Published On: July 21, 2017

Independence Here and There

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By Nathalia Vargas

Any teenager or young adult will be vehement in saying they seek independence. I remember my closed-bedroom-door-while-listening-to-Blink-182 phase when I thought all I had to do was to get a place for myself, perhaps with some friends, and I would be independent. To me, it was that simple.

As I grew older, I realized that independence doesn’t magically come when you move out of your parents’ house, let alone when you start earning some money. You will always need someone to rely on, whether it is to feed your cat when you go on vacation or to bail you out of prison, whatever situation presents itself.

Nobody can rightfully say they are completely independent. Even so, there are levels of independence we strive to achieve throughout our lives, and each one of us sees those benchmarks through our own perception of the world. Personally, I believe independence comes when one is able to support oneself in three different areas: financially, socially, and what I like to call “defensively.”

Having grown up in Brazil and recently moved to the United States, I have learned that just like anything that is influenced by our perception of the world, our vision of independence is deeply rooted in our culture. Analyzing teenagers and young adults (those who are wetting their feet in an independent lifestyle) in both countries, it’s easy to see how each nation molds one aspect of independence earlier than the other, and vice-versa.

Teenagers seek independence in different ways

Teenagers seek independence in different ways

To further understand how American and Brazilian young adults follow-up on the independence benchmarks I mentioned above (financial, social, and defensive), I invite you to create a mental image of the average middle-class American girl – let’s call her Mary Ann; and the average middle-class Brazilian girl – let’s call her Mariana.

Mary Ann and Mariana are both 18 years old, in high-school, and live in big cities. They are both anxious to enter adult life, and their present realities combined with expectations of the future will guide us through their perceptions of independence.

Financial Independence – This is the clearest item on my list of independence benchmarks. I believe everyone agrees that financial independence gets people one step closer to being truly independent. Mary Ann has a part-time job and probably makes around U$150 a week as a cashier at the local supermarket, or more if she waits tables. This taste of financial independence will keep Mary Ann working part-time throughout her college years until she’s ready for a full-time big girl job.

In the United States, it is common practice for teenagers to start working in high-school and use this income for their own expenses. During college, their part-time job helps with the high bills that come from living away from the parents – which they’ll probably do for the rest of their lives.

Typical teen employment

Typical teen employment in US

Meanwhile, Mariana lives off an allowance from her parents. If the family can afford it, they would prefer her first income to come in the later years of school, from a professional internship in her field. Her parents believe it’s their duty to support her until the job market is ready for Mariana. Since she will be living at home until she gets married and potentially not paying for college tuition, this doesn’t hurt the family budget as much as one may imagine. The idea of reaching financial independence early is extremely strong in the United States, while not prioritized in Brazil. I believe this is due to the capitalist-driven nature of Uncle Sam’s land.

Social Independence – Human relations are complicated (duh!) and learning to navigate them narrows the gap between an individual and society. We learn to interact interpersonally by exposing ourselves to a variety of social encounters, and processing their outcomes makes us more mature in a trial-and-error routine leading to social independence.

Mary Ann is looking forward to going to prom. Long dresses and corsages are what her friends like to talk about at school. After class, she plays softball at school and does her homework. Her weekends involve movie theaters, trips to the lake with her family, and sleepovers.

High school students at prom

High school students at prom in US

Mariana and her friends have been cramming for Vestibular, the big test that will admit them into college. During the weekends, Mariana is enjoying the nightlife in her city and planning a New Year’s Eve trip to the beach with her best friends. They are legally allowed to drink alcohol now (even though they have been doing so since the wave of 15th birthday celebrations a few years ago) and can throw their own parties.

Friendship relations in Brazil reach a deep commitment level early, teaching young adults maturity and social independence. I strongly believe this is a result of long hours at school together and the festive nature of our culture, forming bonds that American teenagers will only experience later on during their dorm-sharing college years.2B0E42B5-D47B-4DAE-931B-E10B79AF4828_w1023_r1_s

Defensive Independence – It’s an obvious reality that people who grow up in violent surroundings tend to mature faster, as the environment offers adverse circumstances. With that said, young Mary Ann has always enjoyed the safety of life in the U.S. She walks freely on the streets with her friends, takes her phone out on the bus, does not hold on to her purse while eating out. After work, Mary Ann pulls into to her parents’ driveway, opens the garage door and makes her way into their home, while thinking about a hot bath.

Mariana, on the other hand, carries her smartphone in a concealed pocket and has an extra phone with her in case she is mugged. She obsessively checks to see if her purse is still hanging from her shoulder, and before deactivating the alarm and opening the gate to her parents’ driveway, Mariana circles the block a couple of times, on the lookout for burglars. Defensive independence is the broken innocence that comes from a tough environment. It’s a sixth sense we develop in times of need, and this state of awareness is one of the pillars of personal independence.

adriana-lima-model-im-a-teenager-but-im-independent-i-have-my-ownPondering my goals as an independent adult, it’s evident the cultural differences surrounding independence create a gray area since independence is a personal concept.

While many may believe they seek the same type of independence, the truth is that each one of us is comfortable at a different level of independence. For that reason, it is not possible to determine who is more independent: Mary Ann or Mariana. For each of them, independence will come as needed and IF needed, in different degrees and shades.

Our environment and our culture dictate the habits that matter the most to us, and the means we need to accomplish them will become second nature, rooted in our personality. We are who we grow up to be – we may leave our home, but our home never leaves us.


Nathalia Vargas was born and raised in Brazil and currently lives in the U.S. Moving to North America has made her realize how much she identifies with her native land and given her a new perspective on life. She is majoring in business at Georgia State University and is an admirer of all things language related. She has a strong background in Portuguese grammar that she uses to improve her English.

[All the ideas expressed in this post reflect the author’s personal experiences. The author does not wish to overgeneralize or label the people and places mentioned.]

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