Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Race...Argentina...Why Brasil?

Argentineans have a reputation for being arrogant, claiming to be the Europeans of South America. And yes, that is why I had originally fallen in love with the country. A mix of Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Hungarians, Polish, Germans, British, Danes, etc etc etc…lots and lots of Caucasians in Buenos Aires. I knew that from last time, of course, but this time it’s been a shock to the system. This is obviously in part due to the fact that I’ve arrived from Brasil, which might be the most racially diverse country of multi-generational immigrants (I hope I’m making sense) – as in, blacks, Asians, whites, indios, and every possible combination thenceforth, identifies themselves as Brasilian. Ask a Japanese descendant walking in Liberdade in Sao Paulo where they’re from and I’d bet money they wouldn’t say Japan. Bahianos, direct descendants of the slaves brought over from Africa, aren’t going to claim they’re Nigerian or Senegalese…they’re Brasilian.

So it’s just been a bit shocking for me to be surrounded by all white people and feel like I stick out. I am aware that this became an issue for me after beginning to live in Japan, obviously still very much a homogeneous society. So now it’s something I notice (I think I wrote about this whilst in Australia), and now I feel it again, very strongly, in Argentina. I don’t feel like I’m being judged in any way, but I take note of the fact that I am the only non-white person in almost every consumer space I occupy.

I’ve been trying to work out why I have down a complete 180 and decided that I love Brasil. Many friends have already asked me about my current tentative decision to go back to Rio de Janeiro to try and settle there, and I know that in the coming weeks I’ll be asked repeatedly.

So one is the race thing I just mentioned. In Rio de Janeiro, there are very few Asians. However, most Cariocas would assume that I am from Sao Paulo or some other part of Brasil, i.e. Amazonas, that is full of Japanese descendants.

Then…the nature. I’ve long missed living by the ocean…I wistfully recall the days in California when I was going daily to the beach, and Rio de Janeiro, beaches it has…Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon are familiar names to beach-lovers around the world. The mountains give the city a stunning backdrop.

Also, there’s a level of comfort I haven’t felt in a long time. Because there is so much range of everything, I feel like I can wear whatever, act however, be whatever, in Rio and it’s all good. You go to the beaches and women you would NEVER see in bikinis are sprawled out, completely unashamed.

But I think more than that, it’s the complexity of Brasil and how I constantly realize I am nowhere near figuring it out. The funny thing is that when I first arrived in Brasil I thought it was shallow and there wasn’t much to it and I had figured it all out, and was ready to leave. Now I think completely the opposite.

There are so many levels of society, from the wealthy who will never have to work another day in their lives because they live off their investments, which were probably passed down from their parents…down to the poor of the poor in the favelas, without education, food, hope…but they interact. Because of the availability in Rio de Janeiro of free public spaces, most notably for me Lapa and the beaches, you see these inconceivable extremes of society coming together. The extremes know that the other exists, that they are living within the limits of the same city yet worlds apart…and it’s just an interesting dynamic.

I met somebody in Rio that totally surprised me. A friend of a friend that runs a small hostel type situation in Ipanema, who has had no formal education but through astonishing social skills and street smarts, has managed to attain a high standard of living in this country where so many people accept their fate of what they’re born into in terms of location, color, and social class. But seeing that small window of inspiration has made me realize that there is more to it. And I want to take the time to try and see more windows in this society where it fluctuates between a blissful party and soulful sorrow, where life is pure joy or pure misery, but in the end, you have a coconut to get you through it all.

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