Come Closer: Family Life in Brazil

As I start nearly every blog post on here, “I always thought…” my family was close and affectionate. Until I went to Brazil.

My maternal grandparents and great-grandparents, following a typically Italian lifestyle, all lived in the same two townhouses positioned side-by-side in Newark, NJ. Despite seeing each other nearly every other day of the week, they ate dinner together on Sunday, ending with a pretty stereotypical yelling match that closed out with a bunch of kisses and “see you tomorrow”s.

As we got further down the line, my family moved further and further away until my parents opted to move two hours south of where their parents were born and lived. At one point in time, it was a Big Deal to be that far away. The expectation was, of course, to move a few streets over, maybe a few towns. But a whole different part of the state? It was just too far.

And then, of course, I went to Brazil. (Which, I would argue, is actually too far. For me, especially.)

Moving out

The day I met Gustavo was also the day I met one of his cousins. Even before we were dating, extended family was around. Because in Brazil, cousins aren’t really extended. They’re just family.

Gustavo never described himself as someone who was very family-centric, so I assumed he and I had similar relationships with our family. Close enough, and certainly closer with some than others. Yet at some point I realized our descriptions of family life were coming from two very different cultural perspectives.

In Brazil, much like in my Italian family many generations ago, it’s extremely uncommon for adults to move out of the house prior to getting married. I always laugh because Gustavo – always proud to not be “typically” Brazilian – did move out at the young age of 21… a whopping one door down the hallway of his parent’s apartment building.

Personally, despite perpetually “crashing” with my mother over the past few years, I moved out for the first time when I was 18 and started attending college. After, I moved to DC with a bunch of roommates. Then back to NY with some more roommates. And, finally, on my own in Jersey City when I hit 25.

I moved so much in my early twenties that I can no longer count it on my fingers.

Even just watching TV together is part of quality time.

Open-door policy

Once Gustavo and I started dating seriously, I was heart-warmed by his parents’ many invitations to “come over whenever.” I assumed they thought I was homesick and wanted to make me feel as comfortable as possible. What I lost in translation was that, as their son’s namorada (girlfriend), I already had a more significant role in the family than I realized. Basically, I was part of it now.

And may I present reason #256 why Brazilians believe Americans are cold. (Again, we’re not. We’re different. Please believe me.)

I remember once talking with a friend from Brazil who, when I told him I worked from home, asked, “So do your friends drop by all the time because they know you’re home?”

While my immediate and sarcastic response was “What friends?” I explained that, no, people didn’t usually just drop by. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time someone even called me without a buffered “Can I call you?” text first. Boy those three feet of personal space sure have grown over the years.

Then I started staying with Gustavo in Brazil and I realized the question was cultural. At least once a day, someone showed up at our door. To say hi. With a question. To borrow something. To chat. To grab a beer. Particularly and especially family. Because, duh, they’re family!

Quality time

In Brazil, family and friends are one and the same. And, once you’re family, the door is always open. Minha casa é sua casa, so to speak.

So when Gustavo’s parents’ kept reiterating that I should come over whenever, I finally began to grasp that I was failing to do something: namely, actually come over. It wasn’t just a platitude. They really wanted me to participate in the family like any other family member. Participation meant “be present.”

Whenever we visit Gustavo’s parents or if we have a family event together, it’s always the entire family. Aunts and uncles. Cousins. Spouses. Nieces and nephews. In-laws and their family. I counted once: there’s a minimum of at least 14 people any time we get together. (*cue introvert panic everywhere*)

A lot of times, those events are just “coming over.” Often, when we drop by Gustavo’s parents’, various cousins and friends are hanging out, watching TV, and talking. People work so hard during the week, why would they want to be alone and isolated when they’re not working?

For me, with my particular American background, being with family is an event in and of itself that requires both travel and planning. It’s a thing. In Rio, it’s the opposite. Family is paramount and there’s nothing more important than quality time with your family.

Lost in translation

It’s been an adjustment for me because it’s become clear to me that I perceive “alone” time as something different than my Brazilian relatives. Instead, alone time means that I’m away from work or social obligations, rather than literally being alone. (Which, in Brazilian culture, is a weird thing to want anyway.)

It’s led to a gap in expectations that I’m still working on bridging. How do I communicate care when the entire country’s love language is “quality time” and, well, that isn’t mine? It’s a tough and interesting balance.

Sometimes it frustrates me because I know I’m letting someone down. Other times, I remember that I’m fortunate to have families in, quite literally, two different hemispheres that care so much.

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