*De onde você é?

Elise Steenburgh - Brazil


May 20, 2018

 

“… I’ve never really identified myself as an American or felt apart of a culture here, maybe because I’m of mixed race or maybe because American culture shifts with every trend. I’m really excited and hopeful to discover myself and my identity in Brazil, where everyone shares a culture and history…” – August 2017


*”Where are you from?…” September 2017

It’s one of the first questions anyone you meet in Brazil will ask you. They typically assume that I am Brazilian— they’re really asking what city I was born in. When I say I’m not Brazilian, they ask…

“…É de Japão?”

No, I am not from Japan. I’m American. It feels weird to say it.

Sometimes they knit their eyebrows. Not quite believing my origin story, they ask where I’m really from. I tell them my dad is “really American”, but my mom is Vietnamese. It feels weird to say it.


“…What’s Wasian?” – September 2017

Wasian: I’m half White, half Asian. I thought it was self explanatory—back home it is—, but no one knew it, not even my cohort Fellows. I was utterly confused, and then realized the only person of East/South-east Asian descent in our cohort was me.

But I couldn’t justify spending time wondering about my racial identity. I looked a little different from the others, but I was not being oppressed or abused for it.

Anyway, I barely even count. I’m only half Asian. It feels weird to say it.


“…ive never consciously dealt with my asian identity bc like i am wasian but what does it even mean to be wasian there is no wasian culture…” – November 2017

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“everyone here be asking me…”

My “fake Instagram” posted a caption under a black and white photo of me gazing off into the distance, where “in this pic and in real life u can clearly tell i got a squishy pug face”. In a long, convoluted sentence with a fair bit of vulgar language, I poured out my conflict with the internalized racism I had just begun to realize I felt deep down.

In summary, I thought I had a problem with the people that kept asking what “oriental” I am— am I Japanese? With the people who were confused when I said “Vietnamese”, as if they didn’t know that it was even a country.

But I really had a problem with what I looked like. With not looking white.


“I can’t explain why I cried so hard. This past Wednesday, I had my first break down about Race, Heritage, and Identity, so this happening so soon after really affected me. Maybe it’s my mind/body/soul telling me I haven’t been integrity as much as I hoped I was. Who am I?” – November 2017

At Training Seminar 1, Analice, a new member of the GCY Brazil staff, gave a wonderful speak up introducing herself and her story that affected me immensely. I was sobbing throughout much of it.

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GCY Brazil Staff (L to R): Analice, Belkis, Chrislaine, Marcella, Yuri

It was because Analice was the first person in a long time that I noticed looked kind of like me. She is half Japanese, half indigenous Brazilian. While I cannot share her story as powerfully or as eloquently as she had, she outlined her journey of self-acceptance. From being teased (without realizing it) as a child, to journeying throughout Asia where people accepted her as one of their own, to returning to her ancestral home in Japan and finding peace.

Her speak up was a wake up call. I still don’t know quite what I feel or why, but I know I want to take a trip back to Vietnam. Maybe then I’ll figure out where I’m from and who I am. For now though, I’ll still have to struggle in identifying myself to Brazilians.


“Gringa” – December 2017

I wasn’t supposed to look at the seating chart, but I saw it as I poured myself another cup of soda. I wasn’t supposed to be offended, but I was. As I walked back to my “gringa”, “foreigner” seat at my host aunt’s 25th wedding anniversary party, my heart ached. I wasn’t marked as “Elise”, and I wasn’t even marked a spot as part of my host mom’s group. I wanted nothing more than to be considered part of their family. Their brazilian family. But I looked, sounded, acted too different. Too gringa.

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Me and my host mom at the wedding anniversary party

“Eu gosto de olhos puxados” – January 2018

He liked my eyes because they were “pulled”, or “slanted”, or “almond shaped”, however you want to translate it. He liked my eyes because they were clearly “oriental”, they marked me as Asian. I should have been flattered that this nice, Brazilian boy was attracted to me, that he thought I had pretty, likable, and “exotic” features.

But instead I was somewhat offended; I felt preyed-upon and emotionally manipulated. He made it seem like he was the exception for liking my eyes, because most other people wouldn’t be attracted to them. Because was the racial exception. I know I struggle sometimes with accepting my own appearance, but I didn’t need him trying to make me fall for him by making me think he was the only one that would like how I looked.

There was no second date.


“1. Wasian
2. Racially ambiguous/literally whatever they want
3. _____________” 
– February 2018

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Me and Patil

At Training Seminar 2, Patil gave a speak up about labels. She started by asking us all to write down 3 things each that described:
1. How we see ourselves
2. How others see us
3. How we want others to see us.

I didn’t know what I wanted people to see me as. With all my mixed feelings, I couldn’t think of an answer before she stopped us and started her talk. She spoke of being Armenian and Lebanese, simultaneously both, neither, and/or sometimes more one than the other. In the end, she revealed her own paper: blank. Her message of not needing to label yourself hit me powerfully and deeply. I was once more inspired to start on a clean slate and discover who I am. Who knows what my 3 answers will turn out to be.


