Saturday, January 2, 2010


Being Asian in BAHIA, BRASIL

Here in Bahia there is a big “Black” population and the rest is mestiço (mixed “race”) or a brunette “White”. It is odd to see anything that strays from it, therefore any Asians are either Japanese or Chinese, and any blonde blue eyed people are assumed to be German many times.

Although I am not Asian, some of my closest friends were and I can’t go without mentioning their experience from what they said and I witnessed. And well if you’re Asian this is really important to you. However, I’m pretty sure that my friends experiences as Asian were also combined with gender effects because only Asian women were on this program so I wonder how the reactions to them would be different were they males.
Okay so.. it was something that my Asian friends noticed right away. Two were Chinese, Two Korean, One Cambodian, and another Japanese/Caucasian. And interestingly they all had different experiences, or (and?) interpreted them differently. I will describe more about 4 of them specifically and give a little of their background.

Jane*: One of my Korean friends, from L.A. and raised as a Korean. Physically she was really tan and died her hair super light, and she always got comments like “Japonesa! Japonesa!” Because the biggest Japanese population outside of Japan is in Brazil—BUT! But, in Sao Paulo which might as well be another country because it’s so far away and demographically/historically very different. Anyway so if you’re Asian in Brazil chances are people will assume you’re Japanese. Although one of my Chinese friends was called “Chinesa” a lot so…I don’t know. But this friend I guess stood out more because of her long thick light brown hair, tan skin-- apart from her race being extremely uncommon in Bahia; I think 0.26% of the Bahia population is Asian. People really find it different and a novelty so their reaction to her many times was asking if they could take a picture of her on their cell phones and what not. And I think she did let them at first but she’d never had someone ask her that before. However, she did feel very uncomfortable afterward and realized that it really made her feel a lot like an outsider and like she really could not blend in, she could not be accepted into the society because she was so different.

How she coped with it: well although she felt like an outsider and everything by the way she was treated and called names almost every single day in the street “Japão!”. One person did know she was Koreana, but one time apparently someone yelled out to her: “Mexicana!” and she’s like “woah, what?” But she tried to understand that she was out of the ordinary and people weren’t treating her as if she were less, just really different, some people would say stuff like “wow, how beautiful”. So I guess exoticizing--hardly better than xenophobia-- happens in every direction it seems, but again the power direction is different in lots of cases.

She could actually relate it to her experience in Mexico. She studied abroad there too, she’s super fluent in Spanish, but anyway so she said that a lot of people would refer to her as “La Chinita” and she found it really offensive at first and was like “I don’t like that” because 1.) she was not Chinese and 2.) because it was using the diminutive like “little Chinese girl” and she felt like she was being talked down to, but then she realized that that’s not the way they meant it. That they meant it more in the endearing diminutive sense, de carinho. So, she didn’t let that affect her experience and so many positive interactions; she made a lot of Brazilian friends who totally looked past her being Asian and she was just a person again.

Alex: She really, really was offended by a lot of what she experienced. She didn’t grow up with any strong Korean culture in New York where I think the Asian population is also pretty low, and in California, where she is studying, she is nothing really new for being Asian. But she would also get very different reactions, although she didn’t have dyed hair or anything and wasn’t as tan, so once people saw her face they’d notice. Many times she’d get the pointing and screaming out “Japonesa, Japonesa!” Especially by children who would follow it by stretching out their eyes. Or she’d just get “Japão!” not even 'Japanese 'but 'Japan'. Another time she was just walking down the street and an older lady suddenly grabs her hand and starts kissing it… in admiration? But she always had the luck of when she met people and they ask where we’re from and we respond California or the United States, then they’d be like “okay and where are YOU from because it looks like you’re from Asia”. Or they’d ask if she and another Asian friend who was there if they were sisters. One time there was this party and the housekeeper’s 13 year old daughter was hanging out with us, and she kept telling Alex “are you sure you’re from the U.S.? Because it looks like you’re from China” and she kept saying “no I’m Korean-America” or whatever, but she kept bringing up this talk of China and Alex was getting really frustrated. She later told me that she wanted to ask her back “ ‘Are you sure you’re from Brazil? Because it looks like you’re from Africa’ because it’s the same thing, I just don’t understand how people find it hard to believe there can be Asians outside of Asia.” So it was really super frustrating for her. It seemed like she got used to the street shout-outs but not when it came to her trying to have a conversation about something else and people keep asking about Asia. But apart from these frustrations she tried not to over-generalize because not everyone was like that, and she had a great time while in Bahia regardless.

