I remember a family friend, who had recently emigrated from the Philippines to my hometown in Minnesota, describing her bilingualism as “having two machines in my head.” Makes sense, I thought, just like people have machines in their heads for doing math or playing instruments. As I grew older, though, I came to believe her bilingualism was different than most mental “machines.” Whenever she talked on the phone with Filipino relatives, it wasn’t just the words that changed, but also the speed, the range of emotion, and the intensity. It was as if she became a different person. The Filipino Language isn’t just a “machine” for her, I thought, but almost another mind, with different ideas and memories attached. Her two languages were her two cultures, and through them she could be two people.
When I was younger, I used to harbor the suspicion that everyone in the world was pretty much the same, that national character was a romantic fabrication and culture was a wishy-washy term for a whole lotta nothing. But after encountering people like my Filipina friend, I realized that what made her seem like two people was that she carried with her two places, two cultures, and she could choose between them. Culture, I’ve come to believe, is a wishy-washy term for a whole lotta something.
After realizing that culture runs deep, I’ve developed cultural claustrophobia. I feel stuck in my Midwestern, Anglo-Saxon, upper-class world. I burn with the desire to be thrust into a language and culture different from my own. It’s not that I don’t like the society in which I grew up, I really love it, I do. But one culture is not enough anymore. Maybe I’m being whiny, but I prefer to think I’m reacting to the times. When I’m constantly encountering people of different backgrounds and histories, I can’t help being struck by a sense of cultural inadequacy. What if ideas from another country are good too, maybe better? What if the uncertainties and doubts I have about the way I live can be remedied by the wisdom of a people half a world away? There’s only one way to find out.
So I decided to spend a bridge year with Global Citizen Year. For about six and a half months, I’ll live with a Brazilian family and work with a community-based non-profit in Brazil. I hope that the work I’ll be doing will be important and impactful, but I also know that on a global scale, my work will be miniscule and practically imperceptible. When I return home, however, I might carry pieces of Brazil with me. I won’t be Brazilian, but in the way I think, they way I treat others, and the way I look toward the future, I might no longer be entirely American. I hope to have a Brazilian “machine” in my own mind that enhances my personal and civic life. In short, I believe in the power and necessity of global exchange and I want to be a part of it.