Losing My Identity with The People of Rio

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“Gracias!”

Huh… obrigada?

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?”

“Não entende.”

(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.

Carnival accessoiries, Cinelândia

Centro

Praça Quinze Station

Paço Imperial

Centro

Centro

Copacabana

Copacabana

Largo do Machado

Botafogo

Copacabana

Ipanema

Ipanema

Ipanema

Ipanema

Ipanema

Copacabana

Copacabana

Botafogo

Botafogo

Rio de Janeiro Metro

Rio de Janeiro Metro

Centro

Botafogo

Botafogo, Shopping Rio Sul

Copacabana

Botafogo

Botafogo

Estação Cardeal Arcoverde

Estação Cardeal Arcoverde

Estação Cardeal Arcoverde

Copacabana, posto 6

Ipanema, posto 9

Ipanema, posto 10

Ipanema, posto 10

Ipanema, posto 10

Ipanema, posto 10

Ipanema, posto 10

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

6 Comments

    • I wonder too! Hard to say. Without the hijab, I think you’d be American by default, or maybe Eastern European. With it, you’d be associated to a Muslim country but I doubt Indonesia would come to mind!

  1. When I went there everyone spoke Portuguese to me (I only learned a few words on the plane over) and spoke Spanish to my brother who actually lived there and spoke the language haha
    to be fair I felt I had a good grasp of written Portuguese but pronunciation was a b*tch 😉

    • I truly admire your brother for being able to speak Portuguese. It’s a tough language! I’m not surprised you were addressed to in Portuguese, you could very well pass for Brazilian.

      • I know, despite his brain injury and accident he managed to get in touch in Portuguese with one of his friends there as well!
        And while I was there it was the first time I think that I felt like “I was blending in”
        And I loved that everyone was wearing a tiny bikini, no matter their size / shape / age

        • I know, I’ve never seen so many butts in my life 😆 It’s a very body positive culture overall I find.

          Your brother is pretty amazing. I really hope you two can do something together… he deserves it and so do you. He sounds like a great person who happened to be in a bad place at one point but has a great future.

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