My relationship with the United States of America has always been complex. I grew up the child of Brazilian parents and my childhood was filled with talks of green cards and immigration reform. I always felt slightly out of place around my “white” friends who got freaked out when my mother kissed them on the cheek as a form of greeting.
I have experienced what most children of immigrants experience at some point in their lives; the sense of not fitting in with either community they belong to. Other Latinos made me feel like I somehow wasn’t Latina enough because of the way I spoke, or the way I dressed, or the relationship I had to my parents’ country. My American friends didn’t understand either; They only spoke one language at home, they never had to translate important documents for their parents or explain how the American education system works at age nine. Their cultural roots were planted firmly in the United States, while mine were all over the world. They were everywhere and therefore nowhere.
Because I never felt like I belonged anywhere, I often fantasized about leaving the country and finding somewhere I would fit in better. I never felt comfortable with the culture of intense patriotism in the United States, nor did I understand simple American things like football and gun culture. I saw myself sitting in a European cafe with interesting foreign friends who shared my diverse opinions and beliefs. I pictured drinking coffee and eating croissants as we discussed global warming and world peace, an ideal I did not think I could find in the United States.
When I got to high school, I began researching foreign exchange, something I had been interested in doing all my life. I found a scholarship called the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange, which sends 250 American high school students to Germany for 10 months, and 250 German high school students to live in the United States for 10 months. The program was fully funded by Congress and the German Parliament, and it would give me the opportunity to spend junior year living with a German host family and attend a German high school. I applied without telling my parents, and a few months later, I got the call that I would be off to Europe for a year. I was over the moon, caught up in the fantasies of long train rides and nights in clubs drinking German beer. I figured that if I didn’t belong in the United States, maybe I could find my people in Germany.
Studying abroad was the best thing I ever did, not because of the incredible places I saw or things I did, but because it knocked me off my high horse. My exchange year was without a doubt the hardest year of my life. I have never felt more out of place than I did in Germany. I lived with a family of strangers whose language I could not speak, I went to school with classmates who were too shy to talk to me and lived more than two hours away from a big city. If I thought I felt like an outcast in the United States, it was nothing compared to the way I felt in Germany. I never realized how much I had in common with my classmates at home until I met my classmates abroad.
There were certain things I took for granted living in America: The common language, the belief in the American dream and a fierce protectiveness over the ideals in the Declaration of Independence. The United States is a country built by immigrants, and no one’s family has been here longer than 400 years, besides the native populations. Germany is a country where people can trace their ancestry back thousands of years, and they have no plans of ever leaving. I had many conversations with Germans who believed that people should never leave their motherlands, no matter the circumstances. While there are certainly many xenophobic people in the United States, there is no widely believed notion that all types of immigration are bad, because it is so closely tied to our national identity.
I never expected to become so protective and defensive over the United States in my year abroad. I identified as a liberal, and I was critical of many happenings in my country, socially, politically and otherwise. However, while in Germany, I had to explain the actions and beliefs of all Americans, even those I did not agree with. People asked me about the presidential primaries, the rise of racism, police brutality, healthcare and many other complex and multifaceted topics. For the first time in my life, I had to truly think critically about the opinions of people I did not agree with, and it made me a more open-minded and tolerant person.
My idea of what makes someone American has changed a lot since my year abroad. Being American has much less to do with where your parents come from or what your birth certificate says, and more to do with the ideals that this country was built on: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as well as the notion that these rights cannot be taken away by a government. Being American is about believing that with the right resources and opportunities, you can change your life and the lives of others. Being American is about never being stuck, but rather always looking forward and imagining what the future could hold. Being American is NOT about agreeing with everything your government does, and speaking out against decisions and ideas that go against what you believe.
Going to Germany opened my eyes up to a whole new world of incredible people and ideas. Living abroad has made me a more tolerant person who thinks critically about people and realizes that we are much too complicated to be sorted into vague subcategories of humanity, or defined by a nation or an ethnicity or a political party. I have been home for a year now, and next month I will be starting my first year at New York University, a school which prides itself on its diversity and focus on global learning. I would strongly recommend studying abroad to any high school or college student open to getting their world views rocked and learning more about themselves and the world around them.
Lead Image Credit: Melanie Marich