When I arrived in Brazil in 2009 I had a very difficult time finding an expat network. The only platform in Brazil that I knew which had any real reach back then was the now-defunct Orkut, and it mostly catered to young Brazilians wanting to show off their new haircuts.
My contact with foreigners extended to a friend I knew from New Jersey and anyone I met via work at an English school.
Needless to say, it was rough going. Without anyone to bounce ideas off of, I made some huge mistakes that cost me a lot of time and money.
This could have been avoided had I not been so afraid to accept something that I had grown up believing, “You can do it on your own.” This mindset is what kept me from reaching out to the friends I did have when stormy weather arose.
This is partly cultural.
In The US we are taught early on that being self-sufficient and independent is the pinnacle of human achievement. In many ways, I still believe this, but after a while I allowed Brazil to teach me differently. I opened my heart and my mind and let this country say to me, “You are stupid and you know nothing. Most importantly, you need people.”
Don´t get me wrong. American culture also teaches us that it is okay to ask questions and make errors. But never had I had so many questions and been so wrong on so many occasions about what were seemingly simple things. It wasn´t humbling, it was embarrassing.
As a response, I isolated myself more. I cut my circle of friends down, got into a serious relationship with a Brazilian, and became a homebody. Before I knew it, I had turned non-adventurous, static, and bland.
I stopped writing, singing, traveling, or producing.
In short, I became someone that I wasn´t. This hermitical attitude felt like a reasonable trade-off for not having to deal with the daily frustrations I had encountered in the country.
This changed when I did eventually find other expats via Facebook groups
. I realized quickly that I wasn’t alone in my anger and ennui. The same dumb questions and scenarios that I had run through in my first five years in Brazil were nearly identical to theirs. It did take a long time, but I was eventually able to accept that being an expat was not easy and that one needs a support network they can count on at all times for support of all kinds.
I once again became who I wasn´t: someone who needed a strong arm to hold me up.
Though my upbringing had taught me to stand alone, my reality was teaching me that alone I was bound to fall – and worse, there would be no one there to help me back up when I hit the bottom.
So, what is the lesson in all this?
Well, I meet plenty of new expats who think they have the world figured out. I meet plenty of expats who are afraid to look stupid. I meet plenty of expats who think they can rule the world by their will-power alone. I meet plenty of expats that remind me of who I was.
My message is simple: forget who you were before you arrived in Brazil and become who you aren´t. Allow yourself to be dumbfounded and reach out to others when you feel you truly have no answer. And, most definitely, be shameless.
I will share one last tidbit about the power of shamelessness.
During Brazil´s 2015 financial crisis, I was drowning in debt and losing business clients right and left. I needed money quickly to pay my rent and eat. The “ME” of a few years back would have probably defaulted on the rent and ended up moving into a little room until I got my life in order. However, the “ME WHO I WASN´T” said, “Screw that! I am going to post on Facebook that I need help and money.” It took a lot of courage for me to bare it all for all to see, but, guess what? People helped.
Of course, the catch to all of this is that I have always done my best to help others and show myself as a responsible steward of such help when it comes from others: one hand washes another. Still, it was shocking that people were willing to reach out. It was humbling and illuminating to know that in weakness I found a lot of strength which I gathered from others.
My fellow expat, you have to understand that being in another country is an achievement in itself – we probably all know people who have yet to leave our home towns. That said, it is not an easy task starting a life in a new country. Some of our friends back home don´t understand that and expect us all to have the same level lifestyle, social circles, and mental fortitude as we did in our previous life. Some of us work to try to feed that illusion.
The truth is that the expat reality is quite different and affects us all in a myriad of ways.
I know expats who are doing great but I also know poor expats, depressed expats, homesick expats, and lonely expats. I also know of expats who have taken their own lives – one, as recently as this year. The thread that connects the “good” from the “bad” is that from the outside looking in, many would never be able to differentiate between the “good” and the “bad”.
Perhaps being this open about your struggles is not something you feel comfortable doing with people back home who may not understand the minutiae of daily expat life. In that case, open up to other expats who do know. While many of them love to pretend that everything is alright, there are those who are willing to tell it how it is and help you get to where you need to be.
I end by asking you – “Who aren’t you?”
If you say you aren’t vulnerable, helpless, depressed, lonely, and unprepared (among other qualities most would rather not admit to having) then check yourself.
Real recognizes real and those real friends and acquaintances are what you´ll need to get past the learning curve. Accept failure, defeat, and the unknowable.
Once you are able to lose with confidence, be completely dumbfounded but with pride, and courageously confused, I believe you will start to find new ways of succeeding and thriving as an expat. And not only this, you will be able to extend your success to those around you.
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