Winson Law - Brazil

October 4, 2011

Back in the United States, people sometimes ask me, “what type of Asian are you?” This sort of question makes me believe that I am some sort of species, ready to be examined for my assumed virtuoso violin skills, mathematical prowess, and whether or not I eat with chopsticks every night. I tell people that I’m Chinese with a hint of Vietnamese culture sprinkled in. As for those stereotypes, I played instruments just to be in the cool kids group, had to ask multiple questions to understand something in calculus, and used chopsticks incorrectly (unfortunately, those skills don’t come with race). Coming to Brazil, I prepared myself for a different experience as someone of Asian descent. An experience that involves becoming Japanese.
A Japanese restaurant near our hostel.

Here in Brazil, almost everyone assumes that I am Japanese. (Brazil has the highest population of Japanese people outside of Japan.) I got myself ready to be called japones, confident that I would not be phased and correct people about my true ethnicity. I was wrong. One night as I was walking into the hostel, a teenager whispered, “japonês” just so that I could hear him within ear shot. There was a touch of intrigue and malice in his tone. I just kept my mouth shut and walked inside, unable to speak. I thought that that would be my last experience, but I was wrong about that, too. Here are some of my experiences as a misplaced Chinese person in Brazil.

During a training session, when a professor of urban development studies talks about immigrants coming to Brazil, she says the word japones and gestures to me.

My favorite worker at our hostel greets me with “meu japonêzinho” (my little Japanese – the suffix “zinho” is used to denote something that is little, like cafezinho, little coffee).

I am constantly told to think about whether or not I’m actually not Japanese. “Wait, you really aren’t Japanese?”

I walk by the Sukiyaki restaurant on our street and people look at me as if I work there.

Peanut vendors claim that I am, in fact, Japanese.

When I’m missing one day, a student at the American school we visit asked, “where is the Japanese kid?”

These are just a sampling of the culturally corrosive assumptions that I’ve encountered in just the first four weeks. I never thought that just being marked with a different ethnicity would make me feel so out of place, misjudged, and even upset. Being called Japanese is like someone not saying my name correctly. A part of my identity is robbed. I can’t say that I’ve learned anything valuable yet from my new, adoptive ethnicity. I’ve been used to the luxury of being surrounded by people with a different perspective on race. Thrown out of my comfort-zone and into this new context, I’m just learning to adapt, grow, and laugh a little at new new identity as japonêzinho.

Winson Law