People of Rio tend to use common Spanish words with me when completing simple transactions, even though I show no sign of not understanding them. I’m far from being proficient in Portuguese but I don’t have any problem with numbers, buying stuff, asking for directions, etc.
“Why are you saying ‘muchas gracias’?” I asked once.
“Well, because you’re from Chile.”
Am I? I had no idea! Let me call my parents, I have to tell them the news because presumably, they’re also Chilean and they don’t even know it!
Note that I wasn’t wearing a I-love-Chile t-shirt and that I’ve also been mistaken for Argentinian, Uruguayan and Paraguayan.
So I’m from Chile, and this is just fine because guess what, Feng happens to be Japanese. Feng has been Japanese for a long time—I remember kids shouting “sayonara!” in Bolivia in 2002 and I found it puzzling back then. I get it, he looks Asian, but are all Asians Japanese? And why this need to greet a random Asian person in the street?
Feng didn’t seem offended. “Give it a few years. When Chinese start to travel, we’ll take over the world.”
He was right. He was “ni-hao-ed” several times in the past few years. People are starting to learn Mandarin. But in Brazil, it’s always sayonara or konichiwa, which leads to this awkward moment when a Chinese kid who grew up under Mao can’t possibly say something in Japanese because one, he doesn’t speak this language, two, that’s kind of like betraying motherland. After all, Feng spent his childhood chasing imaginary Japanese soldiers.
Maybe I’m being unfair to Cariocas. There’s a large Japanese population in São Paulo, so it may be easy to assume that Feng is Japanese. And I do speak Portuguese with a Spanish accent.
I can’t help it. Until my adventures in Portuguese, I had always thought that either you knew a language, either you didn’t. Of course, there are various levels of proficiency but if you use the right word or expression, locals generally understand you. I know Westerners who claim they just can’t pronounce anything in Mandarin and I always thought it was bullshit. I mean, it does take practice but Mandarin isn’t that cryptic or tongue-torturing once you understand how it works.
Well, now I know how they feel.
“A que horas fecha?”
(Yes, Cariocas are straightforward. If they can’t understand what you’re saying, they just say it.)
“A que horas fecha?” I repeat because I can’t think of any other way to ask what time the supermarket closes, adding hand gestures that may or may not make things clearer.
“Ah! ‘A que horas fecha!’”
“THAT’S WHAT i JUST SAID!” I feel like screaming.
But I can’t help it, most of the time, I pronounce words like I would in Spanish, especially when they are very close—llamada/chamada, deixar/dejar, posso/puedo, etc.
I wish I spoke Portuguese better to chat with people like I do in the rest of South America.
Here, I mostly observe and listen.