“Você é brasileira?” -February 2018

I get so excited when people think I’m Brazilian. The hostel front desk clerk greeted everyone in English or Spanish — only foreigners came to stay to see Iguazu Falls. I responded quickly in Portuguese, trying not to reveal where I was from unless I really had to. Pleasantly surprised, the clerk switched to Portuguese and we had a nice conversation about my travel plans, the weather, and current events. At the end, he asked if I was Brazilian.

It makes me feel like finally I belong now. But I’m still not Brazilian. I don’t share their history or their politics, but I’m lucky to be allowed to experience some of their culture. It’s wonderful being able to see what culture is, what it means to share an identity.

And it’s not perfect. Some people argue that the north and south are so different they could be different countries. But it’s something, and it’s more than I ever felt in the US.


“Mentira!! Cê é tão branca” – February 2018

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Leo, Kara, and I eating Japanese red bean buns in São Paulo

We did it because we could. During Independent Travel, when people asked where we were from, we’d lie, say wild things like Germany, or Canada, or South Africa. I would say “Vietnam”. The first stranger in São Paulo looked at me with wide eyes of amazement and interest. He continued into a 10 minute talk about everything from the World Wars to the Vietnam War, spitting at the thought of the Americans. Good thing I didn’t reveal my true nationality.

Then the second stranger in Rio de Janeiro looked at me with wide eyes, and I expected more of the same, but he spat “Liar, you’re too white”.

I was frozen speechless. He was right. I am a liar. I had been lying to myself this entire time.

I don’t get to pick and choose who I am, where I’m from, or what I look like whenever I feel like. But I convinced myself that I could.


“Brasileirinha” – February 2018

“Little Brazilian”. That’s all I had ever wanted to be. Cecelo called me that because I wrote Portuguese incredibly well, and I had strong speaking skills for having only spent about 5 months studying it. We spent 4 hours discussing Brazilian Jazz and Bossa Nova in a mix of Portuguese-English, our language switching based on the language of the song we were listening to.

I dove into Portuguese with such gusto to make up for the fact that I cannot even speak my mother’s language. Of course, I didn’t do it consciously, I only just realized. So much of my childhood was spent resisting learning Rhadé, my mother’s people, the Vietnamese Edé’s, language. It was boring and too much work and nobody outside my family would speak it, so why bother. Given a new chance with Portuguese, I made it exciting and loved the work and spoke with any and everybody.


“Voce tem conexão a Japão?” – February 2018

No, my dad is white and my mom is Vietnamese. Statement of fact, I do not “have a connection to Japan”. Ah, the cute guy at the bus stop nodded, understanding, and then moved on to talk about life and spirituality and harmony.

I haven’t found harmony. I am still battling with who I am, who I want to be, how I am seen and how I want to be seen. But I realized then that I had said it as a statement of fact. Yes. Half of my genes are of Asian descent, half are white. That’s why I look like this.


“De onde você é?” – March 2018

Oh, how wrong was I, all the way from back in September to very recently, thinking people actually thought I was Brazilian. Sure, a couple of them did, they told me so. But the majority didn’t, I was just projecting onto our interactions. I had assumed that they thought I was Brazilian because that’s what I wanted them to think.

But really it’s because I have an accent. They ask “where are you from” because my thick American accent gives me away. It’s gotten better, some people guess that I’m Argentinian, Chilean, or Japanese, but still, they can’t pin point where in Brazil my accent would be from, so they ask. Although they don’t know I’m American from my accent, they can still tell I’m clearly a foreigner.


“As a Wasian, I am 50% White, 50% Asian, and 100% unsure of where I fit in” – April 2018

That was supposed to be my through line for Story Slam during ReEntry Training in Santa Cruz. But I didn’t tell my story to anyone outside of my small circle group.

I couldn’t bring myself to justify my confusion with my racial identity. I felt like my “struggle” was invalid, or would be invalidated.  I do not share all the obstacles and oppression that POC face. I ran in with some microaggressions, but that was it—micro. All it boiled down to was me being insecure with my own identity.

But I also didn’t share my story because it is wholly incomplete. I still don’t know who I am or where I’m from. Brazil hasn’t given me any answers, just more questions. Unless those two questions are really one and the same.


“Hablas Español?” and the occasional “Fala Português?” – May 2018

Once I got back home, I started a new job as a barista, so I am constantly talking to people. Surprisingly, many customers will start talking to me in Spanish. I respond in Portuguese that Yes, I can understand you, but I’m sorry, I speak Portuguese, not Spanish. They usually laugh, redo their order in English, and then I ask them where they’re from.

I meet people from all over South America, but most of them are Chilean or Argentinian. I tell them in Portuguese (while throwing in some Spanish words I’ve picked up from my coworkers) that I lived in Brazil this past year. Many people get excited and talk to me about how their cousins live in Brazil and how beautiful it is there whenever they visit. I agree and talk a little about Florianópolis. Our Portunhol conversations always brighten my day—I love any chance to practice my Portuguese.

I also often wear my Brazil T-shirt to work. The regulars know that I’m representing my Bridge Year, my unforgettable experience, my family and friends 5000 miles south and around the world. My coworkers roll their eyes, tease me and say, “yes, we know you miss Brazil, we get it, enough already”. Even though I’m technically at home now, I’m somehow still a foreigner— everyone else asks about my shirt and says “Well, if you’re not actually Brazilian, then…

*Where are you from?”

 

Elise Steenburgh