Eleven months ago, after four years of living in the paradise of Perth, Australia, I decided to undertake what would be the greatest challenge of my life—moving to Brazil.
In my brief 29 years on this planet, I have been fortunate to live in many places around the world after growing up in Ohio. I lived in Los Angeles, Dublin, London, did my Master’s in Sydney and then moved to Perth, where I ended up staying to work in the field of international education. For years I gave advice to students going overseas about culture shock, homesickness, challenges and what to expect. So, I should be a pro about picking up and starting over in a new country myself, right?
In all of my new beginnings, I found myself going through the same four stages of life as an expat. Even when I knew it was coming, I couldn’t prevent it.
But these feelings were even more heightened when I quit my dream job and decided to live for the first time in a country that didn’t speak my language.
And that is something I recommend to everyone.
Stage 1: The Honeymoon – I chose the city of Curitiba. People told me this place was “Brazil for Beginners” because it is quite European, relatively organized and safe. Whether or not that is true, I arrived super excited, a little bit nervous and really eager to learn Portuguese. It also helped that my boyfriend was Brazilian.
We found an apartment, waited for the arrival of my dog who was flying several weeks after me, and I signed up for Portuguese classes. I was posting pictures of my new city on Facebook like crazy.
“Wow, Sara, you are so adventurous!”
“You have the life I could only dream about!”
“Brazil is so exotic! Good for you!”
Everyone was asking about it.
Then I joined all the expat groups on Facebook. Time to make new friends.
I organized coffees, drinks and meetups with other foreigners even though they were a little bit older than me. It was still nice to talk to someone with a similar cultural background and get their advice.
Stage 2: Homesickness – When this stage hits, it can happen at any given time. In some places I moved to, it happened really fast; in others, it took a little longer. In Brazil, it happened to me pretty quickly—maybe after one month. I realized life here was not as easy as it had been in Australia. Things that seemed so obvious and easy were much more complicated and frustrating, such as opening a bank account, getting a CPF number (Brazilian tax number), getting my ID, etc. Even though I had a permanent visa, it took three months before I could get all of this. In Australia, I opened a bank account online before I moved there and just signed the paper when I arrived. In Brazil, I felt like I had to prove everything. Prove my address, prove my identity, prove my name, prove my life! And I was always missing one proof or another, so whatever I was trying to do just could not be done at this time.
I also made the mistake of shipping eight boxes—all my life—from Australia to Brazil. I paid a fortune to ship these used goods that had no monetary value but all the sentimental value in the world to me. And then I paid even more than that to Brazilian customs when they arrived.
And then the boxes sat in customs for six months…
The worst part was that I could not do anything by myself because of my language limitations. My boyfriend had to do everything, and this caused him a lot of stress and myself a lot of anguish. Never before had I been so dependent.
So I started to feel homesick. People stopped asking how things were going all the time. I was sick of Portuguese and frustrated. And I missed things.
I missed being able to pick up the phone or drop into the bank to solve something in five minutes. I missed ingredients for my recipes that were not available in Brazil. I got tired of seeing rice and beans everywhere. I missed the support of my family or friends; I found it really hard to meet expats in Curitiba who were my age and shared all my interests. And I worked from home, so I had no coffee buddies, meetings (which I used to complain about) and social opportunities. If I didn’t bring my dog, I can’t even imagine how lonely I would have been.
And part of the problem for me was that I kept comparing everything to my experiences moving to other places or how things work in my own country.
“Welcome to the jungle,” was what my boyfriend always said, and I realized there is no better thing you can do to prepare for life abroad than to open your mind and stop comparing.
Stage 3: Coping – You cannot compare countries. If you do, you will be very disappointed to see that not everything works the same, nor should it. That would actually be very boring. Part of the fun is discovering why things work the way they do. That’s what makes the experience!
So what did I do? I enrolled in intensive Portuguese—seven weeks, three hours a day. I was around other foreigners from all over the world. I started to have a social circle. I was out of the house at least for part of the day.
I made an effort to call or Skype at least one person from my family and one friend each week. I started spending more time with my dog at the park and practiced Portuguese with the other dog owners (I now know all the dog vocabulary).
Basically, I had to force myself to do all the things that I had never done before in an English-speaking country and figure out a system that worked best for me.
Stage 4: Acceptance – I think after 11 months, I have gotten here finally. I can start thinking about spending several years in Brazil. My Portuguese is improving. I can understand what people are saying generally even if I am still not quick at responding or know the correct verb conjugation.
And I have accepted that no matter where I go in the world, no matter how beautiful, amazing, safe, fun and crazy a place is, it will never be home, and there will always be days where I miss that familiarity and simplicity. No matter what.
So you just have to take it day by day.
I’m sure I will look back on this experience in Brazil and say it was the time in my life where I grew the most and learned the most about myself—even though I thought I knew myself completely and was done growing already.
I understand that not everyone has the same sense of adventure or even faces the same opportunities, but if something does come up, I highly recommend going abroad to everyone—because what’s the worst that could happen?
And like I always say, if you get a story out of it, then it was all worth it.