Lena: she is from Oakland and goes to Berkeley. She grew up with a strong Chinese culture, she studied a year in China and speaks Mandarin and Cantonese fluently. She is fair skinned with long, straight, black hair. Anyway she also had a really hard time. So much that she just wanted to leave it all and got really homesick and really wanted to be around more Asians. She would get a lot of “Japonesa” too but “chinesa” as well and if not then a lot of stares--explicit stares. One time she was followed around for a while when she wanted to go home from ACBEU but she didn’t want to let this guy know where she lived so walked back around school and the Campo Grande Park until he stopped following her. She was really scared for her safety sometimes but really this treatment was depressing her a lot. She considered it really rude and racist and it really affected her experience in Brazil because she ended up hating Salvador and felt that the poverty and wealth gap were possibly affecting the way that people treated each other rudely. She said she didn’t really want to go back to Brazil unless it was to São Paulo where there is that Japanese bairro and most of the Asian population of the country..

This is what Lena says:
"People in the States in the liberal hotspots like the Bay Area try to be politically correct, sometimes to an extreme. And there are many places in USA that are not like that.
Speaking on being an Asian woman in Brazil has at least two aspects to explore, the race and the gender. You can attest the constant unwanted and rude attention women get from men. Also, there was no Asian man to testify how gender affects the situation.
I don’t mind the assumption that I may be Japanese but why should it be pointed out as I was walking down the street minding my business. I remember a time when Alex*, Ayako* and I were walking back from Porto da Barra and a middle-aged man walking with his wife coming from the opposite direction... said, “japonesa, japonesa, japonesa…” Why? I know Asians are not that prevalent in Bahia but there are pockets of them living there. Of course, there is also this song that gets played that keeps on repeating “japonesa” in the chorus or whatever and that shows how people don’t perceive it as anything rude. But at the moment he points us out, he is making a distinction that we are different from him; we are Asian-looking. (Perhaps a male wouldn’t get the same treatment, the vocal part of it.) Even walking to ACBEU and passing the high school students, some of the boys would try to say nonsensical things in an attempt to make fun of Asiatic languages.
It also bothers me that some people don’t know that Japan is its own country and there are different countries within continental Asian that speak different languages and have different cultures. So, I had to explain that like in Europe that has different peoples and cultures; Asia also has different peoples. And there were quite a few people who can tell that I am Chinese. So there are people who know are more aware of geography and the different peoples that inhabit the earth, but there are people who are not as aware.

As you know, I’m currently in a relationship with a baiano. And he has many stereotypes of Asian people being reclusive, having strict parents, and others that I am not so clear about. It is unfortunate that I am kind of on the quiet side and that he assumes is a racial/cultural type instead of a personality type. He also talks about comparative penis sizes… Suffice it to say, we had many discussions about race. In Brazil there isn’t racial tension but there is inequality, so I think people don’t know the role that misconceptions and stereotypes play in keeping socio-economic inequalities.

Anyhow, like many other Brazilians, he isn’t racist, but really insensitive. Nowadays, he pays attention to a lot more remarks made about Asian people and notices them more and he reports back to me about them, I find it really cute. haha. Another comment he made was that if he were Asian in the USA, he probably wouldn’t feel American. He hasn’t been to the States and he has only watched movies and got other information from the media, but I guess he may be making the association with the Asian population gathering together in Liberdade, Sao Paulo and not fully integrating the Brazilian society…? At least that is the feeling I get from that statement, but I told him that I do feel American, in regards to my views and experiences…what other cultural identity can I claim, clearly I have many Chinese influences but the Chinese within China are very diverse and the Chinese communities in the USA are just as diverse. And the truth is that many generations of immigrants from different regions of the world have been trying to make a place for themselves within USA and that’s what we have to do, make a place for ourselves. Part of the process of making a place for our communities to setting up support systems such as Liberdade or Chinatowns, etc. I find it interesting that it sets people apart, but also, a necessary place to make people visible.

