Where are you from?

In Brazil, unlike many places, people were satisfied with my answer to where are you from?

I say “Americana” if I want to establish that I speak English fluently and am unsure whether the speaker even understands English. I say “San Francisco” if the speaker speaks English fluently to differentiate myself from other English speakers and to suggest my interests (food), world perspective (progressive in the sense of San Francisco), and professional background (techy).

It was one of the few countries where I wasn’t questioned about my origin. Where limited by their fluency in our “common” language—be it sparse words in English or gestures, they wanted to ask “where are you really from?” Sometimes, I would play dumb and insist that I was American or San Franciscan. But from time to time, I do say, “my parents grew up in Hong Kong” to appease people’s interests. And no, I don’t speak Japanese.

Because of that, I felt at ease in Brazil. While in Sao Paulo, during a lunch break from the conference, I wandered on my own (probably to the fear of fellow attendees who have been educated that SP is a very dangerous place) to local malls. Within minutes, I found myself ushered up escalators to sprawling food courts. English potatoes, the Brazilian style of Japanese food, the grill bbq, the sandwiches, the hamburguesas, the American fast food, the everything. As I walked, there were Asians. They had the ABC look. The kind that wasn’t quite fobby—their manner of walking and speaking was very Western, or perhaps, here clearly South American. Expressive, emotion, nothing held back. But I knew that staring at them, they were at their core, very Brazilian as they chatted with coworkers in fluent Portuguese. Most likely gossiping about work, about their colleagues, about the usual things that I would on a lunch break. I really blended in. And even too, throughout my trip, Brazilians asked me for directions, for confirmation (is this the right line?) and the usual things you would ask strangers. I would always have to answer hesitantly with my poor command of Portuguese: falo ingles

But only twice. And although it seems quite racist, two dark-skinned Brazilians came up to me on two separate occasions and said something. Almost leering at me making me grasp my belongings closer to my chest. The first time I had to ask him repeatedly what he said until I picked up the word that seemed to mean Japanese. The second time the tour guide had to explain that I didn’t speak Japanese and was not Japanese. “Why would he ask that?” I said annoyed.

“Because there’s many Japanese in Brazil,” she said and shrugged.

I wish people would stop and wonder first.

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