Expat stories

From Brazil To The United States

Nina Zambrano moved from Brazil to The United States almost 10 years ago. Her openness, and friendly manner, made me feel like I have known her for ever! She was so engaging, I continued chatting with her for a couple of hours after the interview ended. She had several interesting insights and fun observations about living in New York, about cultural differences, language and food.

Nina grew up in Sao Paulo and then moved to The United States Of America. Her parents and grandparents were from several different races- she is of Italian, French, African and Russian descent! Adding to that, Nina has traveled across the world and has experiences from various countries, which made it a real treat to talk to her on her points of view of moving from Brazil to The United States.

Brazil to The United States


Tara: Can you tell us a little bit about the languages you speak in Brazil and what languages do you speak here?

Nina: In Brazil we speak Portuguese, well a kind of Portuguese. Like, if we try to understand Portuguese from Portugal, we can’t understand. We understand something, but the slangs get mixed up. It is a different dialect. And here we speak mostly English. But at home (with the husband) we speak Portuguese.  It is getting messed up, mixed up. There are things that we cannot communicate with in Portuguese, like things that we learn after we came her, we don’t have words in Portuguese to explain that. So sometimes we get a little bit of both worlds mixed up.

Tara: Did you speak Spanish at all, or did you not have to know it growing up?

Nina: No it is not a default thing. It is kind of strange, cause we are the only country in South America, that speaks Portuguese. It was basically colonized by Portugal and not by the Spaniards. But ya! We can understand a little but, because the root is the same- Latin root, but we can’t speak back. We can try to fool a Spaniard or Argentinian. It’s funny because, it’s easier to communicate and understand Spanish from Spain, than it is to try to understand Spanish from Argentina or Chilie.  Because it’s Castellano, it’s just like Portuguese, it’s a dialect from Spanish. So I can understand Spanish from Spain, Catalan, that is like Spanish and Portuguese mixed up or Basco that is Spanish with French mixed up. In Castellano they speak so much fast and it is so much slang, that you get ( confused.)

Tara: It must have been difficult for you here. Did you speak English before?

Nina: We start to have like English, not really like a second language, but an elective (of sorts.) Unlike ( how) they do in Scandinavian ( countries) , because otherwise we cannot understand a blah of what they say! They ( in Brazil)  usually, in public schools, they have, as an added bonus, to introduce everybody to English. But besides (what) they teach in public school, no ( English.) I had the ear training because I listen, used to listen to and still listen to too much music and they sing in English. I was a real nerd and compared lyrics, so my ear was trained. I could understand and did not have the fluency to talk back. So when I came here, I could do everything- read, do everything but I couldn’t speak. I could understand but couldn’t speak. I ended up, in the first three to four year, I kind of felt like a mute. Because you understand, but every time I try to speak something, I feel like a monkey trying to speak back. ( laughs)

Tara: It’s better now.

Nina: Yes it is. But I still get flustered. More because I try to communicate what I want than understanding sometimes.

Tara: Probably because you are still thinking in Portuguese and translating into English.

Nina: It’s impossible to take of.

On Visiting Brazil

Tara: In terms of “taking off,” ( or changing) what do you feel is one thing that is very different from Brazil versus the life here.

Nina said that being Brazilian she found it strange to be able to walk freely on the city’s streets and to be out late without a worry. In Brazil when she walks on the city streets, she is always afraid of being assaulted, robbed or pick pocketed. Even today, on returning to The United States, after a visit to Brazil, she is nervous and is hyper aware of people in her surrounding. In the same lines, when she goes to visit Brazil her brother has to remind her to carry her backpack in front, to keep it safe!

Nina, suggests that it is better not to take pictures with one’s phone, when in Brazil. She also suggests leaving expensive jewelry at home, and not take a laptop to a coffee shop to work. If you do take a camera or expensive article out, Nina suggests being a hundred percent aware. Always!

She is not sure why that is, she laughs and puts it off by saying, ” The Brazilian is a weird animal!”

On Different Cultures In Brazil

Tara: Where similarities are concerned, I hear there is a lot of diversity in Brazil. There are large Asian settlements in South America. Did that make a difference in your upbringing?

Nina: I am not sure it made much of a difference. Because I got (was exposed to) the second or third generation ( of the immigrants.) The settlement was made in 1950s when they have the war there. So I got (to meet) the children and grand children of them. So they were basically already Brazilian. But you still get some. My best friend from Brazil, is of Japanese descent. Was with her family that I learned, eat with chopsticks and try to eat like (different food.)

