August 2, 2011

This week in our continuing Foreigners Through Brazilian Eyes series we have an interview with Rebecca Carvalho. Read on as Rebecca tells us about her impressions of foreigners, and gives some helpful advice also.

1. Where are you from in Brazil and what do you do?

My name is Rebecca Carvalho, I’m from Recife, PE, and I’ve graduated from Lawrence University, WI, with a B.A in English. I currently live in Palo Alto, CA, and work as a freelance journalist and novelist. Last fall I contributed to a war memory anthology, Operation Legacy. This project was an initiative of the NGO Old Glory Honor Flight, which flies WWII veterans to Washington D.C. to visit the memorials. The money raised from selling this book will help keep this opportunity possible. My work, along with other volunteers, was to interview a war veteran. The transcription of that interview is now part of the anthology.

2. What are the main obstacles for foreigners in Brazil?

I wouldn’t call it obstacle, but perhaps the main challenge a foreigner would face in Brazil is the language. That applies to anybody interested in visiting a foreign place. Even when you already have a good grasp of the language and the culture of a certain state, slang and cultural in-jokes will definitely leave a foreigner confused and frustrated to some extent. Also, there are expressions one speaks in a certain language that the literal translation does not exist in Portuguese (and vice-versa). Although communicating can be frustrating, I suggest foreigners to rely on asking and observing.

3. What are common mistakes that foreigners make in Brazil?

I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but all foreigners in general often show a high level of confidence when visiting a new place. At home we are very careful and aware of the dangers, for instance, of walking on the street alone at a certain time. When we are abroad, however, our excitement steals our sense of self-preservation. It is good to be excited and open when traveling abroad, but my biggest advice to any foreigner is to be always careful and, perhaps, to immerse in reading the news from that destination a month or so prior to visiting it.

4. What characteristic of other nationalities strikes you as the most different (eg. sense of humour, formality, dress)?

I do not like to reinforce stereotypes. I believe every person is different, no matter where he / she is coming from. I will speak, then, for myself. I would say, humbly, that based on my narrow experience I got the impression that Americans are very careful with their time. For instance, while most of us in Brazil sit down for at least an hour during lunch, most Americans I met would prefer to have a sandwich while doing work or during a meeting. One shouldn’t approach this from a who’s right / wrong?” perspective, because the amount of time one devotes to a certain meal is just a cultural and personal decision.

5. Which English accent do you prefer and why (eg. Scottish, American, Australian)?

Perhaps the American accent with all its variations, because I am already used to it.

6. Favourite place travelled abroad and why?

I think my favorite place will always be Washington D.C. because it was the first place I’ve been to in the U.S. and because of the memories. The first time I came to the United States was in 2007 as a member of the Youth Ambassadors program, which is an initiative of the U.S. Embassy in Brazil. We were 25 high school students interested in volunteering and youth activism, and the YA program was the first opportunity we had until then to know that we had a voice and that there were people interested in hearing our ideas. In D.C. we gave speeches at high schools, met with congressmen, with diplomats, with the former First Lady, Laura Bush. We visited the memorials and other places, and even had a chance to go inside the White House. It was a great opportunity and the memories of that trip will always keep D.C. as this extraordinary place I will always respect.

7. Favourite foreign food?

I love french toast and pancakes, and everything that is sweet. Perhaps pancakes aren’t that uncommon in Brazil, but they are definitely foreign to my family.

8. Favourite foreign band, book and movie?

I don’t think I have a favorite band, but I often listen to the work of composers like James Horner and Alexandre Desplat. My favorite book will always be the Diary of Anne Frank, which changed my life and a book I bring with me wherever I go. My favorite movie at the moment is Mary & Max, which is an adorable Australian claymation feature.

9. What is the difference between dating a Brazilian and Foreigner (if this applies to you or perhaps a friend)?

Not answered.

