I read a Quora question asking about what it’s like to be Japanese Brazilian. I’m very interested in race and immigration, and have been exploring the question of what it’s like to be Asian in Brazil for quite some time.
I’m not Japanese Brazilian, but Asian American and lived, worked, and traveled in Brazil for a year. I have a lot of Japanese Brazilian friends (as well as other Asian Brazilian variations) and am often assumed to be Japanese Brazilian, so I have some perspectives to share based on first person experiences and comparing being Asian in Brazil with the treatment of Asians in the US in particular.
My first reaction is that how people view or interact with Asians largely depends on the region they are in. The states of Sao Paulo and Paraná (capital: Curitiba) have large amounts of Japanese Brazilians, so people naturally assumed that I was also Brazilian. It’s only after I start to speak that they would say surprisedly “você não é brasileira? (You’re not Brazilian?)”.
In fact, it is very easy to live a 100% Asian life if you wanted to due to the quantity of Asians of these regions. Just like in the US, some Asians gravitate towards to each other and only hang out with other Asians. From observation, I do think, though, that Asians have more multicultural friendships in Brazil. This is probably because most the Japanese have been there for at least 3-4 generations. Thus, they are more integrated into the society than Asian Americans are in the US (usually 1-2 generations).
One curious thing was that I observed many white girl-Asian guy couples – something you seldom see in America! Also, I got a huge kick out of going to a Japanese nightclub in Sao Paulo – known as a. Basically, it is just like any other nightclub (or university party, as the people there tend to be quite young), but with a 90% Asian population. Being in a room full of hundreds of Japanese Brazilians that only speak Portuguese is quite a sight to behold.
When I am outside of SP or Paraná, though, I do get stared at on the streets (for example, in Florianopolis). But I don’t think they assume that you’re not Brazilian – Brazilians in other regions where there are few Asians still know that there are many Japanese Brazilians in the country. Even if they don’t personally know any, they know about them from watching the news or from recognizing famous Japanese Brazilians (politicians, architects..). When I am in the North, I’ve been asked if I’m Paulista (someone from Sao Paulo). When I’m in the South, I often get the surprised “you’re not Brazilian” reaction. Especially since Asians generally don’t travel to Brazil nor do they work there.
Now, whether or not there’s discrimination is a trickier matter to assess. To be honest, in Brazil, I quickly realized that it is hard to apply American standards of racism. Brazilians love to give nicknames and tend to “call things as it is” without meaning offense or malice. For example, they would just call an Asian “japa” to their faces or even as a term of endearment. I have been called “chinezinha” (little Chinese girl) by a friend. And they would just call black people as “negro“, “negrão” (big black man), “negrinha“(little black girl). To be fair, if you’re not friends with the person, some people many get upset by this (and I’m sure it also has a lot to do with tone), but the sensitivity is not to the extent as it is in the US.
An example on Facebook of a comment from my friend’s mother. My friend is mixed, her dad is “Japanese Brazilian” and her mom is “Brazilian” (racially ambiguous Brazilian look of black&white mix). Here’s her comment on a picture of my friend + 3 other Asians. “Beautiful japas only. Love it. Kissesss.”
I went to Rio over Carnival with my Korean American girl friend who was visiting Brazil, Laura, and two Japanese Brazilian friends from Sao Paulo. There, on the beaches, people were yelling “japa linda!” (Pretty Japanese girl) and “japa!” to us every couple of minutes.
I could feel Laura tensing up. I had to explain to Laura that this kind of “catcall”/”harassment” is typical during the carnival and that’s just they way they talk. However, when the “konichiwa” and “frango!” (because Asians pronounce the “r” like “l”) taunts came I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t racism anymore.
After a couple hours of tolerating the “catcalls”, my friend had enough. She’s a lot more feisty than I am and unleashed the f-bomb at them. To support her (and because I was tipsy), I uncharacteristically joined in with her by yelling Portuguese profanities at the guys. This led to us screaming insults at each other. However, in true Brazilian fashion the screaming match ended up laughter and in the Brazilian guys trying to kiss us. At the end, what surprised us, though,was when asked our two Japanese Brazilian friends how they felt about it. They kind of shrugged and said it’s a little annoying but it’s just the way it’s always been.
Being called japa all the time sometimes made me feel uncomfortable. In the end, I learned to stop taking it so personally. I stopped letting my American instincts take over by feeling offended by every reference to my race.
So that’s my experience of being Asian in Brazil! Do you think it’s accurate?