Growing up, I was always told "love and treat others as you expect to be loved and treated." I was raised seeing my peers as equals to me, and looking at the differences, but not seeing the differences. There was never an imbalance in the way I lived because my neighbors or I were of a different ethnicity or because we came from different places. There were only the "good kids" and the "mean kids." The kids who accepted me and included me in their lives always had priority in mine and the ones who had hatred in their hearts never received my attention. However, after a big life change, I was faced with the reality of a world I had never encountered before. It was here that a voyager's path would begin.
When I turned 12, my dad got a new job. This was great, since our life back home was very rough. Brazil's economy has always been harsh, and this was clearly affecting our comfort there at the time. The problem, though, was that my dad's new job was in a different country. Suddenly, my family was packing up years of our entire lives back in Brazil to move over 6,000 kilometers away to the United States. When this happened, I had no idea the impact this one event would have in the rest of my life.
Where I come from, the South Zone of the city of Rio de Janeiro, there is a very distinct culture. The life there has the feel of a city, the sophistication of an affluent town, the relaxed flow of a beachy front, and now, with the favelas being so widespread, it has been influenced by popular culture as well. The South Zone of Rio, if you still can't picture it, is where the celebrities from the one big Brazilian television network reside. On any given day walking to school, I easily ran into at least one artist. The life in this part of Rio, (at least while growing up,) was easy to wear if you were part of the middle class. If so, you went to one of the private schools with the same 30 students, who usually grew up with you and went to the same school until college. And even during college, most of these same kids went to the same two or three universities in downtown Rio and studied similar fields. As my mom always mentioned, the middle class cariocas, live in a bubble and if they have no reason for it, never really disperse from there. Although Rio has always been a very big touristic destination, the actual locals have had families established there for centuries. With this, I was always able to rely on family and close friends to help me understand the world I lived in; nothing ever seemed too out of the ordinary. Which is why when I moved to the U.S., my view of the world and outlook in life was completely shattered.
As soon as I arrived at the airport in Atlanta back in 2006, the feel I got from the people and the atmosphere was different. I felt out of place, especially as a child who had no idea what to even expect from the rest of the world. Then, when I started the 6th grade in a small middle school in Connecticut, I had become the news around the halls. I was "exotic," "different," and "beautiful." I did not know what to do with all the attention. I shut down. I also did not understand a word of English at the time, so everything that was spoken around me during those days never stayed in my brain. Even writing this now, my memories of that time feel distant, as if it happened decades ago. To go from a simple, easy life, where I never had to think about the way I walked, the way I spoke, the way I interacted with others, what I said, and what I wore back home, to a life where all of this suddenly became obsessively part of my days, caused my mind to be forcefully reshaped. I spent years dealing with inner personal battles that were far too complex to even try to explain and to this day I still feel the side effects.
As the years passed, connecting with other kids at school was one of the most difficult parts of my teen years. Who could even try to understand what I was going through? I struggled every single day not wanting to go to school and trying to understand where I belonged. Whenever I met new people who could finally empathize with me, I would bet all of my time on them, only to end up disappointed over and over again with friends who always left or betrayed me, or whom I could not trust. I started to change who I was, slowly making adjustments to "fit in" with the culture. I bought new clothes, observed the way kids acted around the halls at school, in the classrooms, and with each other. I started mirroring behaviors, tried to understand the American sarcasm, and searched for my "crew," which unfortunately, never happened. My mother thought I was too inhibited, and knowing how sociable I am, she began to worry. She put me in a theater class on the weekends in hopes it would help make me more relaxed. After a little taste of that, I started enjoying the arts and could finally let go of most of the pressure I put on myself daily. So much so, that I auditioned for an arts high school in hopes to continue with this therapeutic lifestyle. Theater was the one thing that kept me going during the most difficult days. I was able to find my way through depression, anxiety, and self-loathing by experimenting with the arts, for which I am very thankful. There, I was able to meet kids that were also as different as me, which made me feel like being myself was enough. I came out of my shell a little more every day, and it became easier having those "weird" kids around me along the way. Having both guys and girls I could trust to be myself around made it feel like life in this country could actually be okay. This was the first time I ever felt whole, and it was also the first time I discovered love...
When I moved away to college, everything finally clicked.
College was when I came to terms with who I was and accepted my own differences. Going to a state university of about 20,000 students made it easier to meet people from all over the country and the world. I quickly bonded with the exchange students, and my good friends included Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Asian, and European-descendants; it was comfortable being myself around my ethnically diverse counterparts. We had topics in common to discuss, similar aspirations and goals, and a similar outlook of the world. The first serious relationships I ever had were with guys of other cultures and backgrounds. However, something was always missing from my dating life. When Junior year came, I spent a semester abroad in Europe living completely alone. (Read more about that here!) This appropriately happened after a big break-up with a guy who was very different from me but whom I loved, and although I was completely heartbroken, that semester abroad served me with a ton of self-discovery. The process of traveling completely alone during a hard time in my life actually made me see that out of all things, at least I had become really great at entering uncomfortable situations and places. I finally realized that if it hadn't been for my culturally traumatizing move to America, I would never be as culturally aware, engaged, and interested as I am now.
After returning from my semester abroad, I gained so much more knowledge of what I had been missing. From then on, I decided to be culturally engaged in all kinds of relationships and situations in my life and started striving for that just as much as I strove to build my own happiness. Naturally, I began dating guys of Caribbean, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic-descent, always searching for that aspect of my American life that was missing for so long; always looking for the cultural side of me that held me against feeling like a normal person in this country. Maybe I am wrong to connect the fact that moving and traveling to a foreign country impacted my dating life. But maybe, dating guys of culturally diverse backgrounds was just what I needed to help me understand where I belonged. It wasn't until recent experiences, however, that I recognized that being with someone of a completely different culture and background, no matter where you or he comes from, can be as exhausting as it is inspiring...
*To be continued*