Tomorrow marks the 20th year that I have been living in the United States. Not to use an old cliché, but it definitely feels like it wasn’t too long ago that I embarked on the greatest and most dramatic adventure of my life: at the young age of 16 (only a handful of weeks shy of my 17th birthday) I said goodbye to most of my friends back in the small town of Conceição da Barra, Brazil and got on a plane with my youngest sister bound to New York City.
In order to understand the impact of this event on my life, allow me to take a step back and explain what it was like for someone who had never traveled outside of his own country to find himself “dropped” in the middle of a place like the Northeast of the United States.
Conceição da Barra was the place in Brazil where I spent my teenager years and experienced all that comes with them. It was the place where I fell in love and also where I had my heart broken for the first time (and many times after that and after that). It was the place where I learned to socialize, go out dancing, drinking, getting in trouble and really understand what it means to be alive and have friends! It’s where I learned to enjoy watching the sunsets and the warmth of a bonfire by the beach, listening to Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd and enjoying good company. It is also the place where I saw my family’s economical situation deteriorate and got a very good look at what poverty feels like. But if I were to summarize what the last 5 years I spent in that tiny beach town encroached in the Southeast of Brazil meant to me in a simple sentence, it would be: It’s the place where I had the most amazing childhood!
Assuming that my previous description gave you a good glimpse at what my life had been until then, allow me now to bring you to the day before I got on that plane. Even though I knew the day of my departure, nothing can prepare you to say goodbye to those who shaped your life, specially those whom we call best friends or those who have gotten a “strong hold on your heart”! How can you say goodbye to the friend who spent most of his days with you, going through the same experiences, happy moments, aches and all? How can you tell the girl you’re in love with that you’re leaving and has absolutely no idea (if) when you’ll ever return? The answer is, you just can’t prepare yourself and have to do the best that you can.
So I spent my last day in Brazil looking for friends and family and telling them that I was leaving to the United States where my parents already were awaiting for me. Since I had not told anyone about this plan, imagine the look on their faces when I dropped the news! Some people cried and hugged me really hard… some didn’t believe me and thought I was joking… others, who heard the news (in a small town like Conceição da Barra, news travel really, really fast) from others before I could get to them, chose not to see me for they couldn’t face the fact that we would not see each other again. Out of those who fit this last criteria, the ones I wished I had had a chance to talk to before leaving were Alexandre, my friend and brother-in-arms, and Andréia, my platonic infatuation/love. To this day I’m yet to see them and tell them how much it hurt me not being able to talk to them that last day…
Eventually I made my way to the United States, landing on JFK in a sunny May 28th morning together with my younger sister. Our parents picked us up at the airport, and after the initial feelings of relief and happiness for seeing them (I had not seen them for about 1 month and was pretty much in charge of my younger sister), the next few weeks were all a blur of new sights, sounds, places and people. Since neither one of us spoke a word of English, this experience was the equivalent of taking someone from the smallest, most rural and disconnected town in the world and then dropping him by parachute in the middle of Moscow! Everything, and I mean everything was different from what I was used to. Chewing gum, shampoo, cars, streets, food, trees, birds, sports, you name it! Also, everywhere I turned there was this new language being spoken, broadcast on the radio, television or printed on magazines and newspapers!
Ahhh and how much I missed my friends… There wasn’t a day that I didn’t think of them, or what they were doing at that exact time. As a mater of fact, for a long time I lived my life split between my old stomping grounds and my newly adopted country, almost never here but always there, imagining what it would be like to share my experiences in this new “alien” world with them… tell them how cool baseball really was when you knew all the rules and got to follow the Yankees on MSG every day… how beautiful the Empire States building is from the Palisades Avenue in Cliffside Park… how people would toss perfectly working and even new items in their garbage outside because they had gotten a newer model/replacement… and how much my life sucked without being able to talk to people and make new friends…
By September my parents enrolled me in the local high school as a junior. My first day’s experience was an event that left pretty deep scars that took a while to completely heal. I had no idea what my schedule was, that I was supposed to change classes between periods, and that people could be so mean when they found out that you didn’t speak English. Worse of all for that day was being ostracized by the few Brazilians I encountered also attending the same high school. I clearly remember on that first day during my lunch period walking into a packed cafeteria and the relief I felt when I saw the 2 girls who were Brazilian (I was told by my guidance council) among all the other strangers… and the frustration and disappointment I felt when they told me I could not sit down with them. Turns out they were also trying to fit in and didn’t want people hearing them talking to another kid in a language other than English. For the next 4 months I ate lunch by myself in a table all the way by the corner of the cafeteria.
I remember one Saturday morning being awoken by my guidance council on the phone asking me why I wasn’t at school to take my SATs (SA what???)? So I showed up, not really knowing what I was supposed to do or why I had to take a test in math and English. With my 2+ months of do-or-die English knowledge but my far superior knowledge in math and without any type of preparation, I managed to score a 1040 on my SATs (640 in Math, 400 in English out of 1600 possible points all together). Throughout the years I also managed to join the High School Honors Society… twice!And had an A average in all of my classes during those 2 years of high school. As a matter of fact, due to my A average on all subjects, I was exempt from taking my finals as a senior! Not bad for someone who got dropped into a new culture 2 years before, huh?
Even with all of these achievements I was still viewed by my peers as a foreigner and someone who did not belong. Every now and then a teacher or even a guidance council would remark on how someone like us, foreigners, were so good at learning things so fast despite of our background. Back then and even today those remarks still sound like they were amazed at ‘how someone so inferior to them in all aspects could pick up “tricks” so fast’. I’m pretty sure that some of those remarks were responsible for a good number of kids dropping out before completing high school or even from going to college or a higher education. Eventually I graduated from high school and went on to earn a B.S. in Biochemistry and many more new adventures. But these will have to wait for another post, I’m afraid.
When I look back at all of these experiences I can’t help but feel glad! Now that I am older and father of 2 beautiful girls, I can totally appreciate my childhood and what happened during those years. It is because of these experiences that I learned to appreciate the decisions and sacrifices that my parents made and appreciate the things I’ve achieved along the way. Here’s to the adventures that are sure to come for the next 20 years!