The first time I traveled outside of my home country was when I had the realization that people are people everywhere. This may sound silly at first, but I grew up being led to believe that that is not true. The people that live in that city, that neighborhood, they are not like “us”. The people that go to that school, work at that company, etc. — they are different, they are the “others”. Dismantling this myth was not by any means an automatic process, but it certainly helped set me free from prejudicial biases over time. In this part of my story, I was not yet aware of my privileges, and I wouldn’t come into that realization until several years later. However, this part of my story was one of personal growth that enabled me to face the privileges I have.

From Diversity in others, to Diversity in me

After my adventurous time in middle school, I passed an exam to join ETESP, a public state high school that was known to offer one of the best education in the whole state of São Paulo. I made some good friends there, from many different parts of the city. I had important teachers that made me aware of the fact that the “history” we were taught in school had nothing to do with our actual historical processes. My critical understanding about our extreme oligarchic Brazilian society — where the six richest men have the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent of the population; more than 100 million people [1]; and 45% of the lands are owned by less than 1% of land owners. This helped me understand the inequities that were embedded in my country’s history. I learned why our country still does not have railroads, the only cost efficient mode of transportation for a country of continental proportions as Brazil. Soon after we “declared” independence from Portugal, our country engaged in neocolonialist relationships with economic exponents like England and the USA until the present days.

This is the mindset I was in on the day we received a former student visitor, Oto, who was studying in Costa Rica, as part of a program called United World Colleges, which he came to tell us about. It was something out of a utopian novel, a school that was created in the post-war period, envisioned by Europeans who saw the opportunity to make education a force to celebrate differences and make the world a better place. It felt almost impossible to get one of the 6 scholarships out of thousands of applicants across the country. Still, I tried. I went through all the stages of the selection process: an exam, interview and retreat with the finalists. At last, I received a scholarship to attend high school in a boarding school in Hong Kong called Li Po Chun United World College, where I joined a cohort of students from 128 countries in a two-year long program.

For two years, every meal, I had the opportunity to sit with someone from each continent, at the same round table. The one thing I quickly realized was that it was pointless to assume anything about any given person sitting next to me. Starting with language. You simply could not expect anyone that looked North-American or White to speak perfect English. There were Africans and Southeast-Asians that were far more fluent in English compared to Eastern-European and South-Americans like me, White as much as an average Central European person, but who barely spoke English. Also, I could not assume one’s socio-economic background. In my first year, having a mobile phone and a laptop was not very common in Brazil — I did not have either when I arrived, as they were cost impairing for my family in Brazil. In Hong Kong, however, those were far more affordable, and at the school, almost everyone had both a laptop, and most locals had a mobile phone. I eventually was able to buy my first laptop, one of the cheapest possible. Only later I would learn that certain brands of computers denoted higher purchasing power, which many of my colleagues had, and I could never afford with my family’s money.

Even the personalities were things that I learned to look beyond. I remember our seniors not interacting much with a couple of women that had a certain mystical aura about them. I remember one with a Nordic, White angel-like complexion and the other was a brunette witch-like complexion, which added to their unique personalities. I always thought they were the coolest people, especially because of their solitude. Like me, they both took visual arts class and spent a lot of time in their studio, which inspired me to do the same. They had distinct and consistent styles. One would make iconic sea creatures with neon colors and the other would make demonic, nightmare-like creatures. They were skillful designers and painters, and I admired their dedication to their artwork. They inspired me to be my best artist, embracing my need for solitude to be in touch with my inner child. For someone who comes from a family where we are 4 siblings, that was something brand new to me, which I learned to appreciate.

During winter breaks, I did not have the financial means to go back home, so I spent them in Mainland China as a more affordable option. Those were my first Christmas away from family and friends. Most of the colleagues that went with me, were either Muslim or Buddhists, so they did not celebrate Christmas. On the first of those breaks, we were sent to a Chinese international boarding school in a neighboring province, in Guangzhou. We were each assigned to a local buddy. I was paired with one of the school’s student leaders, Toto, who I remember very fondly of:

Toto (right) and I, 2007

On Christmas Eve, children came to the school to some sort of party, where they would come in the most random costumes, ranging from vampires to easter bunnies, and superheroes. That moment made me realize that I did not really know the meaning of Christmas holidays to me until then: to be close to family and loved ones. The day after that, Toto took me to see places in the city with his friends, including fancy restaurants and some affluent farm-like places. We spent the New Years at his place, sitting in elegant sofas at his parents’ luxurious living room, watching Chinese opera, on an oversized TV. On the following day, I asked him out of curiosity what his parents worked with. To which he did not have an answer for, other than they did not talk about it. They seemed to be a rather close-knit family, however, for some reason, talking about their parents profession was some sort of tabu.

These moments added to a sense of estrangement I felt towards what I was learning about Chinese culture as a whole, but not for the Chinese people I met and befriended. Despite our cultural differences, I was able to talk to them just as I would talk to any new friend in a new school like ETESP (mentioned above) — We saw eye to eye, and shared many of the same values towards education and one another.

From left to right: Joyce & Yuan, some of my closest friends from those days

In this period of my life I had the most connection and self-growth I have ever experienced. Beyond being my first time away from home, barely speaking any English prior, and yet, I was able to connect with people who were also learning English as a second or third language, like Toto, instantly. This was when I realized that Brazil was part of Latin-America, and connected on a deep emotional level with fellow latines from Chile, Mexico, Venezuela and several others, and even picked up some Spanish by becoming friends with them. By taking Visual Arts as a high-level subject, I was able to investigate my soul so deep, and develop a unique sense of aesthetics, which allowed me to excel in art making, alongside incredibly talented people like Yuan and Joyce on the picture here. Yuan, who was also taking visual arts with me, we would end up going to the same art college and work at the same company later. Joyce, someone who I adore and consider one of my closest friends to this date, with whom somehow I had no classes in common with, but found to be such a kindred spirit.

Among so many discoveries, maybe the most important one I had on a personal level, was my sexual orientation. My colleagues and I still joke that our year group was likely the most queer bunch in the school’s history. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me — I felt a sense of safety and protection that allowed me to come out to myself and to my friends almost effortlessly. I couldn’t be luckier for the fact that my some of my best friends at home, the same from the community radio and Filósofa projects I mentioned previously, also happened be to LGBTQIA+ — even if we didn’t identify with these letters then, most of us do now. One thing was for sure: the more I learned about new identities, experimenting with the idea of being gay/queer, a visual artist, a friend of people all over the globe, the more I began seeing others as multidimensional.

My "gradsquare" made for the yearbook of the 2007–2009 graduating class at Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong. Photo credits: Iris de Oliveira, 2008

One day, when I was still in Hong Kong, my first virtual crush (who would later become my first boyfriend of some sort), wrote something teasing me, along the lines of “Diversity goes well with everything”. Today I am sure he did not mean what Diversity means today, but somehow, that left a mark on me. I believed that then, as I do now. I am still processing this time period in my life, even more than 10 years later. This much growth at that age made me very proud of what I was able to accomplish. This was also partly what made me blind to my own privileges until more recent years. However, I wish that every single person on this planet has an experience of Diversity that moves them like this one moved me.

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