The Unaware Other
I first became aware of my “Otherness” when I was in second grade during the fall of 1991. It was a surprisingly sunny day in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. All of the students in my school were antsy to get out because it was the Friday before a three-day weekend. It was getting cold and windy, but it had been a stuffy, humid and hot summer so I was glad to see it go. The strong wind had brought the smell of the ocean inland and I could smell it even from my school. Everyone was looking forward to this long weekend because it would probably be the last good weekend before the snow started coming and it would become harder to play outside. My dad was picking me up from school that day because my mom, a nurse, had a long shift and my dad, a sound technician for the local movie theatres, had flexible hours. My best friend at the time needed a ride home and my father, being the nice guy he is, gave her a ride home. The entire ride home my father, my friend and I were talking about school, our teachers and anything you can talk to eight year olds about. We said our goodbyes, dropped her off and everything seemed to be fine and normal.
Since my family and I traveled for the holiday, I had not seen my friend in days, but the next day that school was held, my friend came up to me and told me she thought my dad “talked funny”. I just stared at her not knowing what to say, but I was thinking no he doesn’t, he talks normally. She had a look on her face as if to say that she didn’t understand me or who my father was either. She had come to see me as an “Other” which made me see myself as an other for the first time.
My family lived in Hyannis, a part of Cape Cod that didn’t usually see many ethnic others and if they did, it was as gardeners, maids and other low waged workers that no one paid attention to. The truth was that my father did speak “funny”; he spoke with a heavy Portuguese accent that sometimes made him hard to understand. Looking back now, I know that my father had a different accent but back then I just thought it was a normal thing. As a kid I thought that since I could switch back and forth from English to Portuguese, everyone had another language they knew. I was born in Brazil, but raised in the United States. Since I was very young when I came here, I have adapted to American culture while still keeping to the Brazilian culture that I have been exposed to by my parents. Growing up like this made me oblivious to what was viewed as different by other people.
That morning after my friend broke the news to me, I just sat there thinking about everything that made my family different. I realized that it was fun not being like anyone else in my school because I got to have conversations with my family about how “the Americans” pronounced our names and which new curse words we had learned that week. However it was not all fun, as any other young child I became worried about what everyone else thought of me and from that point on I was always trying a little harder to act more American and adopt a few more American cultural characteristics. As a child, I was seeking a sense of belonging and was afraid that because I was different it meant that I wouldn’t be accepted. I always felt that I wasn’t American enough for the Americans but I was no longer Brazilian enough for Brazilians. In my mind, I had to pick which group to belong with and do everything in my power to become a full-fledged member of that group. This affected how I interacted with everyone in my life and everyone was able to notice the change. My father who I spent most of my time with noticed the change as well.
After giving Junia’s friend a ride home, I noticed a difference in her. She wouldn’t speak Portuguese as much and was always trying extra hard to make herself fit in. She did every extra curricular activity that was possible in order to prove to herself that she could succeed. She cringed at every interaction my wife and I had with her friends. It seemed that Junia became embarrassed of us.
Now that I’m older and hopefully wiser, I know that finding out that my dad “talks funny” changed the way I felt and affected my confidence in grade school. Interactions as I was growing up eventually made me learn that being different is actually a good thing and people are generally more curious and intrigued than judgmental, as I had feared they were. The significance of this incident is something that I keep with me still today. Learning that I was different and that I had nothing to do with it bothered me because of the lack of control I had over it. Eventually I learned that “normal” is in the eye of the beholder and that even my gaze as an outsider continues to change as immigrants like me remake our America.
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