What it’s like to be Asian in Brazil

Life as an Asian in Brazil

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 balada japa. 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.

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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.”

So Japas Lindas

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.

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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?

16 Comment

  1. otro asiático says: Reply

    great post. do you know about Rio de Janeiro? I suppose there are less Asians there, but it’s also a big city, so one wonders what it’s like to be Asian there… TIA! 🙂

    1. I don’t know much about Asians in Rio, but I do know that there aren’t many of them there… A pity because it’s such a nice place to live in!!

      1. Because Rio is too dangerous even for Brazil’s standards. Its not cosmopolitan as Sao Paulo. I wouldnt go beyond the hotels on the beach and leave your wallet and valuables in the hotel safeboxes.

  2. “One curious thing was that I observed many white girl-Asian guy couples – something you almost never see in America!”

    apparently, you’re not very observant; I live in southern california and I see this fairly often these days. Not only that, but the white girls with Asian guys seem to be more attractive than the Asian girls with white guys. of course, some asian guys may not be interested in white girls as most of their friends are asian, making it easy for them to find an attractive asian girlfriend; after all, the most attractive asian girls tend to go for asian guys.

    of course, if the Japanese in Brazil have been there for multiple generations, they’re likely to have more white friends and thus, more likely to date whites. But that can also be an issue since unlike America, Japan is no longer receiving a large influx of immigrants from Asia, so within a couple of generations, there will be much fewer full-blooded Asian people left.

    1. Keep in mind that all of the white girls you saw dating Asian guys were probably ugly. Brazil heavily value white features, and most Asian men would be regarded as ugly and undesirable in Brazil. Still much, much better to be Asian in the US since there are much more Asians in US, creating a stronger and more respected community.

      1. No, the white girls that date asian guys here are cute. Stop living in denial, America is fucking racist against asian men! Who cares if full blood disappear? I’m full blooded and tell you it makes no difference.

      2. You are pathetic. Go play with your blow up doll. From my observation Asian guys tend to date pretty white girls at least here in America. Asian American guys tend to be picky. I am married to a former model and I’ m 1.5 generation Korean. I also have two other Korean buddies who have pretty white girlfriends.

        1. Olá, caro amigo nipo-brasileiro! Não dê ouvidos a esse verme conhecido como “TheHusband1”. Esse lixo fica o dia inteiro trollando em diversos lugares do Reddit, já vi esse merda no Quora também. Apenas ignore esse pedaço lixo ambulante. Pra você ver o nível de como americano é.

      3. @Nikkei

        Actually, I have a Japanese Brazilian friend on facebook, and when I look through his friend list, I found quite a few other Japanese Brazilian guys. I did see some of them dating/married to white or non-asian women, but none of those women were attractive. Some were actually fairly below average. So it looks like Asian men in Brazil can’t actually get cute white girls since Brazil still heavily values whiteness and considers Asian features on men, placing them at the bottom of the barrel in Brazilian society. So no, it seems like you’re the one in denial. Your ignorance also reflects how poor the Brazilian education system is lol.

      4. @Nikkei

        Actually, I have a Japanese Brazilian friend on facebook, and when I look through his friend list, I found quite a few other Japanese Brazilian guys. I did see some of them dating/married to white or non-asian women, but none of those women were attractive. Some were actually fairly below average. So it looks like Asian men in Brazil can’t actually get cute white girls since Brazil still heavily values whiteness and considers Asian features on men to be ugly, placing them at the bottom of the barrel in Brazilian society. So no, it seems like you’re the one in denial. Your ignorance also reflects how poor the Brazilian education system is lol.

        1. TheHusband1 is a troll well-known in asian subreddits, he’s always spreading lies and bullshit, don’t listen to him.

          Can the adm remove his messages?

  3. @Nikki

    Lol you need to get out more. Good looking asian men are very popular in America, it’s the ugly fobby asians who people don’t like as much. Same in brazil, as majority of asian brazilian guys are ugly and won’t be able to attract high quality women.

    For the record, I’ve seen plenty of examples of pretty white american girls in relationships with asian dudes on various forms of social media, but have never seen one from brazil. So no, you’re the one who is living in denial because you hate to admit that asian guys in brazil can’t get good looking white girls.

    Also, are you really that stupid to think it wouldn’t matter if full blood disappear? If they did, there will be NO asian community left in your crappy country. An intelligent asian would at least have some pride and not want this to happen

  4. Hey there, very nice blog, I’m Japanese Brazilian and found your site by chance. I can totally relate to your experiences with racism. We hear “japa” and “abre o olho, japonês!” all the time, it gets really old and annoying. Unfortunately, we kind of learn to shrug it off, like your friends did. We Brazilians in general tend to minimize racism, or grow so accustomed to it that we start to think it’s normal, but we really shouldn’t. Try not to let these kind of remarks bother you, there are many nice and sensible Brazilians out there 🙂 Take care and keep on writing!

  5. I just got back from a trip from Rio De Janeiro and thought I would weigh in.

    I’m a typical looking Asian guy, and I can confirm that Rio De Janeiro is a great place to find love if you’re an Asian guy. The women there are beautiful on the inside and the outside. I spent only 10 days but couldn’t keep up with all the messages from women who wanted to see me!

    There weren’t many Asians from my observation, I only saw a handful of them on my trip there. People would sometimes ask if I was “Japones or Chines,” certainly not in any kind of malicious way, but more out of curiosity. Brazilians are warm and friendly people, and will be welcoming toward you no matter what race you are. I asked some of the girls I dated what they felt about Asians dating whites/latinas, and they just said that in Brazil this kind of thing is totally normal.

    No country is perfect, and racism exists everywhere in the world. However, I would challenge anyone to find a country where racism is less prevalent than in Brazil. I felt very comfortable walking around in Rio as an Asian guy. Yes, you have to be careful as crime (especially theft) is a problem in Rio…don’t go to favelas, don’t walk around alone at night, and don’t walk around holding your iPhone, as that will make you an easy target to get robbed. However, if you use common sense, you will be fine and enjoy your time there.

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