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There hasn’t been a day since I returned from my trip this January, that I haven’t missed and wanted to be back in Brazil. It’s not just because I felt safer there than I have ever felt in the United States. It’s so much more than that. When I finally got to go back after twenty years, it was the first time that I felt like I actually belonged somewhere. There is something about the way that people interacted with me, that resonated on an intensely deep level. It took me back to my childhood. Complete strangers smiled and talked to me if we stood by them long enough. Family that I was meeting for the first time, greeted and treated me as if we’d been lifelong friends.

When people ask me what I remember about growing up in Brazil, I tell them what I remember most vividly is walking home from elementary school with my mom and cousins, and everyday a street vendor would give me a ‘sample’ of his pastry treats. He didn’t know my name, and I didn’t know his, but he knew our faces, probably looked forward to seeing us run up to his food stand, and felt like our friend.

One thing that stayed with me throughout my life in the United States, is the unintentional habit of making eye contact with everyone in front of me. I feel like I am Americanized in almost every other way, except for my need to feel connected to those around me. As I walk down the street, I often look at the nearest person walking toward me and smile. I give them a genuine ‘hope you’re having a good day’ smile, and most of the time their instinct is to look away, frown, or awkwardly grin. 

I met a lot of family members for the first time, and within minutes of meeting them, we were sharing intimate details openly and listening attentively. I’m not sure if Brazilians feel connected by their mutual struggle, or if they count on each other to make life fulfilling, or if they are taught to be warm and friendly to everyone they meet — but my favorite things about Brazilians are that their byes feel like good byes, and that they always wish you well in the sweetest and most elaborate ways. 

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Every connection is meaningful. Every moment is memorable. I remember for a moment sitting down and talking to a street performer, after listening to him play his guitar, and he shared with me insights into Rio de Janeiro that I can only compare to conversations that I have with my closest friends. He shared a piece of his mind without even knowing me, and I’ll never forget that.

I always thought that I belonged in America, but to be honest, but I never felt that I did. I didn’t want to belong in Brazil, where my mom and I were struggling to survive, but now I want that feeling of belonging more than anything. As I look through job postings on LinkedIn, in the region where my relatives live, I am reminded of why life there is a struggle. It is a lack of opportunity. Only a few options are available, and are limited to those with high levels of education for entry level positions. That is what keeps me from determining that I could go back for good.