mean they will be out of your life. Skype helps and, believe it or not, it might even bring you closer to your parents. Yes, you read that right. I talk a lot more to my mother nowadays than when we used to live under the same roof.
You will learn that most friendships are circumstantial. Most of them only last as long the both of you share a certain space or situation. We grow apart from most of our high school and college friends, for example. Rest assured you’ll make new friends in your new country and, more aware of the fact that people come and go, you’ll learn to be less attached to them. You will also learn to be alone, in case you can’t do that yet.
However, I must warn you: most friends you’ll make will be fellow foreigners. That is only normal, after all you are both in a similar situation. Since both of you are away from your families and cultures, those friendships tend to become quite intense. But expats are always leaving, whether because they graduate or because they get a job offer elsewhere or simply because they feel like it. When you least expect it, BAM, your friends leave. I often joke that expat life is an accelerated version of normal life: eventually, everybody leaves, but with us the wheel just spins faster.
Missing certain foods will not be an issue, either. Brazilian food is great, but people in other countries also know how to make a delicious meal. Nobody dies without tropical fruit and you’ll eventually get used to your new eating habits. Depending on where you go, you can always run to the nearest Brazilian shop to satisfy your cravings.
Long story short: missing your home country will only kill you if you’re not open to new experiences.
4. Being different all the time sucks sometimes
Suppose you speak fluent, near native English and you’re moving to a country where English is the official language. If you expect to pass for a local, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you will not. Not for long. It doesn’t matter if you have the best accent in the world, at some point something will reveal you. Somebody will refer to a lullaby you never heard as a kid or an old TV show that wasn’t exported or a celebrity you’ve never heard of or a slang that is so specific you haven’t seen in the movies. Mastering a language does not mean mastering a culture, simply because you lack all the references.
If you’re crazy enough to move to a country whose language you don’t speak, like me, expect things to be even harder. In Hungary, I lived in a bubble of expats, since I didn’t plan on staying there forever and, as Brazilian writer Chico Buarque once wrote, Hungarian is the only language the devil respects. Every time I left my bubble to go to the supermarket or the post office and met people who did not speak a word of English, I felt like an idiot.
Later on, in the Netherlands, I had to learn Dutch from scratch. OK, everyone here speaks good English, so I was never incommunicable (a precondition for me to consider staying here in the long run, actually). But English is not the language of the streets, the TV and newspapers. If I want to participate in society, I simply have to learn Dutch. However, no matter how dedicated you are, you can’t learn a language overnight. It is a long process, during which you’ll feel like an idiot countless times.
Today, I have a good command of the Dutch language. I understand about 80% of what people say around me and I can express myself reasonably. I can sort things out in the bank and declare taxes. However, not without making a grammatical mistake here and there or without saying sentences that are grammatically correct, but sound a bit weird to the natives.
Not being able to fully express yourself is one of the most frustrating feelings you’ll ever get. Wanting to say something but not finding the word. Having the desired word coming in 479 other languages in your head, except the one you need. Making your sentence take a thousand turns to translate a rather simple idea, for lack of better vocabulary. Being able to answer a question, but taking a bit longer than a native would to reply and then the person you’re talking to switches to English because they assume your level is not good enough. All these things happen to me on a daily basis. Of course it affects my relationships. I’m constantly reminded I am not one of them.
The difference is not only evident in the way I speak, but also in my face (although the Netherlands are one of the most multicultural countries in Europe, the stereotypical Dutch person remains tall, blonde and blue-eyed). People can see, perhaps right away, that I’m not from here. It’s also evident in the way I think, feel and react to certain things, from the way I wash my dishes (Dutch people fill the sink with water before doing anything — I love telling this to Brazilians and watching them cringe!) to the way I talk to my boss (he once gave me a negative evaluation, saying I should… Be less passive and criticize him more often. Now, imagine a Brazilian boss ever saying that!)
Although discovering a new world and its codes is interesting and fun (I moved abroad to solve this huge puzzle after all), sometimes it wears you out. Sometimes all you wish for is to be somewhere where everyone understands you and you understand everyone. Not having to make any effort. That, my friends, is the thing you’ll miss the most.
There has been a time in elementary school when I was bullied. For as bad as it was, I knew I wouldn’t be at school the whole day. There were other places in which I didn’t feel so different. Today, though, I have no time off. I am different 24 hours a day, and I must suck it up and deal with it.
5. You will be a victim of prejudice
If you’re white, heterosexual, middle class and educated, like me, you are not used to being a victim of prejudice in Brazil. OK, I am a woman and I can be a victim of sexism — but, apart from that, all other doors are open for me in Brazil. People automatically treat me well. Needless to say that’s not always the case when you’re abroad. To start, here I am not considered white. You probably won’t, either. Whiteness is such a complex concept in Brazil, but let’s leave that for another article.
There isn’t a day in which I open the newspaper and don’t see at least one columnist saying that the Netherlands are “full” and it needs to tight up their immigration laws even more. Although the privileges mentioned above do help me here as well (it’s better to be a highly skilled “expat” than an unskilled or fleeing “immigrant”), some people will not hesitate to show me I’m not exactly welcome. You’ll need to develop a thicker skin to deal with that.
Some Dutch people seem to expect foreigners to get rid of any possible trace of their country of origin, behaving like ventriloquists of Dutch culture, but as I said before we will never be one of them — and they know that. Xenophobes will never admit foreigners to be equal, but they want us to try nevertheless. Fortunately, elementary school has taught me that trying to please bullies never pays off.
You will need to constantly hold your head high, which is not always easy. Sometimes prejudice does affect you. Every so often, I must remind myself that I’m learning Dutch because I want to, I find the language interesting, it enriches my experience here, and it helps me to connect with my boyfriend and his family. Not because some random person was rude with me when they noticed I didn’t speak Dutch perfectly. If I don’t impose myself the obligation to please every single Brazilian person I encounter, why would I do that with the Dutch? I cannot please everyone. Never could, never will.
Basically, you will exchange a country with problems for a country where YOU are perceived as the problem. Such fall, such loss of privilege makes you more aware of people that do not even need to leave their home country to be treated that way.
Dealing with eventual xenophobes is, however, the easiest part. The worst part of prejudice is bureaucracy. If you don’t have an European passport, prepare to live in a Kafkaesque world, where immigration laws are always changing — after all, those populist politicians who are so trendy right now need to keep their promises to the voters that believe foreigners must be kept out. Do expect an ever growing amount of requirements to be able to renew your visas.
Are you ready to go through all of these things? Well, actually no one is. This is one of those things you can only learn by doing, by feeling your way in the dark. You never know what awaits you on the other side, so the best thing to do is not to be overly romantic. If you dream of moving abroad to flee from problems, reconsider. Everyone has problems all around the world. Just because some are so-called first world problems, it doesn’t mean they will not hurt you. But if you enjoy a nice big puzzle, have fun. It’s totally worth it. I would do it all over again and I wouldn’t do it any other way.