Immersion, Not Submersion

Julia Shankin - Brazil


November 19, 2016

Before I came to Brazil, and even during my early days in my community, I was convinced that the best way to immerse myself here was to give up all aspects of my former way of life and adopt all of the routines and values of my community. I was prepared to go with the flow and do exactly as my host family did in order to truly understand the ins and outs of this culture, because that is what I thought I came here for.

My desire to “immerse” by simply releasing my identity was quickly extinguished as soon as I was actually faced with a situation where I had to do something that I did not want to do. Most of the people in Macacu drink an astoundingly small amount of water per day, and were shocked and appalled when I chose water over soda at dinner on my first night here. I decided that having to pretend that I liked soda for the rest of the year would serve no one well in this situation, and drinking water was something that I was not willing to compromise for the sake of blending with my community. My host family still always jokes about how this American girl likes water and frequently brings up my unique quirk when I am introduced to family friends.

After two months in Brazil, I’ve learned that immersing myself in another culture and language does not mean giving up any aspect of my identity, preferences, values, background, goals, language or ideals. No matter where I am or who I am with, I am still me inside and out. I think now that immersion really means that I accept my differences from my host community, of which there are many, and learn to love myself and the people around me simultaneously, but for different reasons.

I have realized that my identity is not something that I can run from, and it is not something that I want to run from. The most interesting conversations that I have here usually start with “você tem ___ nos Estados Unidos?” (do you have ___ in America?). The answer is usually yes, because we have lots of things in America! Except sometimes when the question is about an obscure Brazilian fruit or farofa which is basically sawdust that you put in food to absorb all of the sauce, or molho. I find myself feeling proud to talk about my country and tell people about all of the incredible opportunities, art, culture, and foods that I have had access too in my city. I also am finding that because of my different background and unique identity as an outsider, I am able to teach the people around me lots about not only America, but about the world as well. And more than often people really do want to learn about my life and about other countries. I never expected to feel so happy to share my unique qualities and identity, but I think it is possible to be an outsider and also be accepted by my community at the same time.

This has been called to my attention especially during the past few weeks after the presidential election results were revealed. I feel hurt and scared when people talk about leaving the US because of the election when I was not able to be with my country during this time of great need and hurt. People messaged me from the US telling me to stay in Brazil, but I have never felt more loyalty to my country than during the time that immediately followed the devastation of this election. I wanted more than anything to mourn with my country and use my power to support those that are not as privileged as me. I realized that I have a duty to serve the country that made me who I am. I realize that after two months, I have come to know my community in Brazil far better than I know most of the cities in my state at home. My identity as an American, a North Carolinian, all the way down to a person who went to Raleigh Charter High School, is a huge part of my value as a person and is the reason why I am here right now in Brazil. Although I love my past and my country, I am not going to let my growth and knowledge stop there. I will hold all of the things that made me who I am dear to my heart and close in my memories, but continue to learn and grow through new experiences and share those experiences with the people I meet along the way.

Julia Shankin