“Where are you from”? Interestingly, it was only after living in the US for five years that I started hearing this question. I left Brazil in 1984 for postdoctoral training at New York University, and will never forget my reaction as the taxi from the airport entered Manhattan. The city felt at the same time familiar (probably from movies) and amazingly exciting, a magical place. Over time the magic did not fade, it only grew in complexity as hard work in the lab and a constant discovery of cultural treasures (that I only knew from books!) took over my time. I missed, of course, the special warmth of Brazilians (compensated by wonderful lab mates from all over the world) and the many little things that us expats grow up with and have to let go. Speaking of letting go, the dreaded day came when I had to return the keys of my Bleecker Street apartment and move to Connecticut to become an Assistant Professor. I had stretched my training years as much as could…
That’s when I began to hear the “where are you from?” question. Not at Yale, which like most universities in the US is populated by people from every corner of the planet. Accents did not matter – except perhaps for some poor overworked medical students, who once complained of trouble understanding their professors. My department chair, a native of Finland, tried to address the issue and proposed in a faculty meeting to hire a speech therapist. Needless to say, it did not go anywhere. As I remember vividly, a senior faculty member replied with a heavy Italian accent: “Forget it!!”. What struck me as different was the community in that part of the country, which was not as used to hearing broken English as New Yorkers are. Of course, their questions only reflected a healthy curiosity and desire to hear about other cultures. In retrospect, I think I should have engaged them more. The truth is that it reminded me of my “foreignness”, and of how the bubble of academia had probably shielded me from what is experienced daily by most people starting a life in another culture.
Which brings me to UMD College Park, a wonderfully diverse place where I have been very happy since I joined in 2009. When I first visited I was not planning to leave my 18-year Yale position - and much less become a department chair! But the warmth, authenticity and talent that I saw in CBMG seduced me, and the rest is history. I moved to Washington DC, discovered another extremely rich cultural environment, and, most of all, felt immediately at home. I don’t remember any “where are you from” greetings in Maryland or DC… As I started teaching undergraduates, I understood why. Every year I am blown away by the composition of my Cell Biology class. A true slice of humanity, all shades and cultures, sitting right there in front of me, curious, kind and respectful, and, to top it off, never getting older! I am touched every time I learn something about my students’ personal stories. Some came to the US as children, and quickly became their parents’ translators and assistants for all things American! Others were born here, but carry a rich blend of their parents’ countries and their own aspirations as American citizens. Others are American-born from all-American families, but I think it never crosses their minds why there are so many different “looks” in their classroom.
So now everything makes sense. I completely understand why some of us who at times felt “alien” are actually fortunate. You may lose precious things by leaving your original culture – but, if you are lucky, what you gain in terms of an appreciation for the richness of humanity more than compensates for it. I feel very lucky for having been exposed to a good chunk of the amazing cultures that have appeared in our beautiful planet. This is a rich gift that life in scientific research gives to us - and the opportunity to teach in a large public university like UMD is another. Other professions and environments may not provide these gifts so easily. So perhaps our mission is to share this wonder and acceptance of differences as best as we can, as the world wrestles with difficult times.