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My Expat Identity: Where Do I Belong?

Recently, I have been asking myself who I really am. With regard to my identity, I mean. I do know I am Brazilian — I was born there! However, I have been moving from country to country, and now I am not sure where I belong. I sometimes think that it would be perfect if I could have a bit of Germany, a bit of the US, and a bit of Brazil anytime I miss one of these countries.

From Brazil to Germany

At the age of 20, I decided to move to Germany — not just for a vacation, but I was moving there for real to attend university. It would be the first time I’d ever lived abroad. I arrived in southern Germany in the summer of 2015, and I still had the time to explore the little Bavarian town called Deggendorf before classes started in October. I even made friends shortly after I arrived there — with other Brazilians. Like many international students, I felt drawn to people from my home country in an unfamiliar environment where I didn’t know anyone.

However, despite starting out with other Brazilian students as friends, I was sometimes confused about my identity after living in Germany for a couple of years. I remember suffering from reverse culture shock when I went to Brazil on vacation in 2016. For example, I asked my mum, “Why are those people doing this?” And then she just shrugged and said, “What’s the problem? We have always done it that way.” I realized that I was comparing how things are done perfectly and systematically in Germany to Brazil, where we do them the “Brazilian way”. We call it jeitinho brasileiro when we solve a problem by bending the rules a bit or by ignoring established processes

During my three-and-a-half very busy years of studying in Germany, I turned quite serious in general. I really focused on what I wanted in life, such as succeeding in my studies and improving my German skills. But along the way, I lost some of the cool and relaxed way of enjoying life as I had usually done in Brazil.

From Germany to the US

Things started to get even stranger for me when I moved to the US in early 2019 for an international internship. When I arrived in the US, I found it quite hard to adjust to the new culture in the first few months. I guess it might have been easier if I had gone directly from Brazil to the US. I think Brazilians are very much like Americans, despite the language barrier. For example, I don’t think most Germans would ever start a friendly chat with a random person in the street for no apparent reason at all, while it would be completely normal in both Brazil and the US.

However, I arrived in the US after living in Germany for almost four years, so I was already “too German” for American culture in some ways. Fun fact: Almost no American I met would assume I was from Brazil — not because I didn’t look Brazilian to them, but just because of my accent! I was used to speaking German every day and kept speaking it with my German colleagues at the US office. That’s why I sounded more like a German person, rather than having the kind of Brazilian accent they were used to hearing.  

I also remember complaining about the way Americans used to do some things, mentally comparing it to Germany all the time. For instance, I became very irritated when I was having dinner at a US restaurant, and the waiters would rush us to leave as soon as we’d finished eating. From my time in Bavaria, I was used to staying and chatting over a drink after the meal.

Such moments of irritation were the reason why, at first, I kept saying to friends in Germany, “I can’t wait to go back.” What a fool I was…!

I did get to live my American dream after all, enjoying the beaches on the Jersey Shore, going to New York City for the weekend, and, most importantly, making American friends. For the first couple of months, I rented a room from an amazing woman called Jess. Then I moved in with Allyne, who was working at the same company as me and who became kind of my “American mum”. I was so lucky to live with such inspiring people. Jess and Allyne made my stay in the US a lot easier, and thanks to them, I adjusted to the American way of life pretty well. They helped me integrate and made me feel welcome by introducing me to their family and friends. I even got to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with them. I am still friends with both of them, and we keep in touch whenever we can.

From the US to Brazil

By the time my internship in the US came to an end, I was not missing Germany so much anymore. On the one hand, I was sad to leave the US; on the other hand, I was very excited about going home to Brazil for a two-month vacation after not having been there for two years.

I arrived in Brazil at the greatest time of the year to party hard — for Brazilian Carnival in February! Two German friends also came to spend a few days with me, and it was interesting to see them interact with my Brazilian ones. It made me realize that I was a slightly different person, depending on whether I was spending time with my Brazilian or my German friends. Language and culture showed different sides of my personality.

I went to Brazil in late February 2020. So, everyone can guess what happened next. My two-month vacation turned into one year of being stuck in Brazil. Due to COVID-19, I could not fly back to Germany, as I had planned, to finish my bachelor's degree and find a new job there. I was always trying to re-book my flight back to Germany as soon as possible, but international travel restrictions literally made it impossible.

So, I was back in the little fishing village in northeastern Brazil, where I had grown up. I tried to calm down and make the best of my unplanned stay. Not only did I start helping out my mom with her retail business and our family’s vacation rentals, but I also used the money I earned that way to take up a new hobby and bought some cool kitesurfing equipment. There I was, kitesurfing on the beautiful beach of Canoa Quebrada, but in my mind, I was already back in Germany, looking for a full-time job after graduating.

From Brazil to Germany… Again

But when I arrived in Germany at last, it was not the same old Germany that I had known before. In January 2021, I moved to Munich, a city which I loved and which was not that far away from the town where I had gone to university. Now, in August 2021, I am still here, living in a beautiful house I share with other girls.

However, being back in Germany does not feel like home anymore. After almost two years of being out of the country, I have been struggling with adjusting to local life all over again. The COVID-19 pandemic has made things harder too. It is difficult for recent graduates to find a full-time job, and there are still some health-and-safety restrictions here and there.

Now that I am finally back in Germany, I miss Brazil so much, and all I want is to be home, with my family and friends. Spending most of the pandemic with my family members and childhood friends has shown me how important it is to be close to your loved ones.

And Back to Brazil

After listening to my heart and figuring out what I really need now, I have made a decision. I will be flying home to Brazil in the next few weeks to spend the rest of 2021 with my family. I also want to take the time to find out where I want to live for the next few years.

To be honest, I still think I belong to the world out there. I am dreaming about living in Australia for one or two years, about gaining some work experience in Dubai. But I haven’t given up on Germany yet. Maybe I’ll return for my master’s degree next year. I just need some time to make up my mind and to understand all these conflicting feelings. It is hard to know your true identity, when you are so passionate about other countries and cultures.

I might have to get used to this: When I am in Brazil, I will miss Germany, and whenever I am in Germany, I will miss Brazil, and my friends from the US too. There is only one thing I am sure about right now — I cannot have it all.



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Isabelle Jacobs

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