In Other Wor(l)ds: Gina in Brazil


Gina Fischer is 24 years old and and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Environmental Health and Development. She originally traveled to Rio de Janeiro in July 2012 of her senior year to study abroad in Brazil for a semester through the UC Education Abroad Program. After college she moved back to Rio de Janeiro. She is now married to a wonderful Carioca (Rio de Janeiro native) man named Helio, studying to get into Brazilian medical schools, and tutoring English on the side to pay the bills. 

On Choosing Brazil: I was always curious about Brazil—I knew nothing about Brazilian culture, music, or geography, but nonetheless always knew that I wanted to travel to the country. My initial college major was Spanish, and I could take a Portuguese class to fulfill a major requirement. After doing so, I figured I might as well study abroad in Brazil to put my new “skills” to the test.

Studying abroad was a life-changing experience for me in many ways. Around the same time I met Helio, I also decided that I wanted to pursue medicine after a year-long debate. I soon fell in love with Helio, the culture, the language, and the coconuts. As I was not taking many pre-med requirements during my undergraduate years, I started looking into alternatives to American medical schools. Since Medicine is an undergraduate degree in virtually every country outside the U.S. (not to mention only a fraction of the price), I knew I wouldn’t need to complete the pre-requisite courses before being admitted. Helio suggested returning to Rio de Janeiro to study, and I immediately leapt at the opportunity. The rest is history.

On Applying to Medical School: My main venture at the moment is getting admitted to Brazilian medical schools which, contrary to my initial belief, is proving to be much harder than expected. Entrance into undergraduate programs is solely based upon an exam (essentially the Brazilian SATs, but it covers far more subjects and is in Portuguese). I was hoping I could pull the “Berkeley card” to move along my admittance, but as the exam is the only form of acceptance, it’s not possible. Thus, I am studying all of the subjects (math, chemistry, biology, geography, history, literature and physics) mainly on my own with the help of some online courses. Luckily the exam also includes a foreign language section (one can choose between English or Spanish), so I have a step up in at least one subject!


Foz de Iguaçu (Iguazu Falls), Brasil.

On Language: Please keep in mind that I haven’t spent a significant amount of time in states outside of Rio de Janeiro. The accent and lexicon vary widely throughout the country and all of my linguistic experiences and opinions come from Rio.

When I first began my study abroad in Brazil, the biggest culture shock was the language. I had taken one semester of Portuguese for students who had already studied another Latin language. As I had studied Spanish for 4-5 years I thought the two languages would be close enough that I would have no problem, but that was not the case.

While Spanish and Portuguese are undoubtedly similar in some aspects, there are parts of each languages that share no relation—for example, the pronunciation. In Portuguese the letter “r” at the beginning of a word makes the English “h” sound and an “o” at the end of a word makes the English “oo” sound, so the word “Rio” (as in Rio de Janeiro) sounds like “hee-oo”.

Additionally, while many words are the same in Spanish and in Portuguese, some words have no resemblance, and for foreigners there is no rhyme or reason to detecting these patterns. For example, the word “tenedor” (fork) in Spanish is “garfo” in Portuguese, so if you ask for a “tenedor” at a restaurant the waiters will look at you like you’re crazy.

My amateur description of Portuguese is that it includes the grammar of Spanish, the melody of Italian, and the pronunciation of both French and Spanish, or, as I often say, Spanish in a drunken slurr. Even though Portuguese (in Brazil) tends to be spoken much slower than Spanish, the syllables are far less enunciated, making it very difficult to pick up on new words and phrases.

Whenever the discussion of non-translatable words comes up, it is impossible to ignore the word “saudade” (pronounced sow-dah-jee) which is typically defined as a combination of nostalgia and longing. It’s a word that one hears almost daily, whether it refers to a long-lost friend or family member, a food, an experience, a song, etc. I most often hear it spoken by my mother-in-law when more than three days have past since we last saw her.


Helio and me with his friends backpacking in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro.

On Safety: With the World Cup going on right now and the Olympics in 2016 there is a lot of talk about violence in Brazil, and especially Rio de Janeiro. However, I can honestly say that I feel safer in Rio than I did in many parts of Berkeley. Like any big city in the world, violence exists and the most important thing to remember is to stay alert and aware. I have luckily never found myself in a very dangerous situation anywhere in the world, but I almost feel safer in Brazil knowing that an act of violence is typically committed with the sole aspect of obtaining money or expensive items. If someone pulls out a knife and you hand over a 20, you will rarely be injured. People aren’t interested in harming others, only in bringing themselves and their families out of poverty. When comparing this to the U.S. I feel more comfortable, as one rarely hears of a random shooting in Brazil, although for whatever reason they appear to be more and more frequent throughout the U.S. Although I’ve never needed it, when walking around Rio I always carry a bill to quickly hand to a greedy thief. I feel safer knowing that if a violent act is committed I will likely be losing some money, not my life.


