‘Sampa’ on My Mind — The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Following Your Dream

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Sao Paulo Skyline
Sao Paulo Skyline

It’s been almost a dozen years since I read an article posted by a journalistic friend of mine, whose name is John Fitzpatrick, about looking for gainful employment in Brazil (“For Job Seekers Brazil Is No El Dorado”).

By sheer coincidence, I, too, had followed a similar career path as outlined in that piece, but with very different results. My experiences of living and working in a foreign land, which I wrote about extensively in a series of blog posts entitled “How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story,” have hopefully shed some needed light on this much neglected area, one that seems to be perpetually shrouded in mystery and misinformation.

Since so many people have asked me throughout the years how I got into the teaching profession, I decided to give readers a little background history — to fill in the blanks, so to speak — of what brought me to Brazil, and then back again to the USA.

Another reason for my doing this was to relive that eye-opening experience, not so much as a nostalgia trip down memory lane but more in the light of what I subsequently learned about the country and the teaching profession.

To begin with, I’m a naturalized American citizen, born in Brazil, who came to America as a small child back in 1959. I was raised in New York City, attended its public schools, graduated from a private university (several in fact), and worked there for most of my adult life. After many frustrating years in the financial sector, and certainly after the birth of my daughters, I was determined to leave the hustle and bustle of inner-city life to embark on a new career path. And after giving it a lot of thought, I immigrated with my wife and family back to the mother country.

In his original piece, John Fitzpatrick gave some excellent advice about learning Portuguese, which was absolutely essential back then and just as practical today. So let me repeat his sane advice: if you are planning to live anywhere in Brazil, do not expect to subsist on your high-school foreign language skills alone. You will not make yourself understood and, most emphatically, you will offend many Brazilians by attempting to converse in a language that does not pertain to their culture. It is imperative that you have a decent command of Portuguese, or you will be left in the competitive lurch. That means no Spanish, please! English will do, and you will find lots of friendly and curious Brazilians to chat with — but keep in mind that not everybody speaks English. Luckily, I still spoke enough Portuguese to get around, but that’s not always the case.

I left New York for São Paulo (or “Sampa”) in 1996, and spent the next four and a half years living and working in the southern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Big Apple. And believe me, it is a REALLY BIG APPLE! In fact, Sampa was, and continues to be, the largest urban center in all of Latin America! I happened to fit into the category of a professional who went to Brazil with no job prospects and with a spouse and two children in tow. We were luckier than most adventure seekers, because we had my wife’s family to help us during this transition period. In addition, we bought our apartment, out of which I gave lessons in English as a Foreign Language.

I obtained my carteira de trabalho (work permit), permanent residency, and CPF (a document used for financial transactions) without too much trouble — again, I have to underscore the fact that I was luckier than most immigrants in that respect, who, like the general population, are “treated like dirt” by most Brazilian agencies. It’s just an inescapable fact of life there (and in many places in the Third World) that one’s rights get constantly trampled on. So the quicker you get used to poor treatment, the better off you will be. Then again, maybe not…

Before my move, I prepared myself for the transition by spending two years in pursuit of a teaching certificate at the New School for Social Research (now called the New School University) in Manhattan. I was taught by some of the best teachers in the business, people with master’s degrees and PhD’s from such places as NYU, Columbia, Cambridge, and the like. I passed my course work and was highly commended for my efforts by all my teachers. Naturally, one would assume this kind of background, along with my Wall Street experience, would have entitled me to “streets paved with gold” in Sampa. Not so.

The hazards of job hunting and just plain surviving in the Big Abacaxi (“Pineapple”), as I sometimes refer to it, were many. For me, São Paulo was a merciless environment for a novice job seeker such as myself. At the beginning of my teaching career, I had only a few students at home. It was a start, but in no way did it cover our living expenses. So in order to supplement my meager earnings, and to pay for my ever increasing light, phone, gas, energy, food, school, and health insurance bills, I had to seek some type of full-time employment outside of my residence.

This was easier said than done. Although I interviewed for, and obtained entry into, Cultura Inglesa, one of the better-known (and better-run) English language schools in the country, imagine my surprise and dismay when I was told I would have to undergo a two-month training program (unremunerated, of course) — especially after having completed TWO YEARS of training in New York, and at my own personal expense!

Besides the humiliation of having to prove myself all over again, and despite my having a teaching certificate from an accredited North American university, I gamely plugged on. I was even admitted into another teacher training program at the Alumni School in the Morumbi neighborhood. My luck was starting to change for the better, or so I thought.

Teacher for Two Days

Cultura Inglesa banner
Cultura Inglesa banner

Unfortunately, I couldn’t handle the added stress and travel of “training” in two places at once, so I dropped out of Alumni (which was well nigh impossible to get to) and opted to teach at Cultura Inglesa instead. After completing their training program (an excellent one, I must say), I waited a month and a half before I was assigned to a local branch in my own neighborhood. Sounds great, right? No, not really. I was told the hourly wage at the time was a miserable $7 reais an hour (around $5.00 dollars, give or take), with an additional $2 reais for expenses. Now THAT was a shock to the system.

I quickly realized, to my horror, that I had wasted three and a half months of valuable job search time in a fruitless pursuit of permanent employment, and with an entity that was paying paltry starvation wages. I also learned, much to my chagrin, that teachers of English were a dime a dozen in São Paulo, many of them lacking even the most basic teaching skills. So much for advanced planning!

I abruptly left Cultura after only two days of teaching and went looking for other opportunities in the classified pages of the local newspapers. As has been pointed out on previous occasions, São Paulo is not North America (neither is Europe, for that matter) when it comes to finding work through want ads. Networking with relatives, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues is the preferred and more results-oriented method, by far.