Also, another snippet on race, he told me that his momma didn’t want him to be partners with a darker skinned woman because their children may have a more difficult time in society. It isn’t a problem that I am Asian, apparently. His momma is really fair-skinned, which he considers white, and his father is black. His mom’s siblings are a range of colors. So, on some level, people know of the racial inequality, but maybe like in the States, it is perceived as a black and white dichotomy.
The black and white dichotomy brings another point, where in lecture Fernando and Willys said that the statistics of Asian people are so low, it doesn’t matter in the whole racial dynamics of Brazil. I think there is a similar phenomenon in the USA where people think that Asian people are doing well and are not a part of the racial discussion, but of course this isn’t a correct assumption. I was reading blogs online and there was a comment from an Asian guy associating his insecurities in dating with how he has no confidence because he was Asian. There isn’t a masculine role model for Asian guys and I’m not one for gender roles but I know that such things affect people.

I am very sensitive to these social issues even though there is no hard feelings from the people who say rude things, but a combination of ignorance to the point where it borders disrespect really got to me. Other than that, Brazil was a wonderful experience and people are very nice."

[Thanks Lena!]

Ayako: Because she was Japanese-Caucasian and really tall, had natural light brown hair, a lot of people, on the street and people she met, just treated her like other “American girls” but once in a while she’d get people who said “arigatou” to her and she’d get really excited and ask them in Japanese if they spoke Nihonn-go (Japanese) but sometimes they would just say it teasingly. But she usually didn’t get the “Japonesa!” out in the street.
However, sometimes when she’d meet people even mães from the program! When she’d for one reason or another bring up “oh I’m half Japanese, twice she got in response “oh I can see it now because your eyes go like this [stretching them a little]” and she just was really shocked because from everything that we’re used to in California, that is considered really rude, but this was coming from really extremely sweet mothers and they weren’t doing it to be offensive. I guess people don’t really consider that rude here.

Other experiences with Brazilians:
Even Allegria’s mom, and I see her often, she is just sooo sweet and I love her, she is MARRIED to a Japanese guy but even she treats being Asian as something special I guess… when she was explaining to Allegria: “my husband is Japanese” she’d stretch out her eyes as if to make sure she understood. And when I mentioned one day “oh my partner is also Japanese”, afterward every once in a while she’d make comments like “oh your Japanese namorado is going to love to see you all tan; they go crazy for that” And I didn’t find it particularly rude and it didn’t make me think less of her, but I found it interesting that well even being married to a Japanese man she makes these kind of generalizations but.. yeah race relations are different here.
The histories are very different, Chinese immigrants didn’t play the same role here as in the States and their connotation was never the whole “china man, china man sittin’ on a fence, tryin’ to make a dollar out of 15 cents”. And there was never the whole Pearl Harbor deal, Japanese internment camps, or the “Japs”. So, it may not be as sensitive an issue as in the States.
Just be aware and know that it’s not necessarily meaning to insult you.
Even I get the whole double questioning once in a while, about “oh you’re from California too?” but it’s a lot different because a lot of the time people will just assume I’m Brazilian or I’ll be like “I’m from California” “oh I though you were Brazilian” but it’s because of similar indigenous populations within Brazil that it’s not all that uncommon. But I did kind of feel strange when one time I went to visit my Tia and I was meeting someone and my mom is like,
"you’ve already met her before”
“não, não a conheci, você só falou de uma menina nova, Americana que parece Índia”
[=no, I haven’t met her, you just told me about the new girl, the American girl that looks like an Indian]

So being the American that looks like an “Indian” [native- not from India] makes me feel a little like an outsider yeah. But, like even Fernanda told me one of the first times we met that she was surprised that I’m so morena, and she asked me why I’m so dark/tan. And I saw it as a good opportunity to talk about the diversity in the States and also about some of our race relations and why it is that as a Mexican, Indigenous descendant I ended up in California and also why the “Americans” they usually see are white. I got to describe some of the racial-class issues of the States. And honestly I’m proud of my indigenous background and proud that people can see it, but I guess I am a little sensitive about the incorrect “Indian” terminology.
I don’t mind it when people think I’m from India or anything but it’s the whole like continuation of lack of importance given to Natives that just call them whatever they were first called ignorantly by Colombus, and oh it just makes me remember the whole Cowboy-Indian and “red-skins” deal in the States and the genocide which I still am not over. But I don’t see it as though they are trying to insult me or they realized how charged their words can be to me (and I'm sure lots of other people). But not just because I look this way are they treating me like I’m subordinate so, as long as they still treat me with respect I’m okay and I do understand that it’s not their fault that they say "Indian" and not "Indigenous Peoples" or "Native Americans".

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