They called me Érico, my Brazilian friends. And that’s who I, as a teenager, became, living with my family in the center of South America for four years in the 1980s. I played their sports. I learned their songs. As my Portuguese advanced, our conversations deepened. We talked politics, futebol, faith, girls, music. I traded my steel-stringed guitar for one with nylon strings. I started to play in church and elsewhere, learning Brazilian songs along with the American ones they already knew.
The fascination was mutual. They wanted to know all about us and we were drawn, through language, closer and closer to them and their place. The flash of affection, the easy smile, the quick embrace: Who were they, to offer these things so freely? By my last two years in Brazil, I lived among my new friends more and more easily, more and more freely. This freedom, inexpressibly satisfying, somehow came from them: it was their gift to me. And then the adventure was over. It was time for college.
I couldn’t wait to return to the United States. I was still American, after all, and proud of it. Whatever freedom I had come to know in Brazil, I knew I would be freer still back at home. I was headed to college—ready to leave home, to leave childhood, to move toward whatever it was I would become.
Upon impact, college knocked Brasil right out of me. Suddenly I was in a fight for standing, for a portion of white middle-class America in which there was, I instinctively felt, little margin for other cultural identities. It was a furious—and comical—dash to reassert my true Americanness, lest I be left behind and alone.
What I came to see only much later was that it was precisely my Brazilianness that sparked any special interest my classmates showed toward me. At my Christian college, the spirituality I had discovered in Brazil suddenly sounded in a different key. The finesse version of futebol I played had little in common with steamroller American soccer. Much of the music I knew was different. The tastes that had formed me were unusual, off-beat, distinct. And fashion? Language? Eventually I found my way back into mainstream America—into the culture of cool, as I came to think of it—but not without walking through some chilly weather to get there.
What I did gain in college was friends, all Americans—though I was myself an unusual kind of American, as my friends occasionally let me know. It all worked out. Just as I had hoped, I felt more freedom as I moved toward American adulthood. I went back to Brazil for one summer following my sophomore year. But like many of my own students today, by summer’s end I was eager to get back to school and my friends there. Once more, I left Brazil behind.