Again, I lucked out, and through a want ad in the Estadão newspaper, I was able to secure a teaching/consulting position with a multinational accounting firm in downtown São Paulo. The salary was about $30 reais an hour (around $20 dollars) and I enjoyed the challenge of teaching adult learners rather than inattentive school-age kids. So far, so good!

However, I soon discovered that all good things come to a rapid end. When the Brazilian economy started to sputter and spin out of control in 1998, I lost more students than I had gained; ergo, I was forced to find additional work elsewhere. One soon learns that in Brazil an English teacher never just “teaches.” He or she must adapt to the ever-changing circumstances and seek out odd jobs (called bicos) wherever and whenever they can be found in order to survive.

After heavy word of mouth, I was able to provide translation work for several companies, in addition to doing work for a teaching colleague at Home Box Office (HBO) of Brazil. With that, I got into the subtitling/dubbing sideline, thanks to her, and had even urged my wife to get involved in the work. She took the HBO course, a course that despite numerous guarantees led nowhere because of the recession.

HBO Logo
HBO Logo

In point of fact, the HBO work was scattershot at best. Sometimes, I would get two or three films to work on, other times I would get nothing for weeks on end. When I did get work, I would spend my days, nights, and weekends at the computer terminal, away from family, friends, and relatives, while I was busily involved in the art of transcribing, a prolonged and fairly laborious process. The salary was decent enough, but I still needed to teach to pay the bills, plus I wanted a less ephemeral and time-consuming occupation to deal with.

This was not to be. When the HBO work eventually dried up due to the devaluation of the real and the still stagnant Brazilian economy, I hooked up in 1999 with another colleague who was a full-time lawyer and EFL teacher, and started teaching mini-courses for her students. I would serve as a substitute teacher for when my colleague traveled. I was even able to teach my own courses, which I had developed based on the American legal system — I had been a certified litigation paralegal in the U.S. for several years, which came in handy.

While these courses were reasonably successful as far as student satisfaction was concerned, there was no monetary profit to them. The continued bleak outlook for the economy, the rising crime and unemployment rates, and the loss of more and more of my students due to economic hardships, forced me to face the consequences and my own ever-mounting personal financial problems.

One good thing did come out of all this tribulation: I started to write to occupy my mind. First it was lesson planning — dozens upon dozens of them; next, it was movie reviews, followed by plans to use movies in English language lessons, and so on. Much of the work I did during those testing times were expanded into full-fledged teaching lessons, or better into articles and pieces that, until the present day, I continue to develop into blog posts such as the one you’re reading now.

Before I packed up my belongings and made the move to Brazil, I had already acquired an extensive video, CD, LP record, tape cassette, and movie collection. But it didn’t stop there, because during those long breaks between teaching sessions in Sampa I continued to scour the stores of whatever shopping mall I happened to run across in a constant and never-ending search for new additions to my collection. Again, it was a way of keeping my mind off money troubles.

I also learned more about Brazilian culture and music than I had ever known. When I came back to the U.S., I wanted to express this newfound knowledge in my writings. That’s one of the goals I had set for myself when the decision to return to America was ultimately made. I can say, too, with complete satisfaction, that I had met that goal.

Time to Go Back

Downtown Raleigh, NC
Downtown Raleigh, NC

My decision to return to the U.S., and start afresh in the State of North Carolina, was an extremely painful and heart-rending one, but one I resolutely made with my family in the hope of securing steadier employment and a more secure foothold than I could ever have in Brazil. Our relatives offered to help us through our difficulties, but I could no longer impose upon their generosity. Besides, I had my own children’s future to worry about.

Reluctantly, but with much optimism, we left São Paulo in January 2001. Since then, I have worked for three different companies here, some better and some worse than the ones I worked for in New York. I was even laid off from one of them due to downsizing (welcome to the U.S.A. reality!), but quickly found another position.

North Carolina, and especially the surrounding Research Triangle Park area, is a constantly expanding and vital center of business activity. It is well-known for its medical, pharmaceutical, research, and university facilities as well.

With this in mind, I think my family and I chose wisely. Without a doubt, we are better off today than we were in São Paulo. But as the saying goes, everything is a tradeoff. There is no gain without the pain. If most things are “better,” there is also much that is worse than either New York City or Sampa. It’s that fact of life again, intruding upon one’s dreams. You can’t have it all, no matter what the know-it-alls tell you. Life is difficult wherever you go — I say this not to dissuade anyone from the challenge, but to put things in perspective. I took a chance, and gave it my best shot. Unfortunately, my best was not good enough, but I learned from my mistakes and expect to do better in the long run.

All told, I tried hard to make a go at teaching English in Brazil. But no matter how many new students I found, I would inevitably be forced to look for new ones, or find new opportunities, new lines of work, just to make ends meet. This was the sad, hard, and unmentioned reality of teaching English in Brazil. I don’t mean to discourage aspirants or potential thrill seekers from doing what they love best, but I sure wish I had someone to point these things out to me BEFORE I made the decision to move to São Paulo.

Still, it was a most remarkable learning experience, and one I heartily recommend to young and single persons with the requisite courage, patience, flexibility, and stamina for the teaching lifestyle. If sometime in your life you decide to take the plunge, know that teaching English in Brazil has its own rewards, despite the many downsides of the profession. The work schedule is busy and lengthy enough to test the mettle of only the fittest of teaching souls. That’s part of the fun! But I’m sure you know that.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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