10. Can you share an incident, misunderstanding or ‘culture shock’ that you have experienced with a foreigner?

This is a story that will definitely make two of my friends mad if they ever hear I am telling it to you. For literary purposes, and for the sake of my neck, I will simply call my friends T and M, who are respectively from Bangladesh and from Burma. It was our second week, I think, at Lawrence University and we still needed certain things to help us better adjust to our new rooms and to life abroad in general. We, then, decided to go to a nearby mall, but we had no idea how to get there. We had been there with the other international students a week earlier, but with the help of a bus rented to drive us around during Welcome Week. At the bus station a friendly lady helped us figure out which bus we were supposed to take. We took the bus and stepped out at a certain destination.

We soon realized that all places in the United States sort of looked the same, and that the market place was not the mall we were looking for. What to do? We decided to walk to the mall. The idea was to continue walking the way our bus had gone, and nothing would go wrong, correct? We walked in line by the road for an hour. It was a windy day, our jackets were too thin, and we could barely hear each other because of the noise of the cars nearby and the wind that was always blowing our words away. T was in front of me, so I had to yell to her that we were not supposed to be walking by the road. She would yell “why?” back, and whatever I explained wouldn’t reach her ears. M, doing her best to follow us, looked uncertain throughout the whole journey, but she was too polite to complain. We walked and walked, and couldn’t find the mall. We were deciding what to do when a police car reached us. “Oh no, see… I told you we were not supposed to be here,” I whispered to T.

The police officer was a very nice lady ready to help. We told her our dilemma, and she was kind enough to offer us a ride to the mall, which turned out to be a block away from where we had given up our goal (a good moral lesson, I suppose). The drive to the mall was very interesting. We told her that we were international students and talked about our countries until we got to the mall. M, sitting next to me, looked mortified. “This is a police car,” she whispered to me, and I realized that although we weren’t criminals, perhaps she was feeling guilty through osmosis.

At the end of the day, when we were safe at Lawrence University, we swore to never tell this story to others. It was way too embarrassing. But I think it was an adventure worth talking about… now that I am miles away from my friends and safe from the retaliation that might come if they hear I am spreading this story to the rest of the world through Gringoes.

11. What are 2 things you would recommend for a visitor to do in Brazil to better understand Brazilian people and their culture?

The best way to understand the Brazilian people and our culture is to be around Brazilians. Most Brazilians are extremely open to foreigners and ready to show their understanding of the culture. Enjoy the opportunity to talk with them even if you barely understand the language. I would also recommend to read more news about the destination you’ll be visiting prior to your trip and to watch more Brazilian TV shows. When I moved to the U.S. I was sorry that I had not thought about immersing myself in the culture before I traveled. One can actually learn a lot about the worries, the beliefs, the frustrations of a certain place from simply reading the news and even from trivial TV shows they produce.

My email address is I also kept a blog during my years at Lawrence University to describe my experiences abroad.

Feel free to read and to contact me.

If you are Brazilian, or know a Brazilian, who has traveled abroad or has considerable experience with different nationalities here in Brazil, we would like to hear from you. Please send an email with contact details and a brief description of yourself to

To read previous interviews in the Brazil Through Foreign Eyes series click below:

Augusto Uehara
Ana da Silva
Daniel Bertorelli
Marco Cassol
Ana Clark
Vanessa Agricola
Ubiratan S. Malta
Brescia Terra
Renata Andraus
Ana Vitoria Joly
Helio Araujo
Adriano Abila
Anderson Ferreira
Sandra Partridge
Samara Klug Szachnowicz
Flavius Ferrari
Daniela Ribeiro
Adriano Gomes
Elizabeth Sacknus
Geberson Coelho
Rosaly Loula
Andreas Saller
Elvis Renato Barbosa Lima
Bruno Santos
Maria Cecilia Schmidt Maluf
Marta Dalla Chiesa
Cludia Ramis De Almeida
Vivian Manasse Teixeira Leite
Fernando Saffi
Gabriela Kluppel
Patrcia C. Ribeiro
Fabiano Deffenti

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