Cross-Cultural Reflection: Firm Sense of Cultural Identity

19 Dec

Dear Family and Friends,

Weeks have passed since I’ve written about my experiences and travels within Brasil. Needless to say, my fascination with the country, the people, and my new community have distracted me long enough to delay bi-weekly postings. Luckily, I have plenty photos, twitter updates, and memories to rely upon for this new blog entry (especially since I am now back in the States…well, for about a week).

Coming to Brasil has ALWAYS been a dream of mine. I’ve wanted to learn Portuguese, to learn more about the culture, and to immerse myself into a new society so different from that of my own. As I reflect upon some my experiences from my hometown of Lexington, KY and my college town, Durham….(DUKE), North Carolina, Salvador feels almost like a false reality.

The differences are so profound that writing about them in my private blog seems almost a futile task; it’s impossible to adequately describe the manner in which I’ve perceived these differences between my life in Salvador and my life at home.

For starters, there are the everyday friendly gestures that Brazilians exchange among family, friends, and even complete strangers: a  “Bom dia! Tudo bem?” and a kiss on each cheek. There is the Bahian woman who will reach out and grab my arm to pull me away from a passing bus. The street vendor who gives me a reassuring embrace after I’ve just frantically asked her for directions in a place I am unfamiliar with. Even the manner in which whole neighborhoods come out to celebrate the birthday of one of it’s oldest members: people of all ages dancing together to the same songs, the older members challenging the youth to “dance-offs”.

This way of interacting with other people is one that is so foreign to me, living in the States.  The social cohesion of families: sons and daughters living in their parents’ house even after college, or nearby if married. Youth and elders, alike, bonding and enjoying themselves over a few drinks and popular music. Random strangers extending themselves so far to help others.

This is  not to say that I have not experienced this close communal sensation before. In fact, the constant presence of family, everyone going to “festas” or family gatherings, random aunts or uncles passing by the house everyday reminds me off my time in the Philippines staying at my grandparents’ house in Baguio City. It’s remarkable to note the sense of social cohesion that is found among families in other nations. Here in the States, it’s been many years since I’ve lived even relatively close to a grandparent. Years have passed since I’ve last been able to see certain cousins.  Granted, my family comes from all over the world (literally–spanning three continents, possibly more?), and this distance has always served as a barrier for me and my siblings to grow closer to our heritage and form relationships with other family members.

I am an American of mixed Filipino-South American-Middle-Eastern descent, and I’m very proud of this. My background has fostered a sense of tolerance for others and has made me a more “worldly citizen”, having had the opportunity to travel plenty with my family. But beneath this charm of an “exotic” background, I feel as if I’ve never truly been able to establish a sense of identity with any of my ethnic backgrounds.

Indeed, I have traveled, met relatives, eaten foods, familiarized myself with religious practices, and gotten to know different parts of the world, but to this day, I don’t know any Tagalog (the language of the Philippines). When my grandfather passed away in the fall of my freshman year of high school, I found it very difficult to feel for someone I hardly knew. And to this day, this has been my biggest regret, feeling so disconnected to someone who was so close to me, so important to my mom and to me and my whole family. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my short time in Brasil, it’s the importance of establishing a firm cultural identity that you gain from experiences with family.

Is it possible to fully identify with your cultural background when your parents speak different languages, practice different religions, and come from different cultural backgrounds? This is a question that has been posed to me many times before, and I’ve often found myself  pondering it at times. After many years of thinking over this, meeting and being exposed to new groups of people, and participating in new cultural experiences, I have concluded that having multiple or many cultural influences is a separate identity in and of itself, and the mix (sometimes clash) of cultures, language, and religion can be a beautiful one.

For evidence of this, I look at the culture of the Brasilian people. The unique thing about the people of Brasil is that you can find people of every skin tone, hair texture, eye color, etc. who identify themselves as Brasilian. This is because the development of the Brazilian culture was the result of the mixing of the indigenous people of Brazil, Africans who arrived as slaves, and the Portuguese. For this reason, the sense of culture and race in Brazil is very blurred. Everyone is mixed and Brazilian culture is a reflection of this.

Going to Brazil has helped me to reconcile my differences in my cultural background. Whereas previously, I made an effort to separate my cultural identities, perhaps even associating more with one over another, today, I’ve learned to embrace them together. Brazil has made we want to return to the Philippines and learn Tagalog and to become closer to that side of my family, because that side has always been the hardest to get to know because of the distance. Brazil has made me want to make every effort to become closer to my family and where I’ve come from.

I’ve always been a very outgoing and friendly person, but since I’ve come back from Brazil, I’ve found myself more connected to the people here, even though I have been apart from them for so long. I have a genuine interest in getting to know more about others and becoming closer to and forming relationships with family and friends. When I greet others, it is always with a hug (sometime as kiss on the cheek out of habit from Brasil), and I make sure to listen to what I am being told, every piece of advice, every warning.

I have two souls now, my American one and my Brazilian one. I cannot explain or fully describe to anyone the experiences that I’ve had in Brasil because they are meaningful to me within the context and scope of Brazilian culture. Unless you’ve lived within the cultural context, you cannot fully grasp the excitement and beauty of the experience. In the same manner, I found it difficult to describe to my Brazilian family and friends about my life here. They are two different worlds, and I feel 100% part of both. And while these two worlds may never ever meet, I will always remember my time in Brazil as the most testing, riveting, inspiring, and growing experience of my life. I learned Portuguese, I learned to dance (better), I learned to live independently in a foreign land where my native tongue is rarely spoken and the dynamics of the city are far different from that what I am accustomed to in my own home town. But beyond all of this, I became a part of the culture and a system that represents something opposite of what I am used to, and I did so successfully, and the lessons that I have taken from this experience will remain with me forever.

Estou com saudades do meu segundo país, Brasil. Um parte do meu coração vai ficar lá para sempre. Mal posso esperar para voltar…Até mais.

This post is dedicated to my mom, Gina, whose birthday passed almost a month ago when I was originally writing this. I’m so proud to have a Filipina mother who is so strong and has always encouraged me  through all of my endeavors. My biggest hope is to one day return to the Philippines and get to know the place of your birth and what you knew as a child because it’s an important part of who you are and an important part of who I am.


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