In all of my experiences abroad, the dreaded yet essential question most people ask when meeting me is “Where are you from?” I usually reply with “I’m from the U.S,” and although it’s the truth, it doesn’t encompass all the truth. Having pondered my response to this question almost every time it was asked during my six months in Brazil, I’ve had to revisit the question here in India. When I met with professor Kapur at CASI before leaving Penn I talked to him about my interest in emerging economies and how I had spent a semester in Brazil. He said that I would “see tints” of Brazil during my time in India and that people might even think I was Indian and try speaking to me in Hindi. Both of these things have happened.
Brazil and India are both incredible diverse and immense countries. They are both “BRICS” countries and sit in a hot bed of incredibly rapid globalization. Studying (for six months) and interning (for just 10 weeks) in a place bring very different experiences but these are my observations from just being in these two countries for some time. Unlike Brazil, India does not strike me as having a sense of “brasilidade (Brazilianness)” or its equivalent. Brazilianness is the idea of a national identity, that while the country is so diverse in many ways there is still a unifying identity. In India, every state has its own language, food, and culture and it’s like every state is its own different country. My coworkers all speak at least two to three languages and this seems to be the norm, where as in Brazil everyone just spoke Portuguese. In Brazil, I went to the beach almost everyday and would stand out for not wearing a Brazilian bikini. This summer, I have not worn shorts at all and my few beach experiences have consisted of staring at the water from a distance while wearing my kurta.
Yet, in terms of globalization, there are many parallels between these two countries. Both have huge populations and an enormous amount of natural resources. Yet the rapid globalization leads different segments of the population to benefit at very different rates which leads to absurd inequality. This can be seen when there are slums or favelas right next to skyscrapers and having beggars on the corridors of the fanciest neighborhoods. These “tints” make me realize that these two countries are similar in many ways but my identity and the way it is perceived is completely different in these two places. So back to “Where are you from?”, it’s a bit complicated.
My experience as a Latina abroad is quite interesting. I don’t consider myself Dominican-American as I became a U.S citizen less than two years ago, and attaching –American to my identity would be over simplifying my experience. I am both Dominican and American but the nuances of this identity are difficult to navigate while abroad. In Brazil, people would assume I was Brazilian until they heard the accent in my Portuguese, at which point I would answer the question with “I’m from the U.S” but people were often curious and probed further and after a few encounters I modified my answer to “I’m from the U.S, but was born in the D.R” and this seemed to be a much more acceptable answer. In India, I answer “I’m from the U.S” and people’s response usually vary depending on who I am with (White Americans, Asian Americans, or on my own). When I am with White Americans there is no follow up, but when I am with Tina, who is Asian, people ask if both of us are from the U.S. When I am on my own people ask if I am Indian or if my parents are Indian. Either way, it’s never an easy answer.
My “ambiguous” look often helps me go undetected and attract less attention when abroad but it is also a reminder of my “ni de aqui, ni de alla (neither from here nor there)” dilemma which many immigrants face. It is the idea of not really belonging to any one place. I’m not “truly” Dominican but I will never be “fully” American, but what does any of that even mean anyway?
So “I’m from the U.S”…kind of and although this question is somewhat annoying having to revisit it this summer has made me feel more confident about my identity and has helped me see that I don’t need to be one thing or the other because we are all citizens of the world. And while a fluid identity may be one of the “hardships” of my international citizenship, it is negligible compared to the benefits. I am extremely lucky and privileged to be able to see the world through the lens that my unique identity and experiences have helped me acquire.