Navigating Identity in a Foreign Country

Top Articles on Studying Abroad from Students and Experts

story by Diana Arteaga

Editor's Note: This article is part of our Overseas Ambassador Reflection Series, which features the voice of Diversity Abroad Overseas Ambassadors. You can read the first article of this series by Fall 2016 Ambassador, Austin Ogletree, here

On a sunny day in California, I was walking around the Berkeley campus with my Brazilian friend. We were practicing each other’s native languages and talking about intersectional feminism. I was explaining to her my experience growing up as a Mexican-American, such as the racism I experienced and my desire to connect deeper with my heritage. She then told me something that sent me into a bit of a shock.

When you go to Brazil, you will be treated as a white woman.

Seeing the look of shock on my face, she then proceeded to explain how race and citizenship are viewed in Brazil. One of the biggest differences, she explained, is that, in Brazil, discrimination is heavily based on skin color and less emphasis is placed on ethnic heritage, like it is United States. The combination of my lighter brown skin tone and being an americana affords me a contextualized privileged status that has made me reflect on my identity.

One of the interactions that make it very clear to me that I hold this privileged status is when I enter apartment buildings. In Zona Sul, where my university is located, it is very common for the apartment buildings to have a porteiro, a security person who selectively lets residents and service workers into the building whom they recognize. Usually when they let you in, they call the person of whom you are there to see to ask if you have permission to go to the apartment.

However, there have been multiple times where, when I visit a friend in their apartment, the porteiro doesn’t much as glance in my direction and lets me into the building without asking who I was there to see or if I even had authorization to enter the building.

In other words, people let me into the building without questioning my right to be there.

The first few times this happened, it really struck me as odd, because in my experience in Rio, people are very aware of issues of security and are skeptical to allow people into their homes. The fact that these porteiros would let me, and unknown person, into the building knowing the risks that this may incur has made me reflect on what my Brazilian friend told me. Perhaps my lighter brown skin is perceived as nonthreatening.

My Brazilian friend’s personal insights have been invaluable for me to understand my experiences in Brazil. Learning how to navigate this new social position has been very difficult. Whenever I hear a comment from someone that disparages the poor or that generalizes violence in favela communities, I try to use this privileged position to start a conversation about these issues. People don’t realize that back home, it is my people of color community that is seen as violent. And being able to have these dialogues has helped me gain a better understanding of how society functions in Rio.

Going abroad can turn your world and how you identify upside down. These challenges to your identity will not only help you understand yourself better and where you fit in the global context, it will help you see the power that identity can have in different parts of the world.

Because identity is contextual, I think one of the best ways to prepare for your time abroad is to make friends with students from your host country at your American university and learn about the culture and social dynamics in your host country. In this cultural exchange, both of you will have so much to learn from each other, since it is likely that social dynamics and meanings of different identities differ in your respective countries.

Diana Arteaga

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Diana Arteaga is a senior Sociology undergraduate at UC Berkeley with a passion for travel and writing. An aspiring polyglot, she dreams of living nomadically and working remotely while pursing her goal of empowering underrepresented students to study abroad. She is currently spending her senior year studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In her daily life, she is always striving for the right mix of serious and silly.

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