Throughout my life, I’ve never really felt like I belonged somewhere. I could see parts of myself belonging to some groups or places, but never really felt like I was truly a part of anything.
During my childhood, I had some friends, and there was a group of kids/teens in my street that I would often hang out with, but to me it was always because of the activities we’d do, and not because I enjoyed being around them, or thought I was similar to them. We’d play football (soccer) in the street, play with our Beyblades or maybe play some Winning Eleven on our PS1s, but whenever the activity wasn’t one of these things, I just didn’t want to be there. I felt like an outsider that was just part of that group temporarily.
Now, this probably (certainly) is related to me being on the Autism spectrum (something I didn’t know back then), which does literally mean I wasn’t like them. The thing is, that feeling has kind of followed me through my whole life.
I live in the southernmost state of Brazil, a state that is known to have a local culture that’s very different from the rest of the country. Nowadays, I know that there’s no such thing as an homogeneous Brazilian culture. Brazil is pretty much an amalgamation of thousands of different cultures, indigenous, african, european, asian, and the results of all of those meeting together. That’s what makes it great. But back then, to me, Brazilian culture was whatever was shown on national TV (I didn’t have access to local channels). And honestly, nothing shown there looked like anything we had here. So, it was hard to see myself as part of this country.
Around 10 years ago, I started a long-distance relationship with a girl that lived about 700km (430 miles) from me. Against all odds we made it work and we’re now happily married! Anyway, I remember when her parents came to visit my city for the first time. Her dad loved the “gaúcho” culture, and was looking forward to coming to my state and seeing firsthand what it was like, and to eat an authentic gaúcho barbecue. Little did he know… that’s not what it’s like here either.
"Gaúcho" is how the people born in the state of Rio Grande do Sul (like me) are called. The name is also used a lot in Uruguay and Argentina, since those countries share a border with my state and also share a lot of the same culture.
You see, I do live in the state known for all that stuff, but the region I live in was populated waaaay later in history, by…. italian immigrants.
Back in the 1800s, the Empire of Brazil wanted to populate some areas of the south, partly to protect the land from neighboring countries, partly to push away the indigenous people. But what they also wanted was to “whiten the population”, so they started the process of bringing europeans from countries currently going through economic crisis, and bringing people that wanted to start over here. In this region, the majority came from Germany (in the 1820s), and Italy (in the 1870s).
This region was unpopulated before because it was hard to do so - it is very mountainous and with really dense forestation, so nobody wanted the trouble of building things here - not when they had better (easier) options still. When the immigrants came, they didn’t have much of a choice. They didn’t speak Portuguese, and all the best pieces of land were already taken. The Serra was the only place they could build on and own a piece of land. From what I’ve heard from my grandparents (and they heard from theirs), the government didn’t do much to help, so they pretty much grew here in a partially isolated manner - with their own culture brought from their origin countries and the life they built here.
So, when my in-laws came here for the first time, they were surprised (and somewhat disappointed) that it was nothing like what they thought it would be. Instead of barbecue everywhere, we eat pasta and polenta. The accent was different. The architecture was different. Of course, since I live in the biggest city of the region we did eventually start getting drops of culture from everywhere, most of it being from the gaúcho culture, since it’s the nearest, but still it’s definitely not as native as they had expected.
I’m not really a fan of going out and seeing all of this culture firsthand (at least I wasn’t; as I'm getting older I’m starting to enjoy it more), but I did have my fair share of family gatherings and events that definitely had italian roots. So, whenever I saw people talk about Brazil or my state, I could never see myself or the people around me in any of it. My logical conclusion is that I didn’t belong to my country or state at all, and maybe, since I was an “internet citizen” since I was a kid and had a lot of (virtual) contact with cultures from around the world that felt more like me, maybe my place in the world would be somewhere else!
During my late teen years and early 20s, this idea of leaving the country was always present, and I’ve tried dipping my toes a couple times. I tried going to Canada to study English for a month to see how I’d like there, but unfortunately my visa was denied twice, and I gave up. Then I went to Europe for tourism, which was really fun! I thought that since my family came from there, then naturally that’d be the place I’d belong to.
Last year, I moved to Italy for 3 months, in order to get my italian citizenship recognized. The original idea was to stay there after those 3 months, find a place to live, and leave Brazil behind. But, as the date approached, my wife and I realized we weren’t really comfortable with the idea of leaving everything behind and jumping into the unknown. So, we decided to use those 3 months as a test to see how much we liked it, and if we missed Brazil at all. We were wise.
Those 3 months were… tough. Of course, I was naturally uncomfortable with all the changes involved in moving across the Atlantic, but we moved into a really, really small town (with around 300 people), stayed in a house that had at least 300 years and we were in the middle of nowhere. Now, I’m really trying to not be unfair and judge an entire country by just a small town, and I do believe Italy is a great place to live. But, after all that, I think the biggest feeling my wife and I had was not that we hated where we were - but that we missed our home so much.
Suddenly, it all became clear. Even though we lived in an italian-brazilian place, it still was brazilian. That mix of different people might be more subtle than in other parts of the country, but it’s still there. And it’s still amazing. The people, the weather, the food, the music, it’s all unique to this small, very special part of the world. Special because it’s mine.
As a recently diagnosed autistic person, I’m now learning a lot about myself, and I’ve realized I’ve always struggled with my sense of identity. How can I learn who I am if I never see much of myself anywhere? It’s not an easy journey, and honestly I don’t think it has an end. Our identity changes all the time and is molded by what’s around us. This feeling of belonging is unique to each person, some find it at an early age, some never do. I always thought I’d be the latter.
Today, I was watching local TV and they were covering a festival celebrating local culture. More specifically, the italian-brazilian culture that developed here after all these years. I watched that and thought: “Yeah, I belong here”.