Tara: Sushi

Nina: No, they tried “( to get me to eat it.) But as a Brazalian, I get like, “Noooo.”
But they tried, lot of smoked fish. Not exactly cooked in smoke, but sushi smoked. It’s different and I get to try that. Then  I started to eat fish, not that Brazilians don’t eat fish, but being from the mountains, like me, we do not have access to fresh sea food.

Tara: Since you have traveled to Japan, and eaten there, did the Japanese change the way they cooked in Brazil, or did they keep their Asian traditions of cooking and eating?

Nina: It is completely different. Even here. If you eat Japanese food here, it is completely different, how they eat.

Nina said that on her trip to Japan, she realized that people had never heard of the California roll. They seemed perplexed with sushi rolls that contains avocado or cream cheese.

Just like in Brazil, we have Japanese food chain, of hot Japanese food but it is completely different.

Cultural exposure

Tara: Since you already had an exposure to different cultures growing up, was it an eye opener to move here?

Nina: I think it was pretty much the same. I think the way my family raised me. I don’t have many Paulistan ( people from São Paulo ) friends here. I know a bunch of people from Rio, Cariocas or people from Brasília. It’s funny, because São Paulo is already a hot spot of people and we have so many people from so many places and they have a huge tech culture there. So we have a bunch of Indians, Chinese coming to work there, that it is kind of a natural thing. I was used to. It was not different for me. Well. People are people. There is no difference.

Tara: What did you know about New York/ America before you moved? Had you traveled to it before.

Nina: What I knew about America, that I searched for, was always related to music. And stuff I saw in movies. I always saw Woody Allen movies so, the New York that I knew was like that, or like Taxi Driver, Colorado was The Shining. That is what you relate to when you are outside the country. My dad was never too fond of United States. He always thought that the culture was not right and it was too material (materialistic).

Nina went on to explain that her dad was not happy with the work ethics in this country, where lives revolve around work. Her dad had worked for a German company in Brazil and he had the European culture for work. You work hard, but you party hard at the same time. This culture she said got embedded in him and landed up rubbing of on her and her brothers.

Having never considered moving to America, unlike many other adolescent Brazilians who wanted to travel to Disney or go shopping in this country, she was content with where she was; at least until she decided to marry her, now, husband, who was already in New York when they decided to get married.

Brazil to The United States

On Living In New York – Life, Transport, Shopping, Medicine & More

Tara: Do you remember your first few minutes or days here in New York?

Nina: I had a bit of a panic attack. São Paulo is big, but geographically big. So things are more spread out. So if it’s too many people, you turn the corner and find a coffee shop that is more empty, that you can sit and relax.
But here there are lights- poof, poof, poof, poof. Then the sea of people walking.
I remember the first day, when Diego ( her husband) went to pick me up at JFK, on the way back ( to Brooklyn) he asked the taxi driver to drive through Time Square, because he thought it would be cool. I was just like a crazy dog panting, in the car. What is this madness? ( Laughs) I got used to now.

Tara: A quiet city is something you left behind, is there anything else you left behind?

Nina: I think I was a little bit active in Brazil. Possibly cause I was already working. But that was probably because in Brazil you use a car to do whatever, but here you walk.

We both agree the walking is an effect of living in New York City. Had we been in any other part of the country, including parts of New York State, it would have been different.

Nina says that being able to walk freely and not needing a car is one of the things that made living and adapting to life here, easier.

Nina: People now a days say that the public transport here, the MTA is shitty. But it’s a shitty that works people!!
Try to use the subway in Brazil, a subway that does not go any where. Here we say, “The trains are late by 5 minutes.” People! Please you have a train coming! You have a thing shining saying the train is coming in two or five minutes late. Whatt??!! ( laughs )

I agree and applaud that her reaction is the same as mine. We are so grateful to have such a well connected subway system in New York, compared to what we have in our respective countries.

Tara: What difficulties do you face on a day to day basics, living here, versus growing up.

Nina: I don’t think it’s much. I thought living here was an upgrade. I still can’t see anything bad, when I compare. The only thing that freaks me out is that any person that you look at can be carrying a gun. That is too foreign to me. You can actively go and buy. That is foreign. In Brazil, if you have guns you are either police or you are assaulting a bank. (laughs)

Tara: So you feel at home.

Nina: Yes. Not so foreign. Sometimes Americans can be very cold, compared to Brazilians. Because Brazilians they spread their lives in front of you. Like when you meet a Brazilian, you feel like you (have) known (them) your whole life. And Americans are more reserved. And sometime I can’t read (the signs.) Like if a Brazilian is happy you just look at him, “Oh he is happy! That’s nice.” “Oh! He is not so happy. He didn’t like that.” With Americans I can’t read that still. Unless you already have a relationship with that person.

