Livia Pereira, 28, a native of Brazil who now lives in Chestnut Hill, insists that we “barely have any poverty here” in the U.S. (Photo by Len Lear) 

Livia Pereira, 28, a native of Brazil who now lives in Chestnut Hill, insists that we “barely have any poverty here” in the U.S. (Photo by Len Lear)

by Len Lear

I think it’s important for Americans to learn what life is like in the rest of the world, to put our own concerns in their proper context. For example, several years ago I interviewed a man who had lived for the first 40 years of his life in Zimbabwe in southern Africa. Here is some of what he said:

“You Americans have absolutely no idea how good you have it. Your poorest people have luxuries that almost all of our people except the very richest can only dream about. In your poorest parts of Philadelphia, people live in brick and stone homes; almost all have electricity, TV sets, water coming out of the tap, computers and telephones. There are cars up and down every street. Your closets are all so full of clothing, you can’t possibly wear everything. For those who are struggling, there are thousands of government programs like welfare and food stamps, as well as churches and thousands of nonprofit organizations that provide clothing, food and other necessities for free. And yet, all I hear are complaints.

“Where I come from, we are lucky to have electricity and water a few hours a day. Children may have no school to go to. They may have no shoes to wear and probably no doctor for hundreds of miles. When you get sick, tough luck. When you run out of food, tough luck. There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. If your ‘house’ is washed away by a storm, tough luck. Only our top one percent have the things that your poor people almost all have! We have diseases of poverty like scurvy, cholera, dysentery and malaria, and you have diseases of affluence like obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes because you have too much of everything!”

I was reminded of those comments because of an interview I did last week with Livia Pereira, 28, a native of Cataguases, a town of 70,000 people about three hours away from Rio DeJaneiro, Brazil. Now a Chestnut Hill resident, Livia came to the U.S. two years ago as an exchange student and is currently working towards an MBA at Rosemont College while supporting herself as a nanny for two families in Chestnut Hill and part-time waitress at a restaurant in Plymouth Meeting.

Visitors from other countries often have a very different — and very interesting — perspective on life in the U.S. than most of us who were born here. For example, when asked about the difference between life in Philadelphia and life in Cataguases, Brazil, the charming import with a sparkling smile said, “In Brazil you have to work so much harder to make a living. Most people do not have cars; salaries are low, and prices are high, and there are lots of taxes.” When it was pointed out that most Americans also believe they pay too much in taxes, Livia said, “You guys have no idea how little you pay in taxes.

“And you barely have any poverty here or homeless people. Compared to any poor country, even the poorest parts of Philadelphia are really rich. You are so much better off. I have been all over Philadelphia, and even the neighborhoods (local) people say look horrible do not. If you walk around any country in South America, you see so many homeless people. Americans don’t travel that much to see the real world.”

Livia has two brothers back home. Her father died when she was young, and her mother, now retired, worked in school administration. Livia graduated from a school of fashion design in Brazil, studied English for seven years and worked for a textile company that enabled her to meet people from other countries. Life here is tough financially because her tuition at Rosemont is $1200 a month, which does not cover books and other living expenses, and foreign students are not eligible for student loans. “I love Chestnut Hill,” she said, “because you can walk all around, just like I did back home. Everywhere else, you need a car.”

After earning her MBA, Livia hopes to secure an internship and eventually have a career using her fashion and business knowledge. She returns home once a year and is in daily phone communication with her family. Does she plan to stay in the U.S. and apply for citizenship or return home?

“Sometimes I think about coming here to live, but I don’t know yet. There are many things I miss from home that they do not have here. For example, there are restaurants here that claim to serve foods from South America, but believe me, they are not the same. And I miss the music from home, which is hard to find here.”

Livia is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and English, and she can understand Italian and French. Even before coming to the U.S., Livia traveled a lot — to France, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy (her favorite), Mexico and the Dominican Republic (her least favorite). While living in Chestnut Hill, she has traveled to Chicago, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., New York and Miami and insists that Americans in all those places, like those in Philly, are not nearly as friendly as the folks back home.

Livia reads magazines and newspapers, books only for school, does not watch TV at all, does not go to clubs, eats healthy (no fried foods, butter, etc.), enjoys cooking and when eating out, prefers seafood and Japanese foods.

“It is easier to get around back home,” she said, “and people are nicer there. People back home will actually help someone who needs help. Everyone is in such a rush here. People here do not care about anyone outside of their own families.”

  • ImperiousLush

    I’m in love!

  • RogerMillerINK

    I don’t think many people are of the opinion that poor Americans are the most impoverished in the world. The point is that they are citizens of the wealthiest nation in history and should have access to education, health care, and other basics that are currently not available to them. Things being worse in the third world is completely irrelevant. Should we not be concerned with violence in the U.S because things are worse in Syria? Should we not be concerned with gay rights because things are worse in Uganda? We should all just say, “Well it could be worse” and move on?

    Walking by homeless men and women every day is tragic. Their struggles with substance abuse and mental illness is tragic. Trying to sugar-coat that aspect of life in America with this “You don’t know how good you have it” attitude is a disservice to every homeless man, woman, child, veteran, father, mother, son, and daughter.

  • dzap

    claiming that obesity and diabetes are a product of having “too much of everything” shows a willful ignorance about poverty and the health crisis in America. A foreigner’s anecdotal summation of American culture is interesting, but it is no substitute for real research. And there is plenty of it that dispels all of this nonsense that poor people have it good in America. One example:
    Ranking poor people misses the point entirely. It also hurts poor people by suggesting their lives aren’t that bad and that they simply lack the will to change their circumstances.