The view from our apartment in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro.

On a Bilingual Marriage: Helio and I currently speak about 50/50 when it comes to language. When we originally met I approached him and attempted to “suavely” test out my newfound Portuguese “skills”. (Un)fortunately Helio had no idea what I was saying and immediately informed me that he was fluent in English. From that moment on we spoke about 95% English, until it dawned on me that he could be an incredibly useful tool for learning Portuguese (obvious, I know). After coming back in June 2013, I would insist on having days where we were not allowed to speak any English, since I needed to hone in on my language skills before taking medical school entrance exams.

As Helio is studying to be a diplomat, he is required to be very well-versed in all of the Portuguese grammar rules, as well as make translations between English and Portuguese and Spanish and Portuguese. Thus, he is able to look at the language through my eyes (to an extent) and can really help me get a hold on tricky rules and pronunciations. At this point both Portuguese and English have become more comfortable for both of us.


Helio and me in our wedding garb. The front of our shirts say “Esposa do Helio” (Helio’s Wife) and “Marido da Gina” (Gina’s Husband) and the backs say “Amor é a Solução” (Love is the Answer).

On Family Communication: My brother, father, and step mother all came to visit me in September 2013, shortly after Helio and I had returned from a trip through Europe. While they were in Rio, we organized a big lunch for both of our families to meet, and somehow there was almost no trouble communicating. Smiles, hugs, and laughter are universal, which helped a lot, and Helio and I translated when necessary. Since the trip, my dad has become surprisingly motivated to learn conversational Portuguese, and Helio’s dad has been learning English online which has been a lot of fun for all of us during family Skype sessions. They all came back for our speedy and unplanned wedding in February and it was great to see everyone overcoming the language barriers yet again.

Culturally, it took Helio’s family a little while to understand that my dad and step-mom are vegan, but they have been incredibly accomodating and Helio’s brother-in-law now sends them pictures of salads he makes! Both of our families are very loving, open-minded, and flexible so they have all gotten along very well.


Both families together at our wedding in February in Parque Lage, Rio de Janeiro.

On Changing Views: When Helio and I began to be more serious he voiced his concern that he had become terribly hypocritical in that, for someone so interested in politics and foreign policy, he was going to marry an American Jewish woman—someone who, in his mind, represents the two countries with the worst foreign policy in the entire world. Although I don’t always view the world through a lens of foreign policy, my time abroad has certainly shaped the way I look at the U.S.

For starters, living in Brazil makes me feel that the U.S. is far too concerned with consumerism and money, and not concerned enough with the environment, family, and simply enjoying life. In Rio many say that Americans live to work, while Brazilians work to live. Although the slower-paced Carioca way of life certainly gets on my nerves at times, there are aspects I hope to integrate into my current lifestyle. For example, almost every weekend in Rio locals head to their family’s homes and barbecue with the entire extended family. It is rare to find so many workaholics in Rio as I have in much of the U.S.

On the other hand, I have grown to truly appreciate the organization, cleanliness, and dedication to health and the environment much of the San Francisco Bay Area displays in a way that I certainly would not have had I not moved to Brazil. I never thought I would miss that blue recycling can so much!

On Future Plans: Helio and I have a very international future ahead of us! Once he becomes a diplomat we will need to move to Brasilia (the capital of Brazil), where virtually all governmental affairs take place within the country. He will have diplomatic training there for a couple years, and once that is completed we will be moving from country to country every four years or so until he decides to switch careers or retire. The process for choosing which country we move to each time is rather complicated, but the most important aspect is that we do, indeed, get to choose where we go. We essentially choose our top 5 cities each 4 years and if there is no opening in one of our desired locations we will go back to Brasilia for a few years. Anyway, we will likely both be out of our native countries for a large portion of our futures, but we plan on living in San Francisco at some point and we will always have Brasilia as a “home base.”


Helio and me on the Escada da Selaron in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

Thanks so much, Gina! Wishing you and Helio a long and happy marriage, wherever your travels take you!

In Other Wor(l)ds is a series of interviews with young women who have lived, traveled, or worked for an extensive period of time OUTSIDE of Europe and the U.S., since the travel posts on A Thing For Wor(l)ds tend to be a bit Euro-focused. (I’m based in Spain, after all :) 

  • Greg | Travel Blue Book

    Congratulations on the wedding! Looking back, I wish that I had decided to study abroad when I was in college. If I could change anything about my college experience, it would probably be that.

    • Study Abroad is great, but luckily for everyone, there’s always Move Abroad or Travel Abroad after college! ;)

  • This sounds like a great couple and a fun future they have ahead of them :)