Nina demonstrated how huggy, touchy people in Brazil are and said she had to make massive changes in her behavior to adapt to this way of reserved communication. She was lucky to have colleagues at her work, help her learn to speak. They also helped guide her to what was appropriate body language and what signals can be misunderstood. Nina took it in her stride and said that it was part of adapting to a new country, a new culture.

With respect to adapting to culture, I asked Nina, how shopping for clothes in NYC was different than what she was used to in Brazil. To which her response was that she always disliked going to go to stores in Brazil. But here she is happy with the online purchases and especially being able to make returns right from her apartment.

Adapting to the medical culture here too, took getting used to. Nina initially thought the doctors were ‘cold’ and visits got over way to fast! Now she thinks they are quick, but efficient. She is super happy that doctors keep their appointment times, unlike in Brazil, where her wait to see a doctor is anywhere upto 7 hours, after her given appointment time to be seen by doctors.

Nina:Insurance wise here, if you have insurance it works. You pay, but it works!

Settling Down- Work and Purpose

Tara: What was one thing that made you feel settled and comfortable here?

Nina: I think I finally felt settled when I start to work. Like making my own money. ( Visa restrictions, stopped her from working up until recently.) My husband said, you don’t need to work. If you want to stay home and be a dog mum, that’s fine. We don’t need. But if you need it to fill up (the feeling/longing), that everybody, i think, has inside, you just go and do what you have to do.
I came here in a very privileged way. I did not have to worry about health plans and rent and other things, because he could provide. But I didn’t grow up like that. I am used to work, since I was 15 years old, to have my own stuff. I think that was the most hard thing to adapt. So much that I didn’t adapt. ( laughs)
At first I was excited. Working since I was 15, I was excited. I am going to live the life! Vacation time and what ever.
It is fine the first two years and then you start to get bored, and then you start to think, ‘oh! it’s because I don’t have stuff to do.’ And then you start to do stuff. Not so meaningful stuff, like I went back to dance, I went back to whatever and gym and I don’t know. Then you say, Oh that is not fulfilling and then you say, Oh it’s because I am getting to lonely and have too much time alone and then you get a dog and then you say, no its not the dog. Then you say ok you need the purpose!
I like the routine. Even though it might not be a regular routine. ( Nina is an artist). It feels good. You get things done that is not like home stuff. That is like a side. It (tending to the house) is a job! I agree. But it’s a side job. It is not fulfilling. At least for me it’s not. You have to find something that makes you feel ( complete.)

Tara: Yes definitely. Especially in this culture, where everybody is working. It’s difficult to find people to meet during the day.

Nina: Yes with people that you clicked. Or you start to find people that are not aligned to the way you think. But then it’s not meaningful again.

Brazil to The United States

On Raising A Dog

Tara: Tell me a little bit about Raising a dog in Brooklyn.

Nina: It’s nice. There is a bunch of parks. He seems to love it. Vet doctors here are basically like doctors doctors. It’s crazy! I just wish, they let him in, in more places.

She understands dogs not being allowed into restaurants that make food. But she does not understand having to leave her well trained dog outside, tied to a pole, when she runs into a coffee shop which does not prepare any food. She believes it’s on the owner to keep the dog well groomed and well trained.  She has never treated an animal, like an animal. She ends up treating it like family.

Brazil to The United States
Nina and Mano

Brazilian Food

Tara: What vegetarian Brazilian food can I eat?

Nina: You should definitely try the cheese bread Paō De Queijo, the cheese bread. It’s basically like the French Gougères but is made with sour tapioca flour.

Tara: Where can I find this?

Nina: Usually Brazilian restaurants have. The Brazilian market in queens has them. They make their own. They also have the most popular frozen brand from Brazil that you can pop in the oven before eating.
Other vegetarian– You can have rice and beans.

Tara: But most beans have meat.

Nina: That’s the thing, the restaurants have Feijāo like beans is with meat, we eat that once a week or once every few weeks. But the normal thing is the what my mom used to call the ‘clean Feijāo,’ which is basically the black beans with the spices, without the meat. And Saturdays for the meat. If you go to have a mom’s home cooked meal from Brazil, it’s going to be like rice, beans, couve- its a type of Kale, but is not wavy and crispy like that- like a type of collared greens, then is the hard part, you either go with smashed potato or the meat.
Then there is French toast and all the sweets.

Final words:

Tara: Your words of advice to someone wanting to move to America, from Brazil.

Nina: Come with a purpose! If you can’t work, come with a plan. To improve yourself, to study. Like don’t coming thinking this is a vacation, cause you will end up going back.

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