Krsna Santos

Spotlight – Krsna Santos

“Umm, it’s complicated” is usually the response I give when people ask me “Where are you from?” For many it’s a harmless question, they can say “I’m from Virginia, I’m from Detroit, I’m from Germany,” but for me it’s the thing that makes me have to give a mini-autobiography. It goes something like “I’m from Detroit, but my whole family is from Brazil. So I’m from all over.” And that’s only the start of it. My name is also Krsna Santos. “So are you Indian?” “Wait, you aren’t Indian?” “Actually, my fiancé thought you were Indian!” is just a sampling of what people think when they see my name. My favorite was a math professor who thought I was from Goa, a part of India colonized by the Portuguese. That makes sense, because I am actually a Brazilian with an Indian name. The real explanation for my name, however, is that my parents were practicing Hinduism when I was born, and so I was named by a Hindu priest.

Why am I mentioning all of this when speaking about learning German? Because it all started with me wanting to know more about who I am and where I’m from. I began learning German, because of my family in Brazil. My grandfather Abel’s family migrated from Germany to the south of Brazil in the 1830s. Despite many marriages to Brazilians with a Portuguese background, German was spoken on that side of my family until World War II. During that war, printing in German was forbidden and speaking German became a taboo in Brazil. So my great grandmother was the last person to speak the language. Since I could not visit my grandfather, a flight too Brazil was and remains too expensive, I decided to take up German to build a connection with him and his history. I may not have been able to see him, but maybe by learning the language his parents spoke, I could get to know him.

I stuck with German through high school — only remembering that “Under the Sea” in German is still an incredible song — and continued it in college. Because my undergrad German professors showed so much earnest interest in supporting and mentoring me, I decided to make German my major. Ultimately in the Summer of 2008 I was getting ready to leave for a year abroad in Munich.  That same Summer my grandfather died, with my only memory of him being a picture I have of us together from 1991: my first time abroad. My second time abroad would also be because of him. I’m sorry to tell you, but all the clichés about studying abroad are true. It will change your life, you will make incredible friends, you will get to know yourself better, and yes, it probably will be the best year of your life. I didn’t want to believe it either, but it’s true!

But what I want to focus on here is how learning a language, and going abroad, helped me better know myself. Growing up I always thought I was 100% American. Maybe as the only member of my family that did not grow up in Brazil, the idea of identifying as Brazilian seemed strange to me. As a young “rebel” I even said I didn’t like Brazilian music! I mean, have you heard Bossa Nova? What is there not to like? With that then confidently American identity, I went abroad. Going abroad is in many ways about getting used to, and getting to know, how other people live and what is important to them. You learn another culture and another set of values. Germans, for example, are big fans of following the rules. Most of them will not cross a street if there is not a cross walk light. I’ve stood so many times torn between wanting to fit in and thinking “But everyone, let’s cross! There’s not even any cars coming!” I was split between knowing one culture, American culture, and wanting to learn and be comfortable in another one, German culture.

After a year abroad I returned to the US with the knowledge of two cultures and the ability to compare them. For the first time in my life I could see the US with a new perspective, to critique it.  All the sudden Americans felt very distant to me. Living on my own in the US I began missing the affectionate nature of Brazilian people, the generosity, the genuine concern for others they have. More and more that felt like home to me. Brazilian music, Brazilian food, it felt like the place I belonged. To this day spending time with Brazilians feel like being with family to me. I left feeling American, and returned, with the ability to see American anew, and realized that did not quite fit. Of course, I’m not the only one. Heinrich Heine’s bittersweet poetry about Germany, while in political exile in France, resonated with my feeling of not being in entirely the right place or culture. Turkish-German writer Safer Şenocak also wrote about having his feet on two coasts, and being torn as he tried to step forward. That’s a feeling me, and the German rappers of color I research, share. Being from many cultures — German, Brazilian, American, Turkish, Japanese — we all strive to find a language, a space where we entirely are, while being pulled in many directions by our multinational identities.

So, who am I? The son of a Brazilian woman who came here without a high school degree and unable to speak English. A son who got to see the world, who got to spend a Summer researching German hip-hop in Berlin. A son who gets to do what he loves with people who support him at every turn. I mean this sincerely, without learning German none of that would have been possible. Learning is a language isn’t a luxury, it isn’t something just for travel, it’s a process of knowing yourself and knowing others deeply. It gives you opportunities to see things in entirely new ways, to challenge fundamentally how you see the world. So, yes, who I am is still complicated, but studying German gave me the language and space to finally define myself.