Living in a foreign land is an exercise in (re)defining identities—your own and, to a given extent, that of your home country. It’s not just a matter of helping to deconstruct established national stereotypes; you also have to make an effort to convince people that, even when an aspect of a national stereotype is accurate or at least somewhat justifiable, you might just be one of those oddballs who don’t conform to the expected pattern.
Every time I meet someone for the first time, I learn about a new misconception about Brazil, or an additional trait of mine that doesn’t conform to the stereotype, or both. Yes, there are blond, white Brazilians. No, I don’t samba and I’m not that much of a soccer fan. Yes, I do speak Spanish, but the official language in Brazil is Portuguese. No, I didn’t live in a tree house. [Sigh.] These are some answers that I had to give (or that I didn’t really have to give, but that I thought it would be funny if you thought I did) in conversations with Americans here in the U.S., but I’m sure it could happen anywhere, with anyone. Except in Brazil or with Brazilians. Or so I thought.
One of these days I went to a Brazilian grocery store in Queens to buy some Brazilian products—chiefly, guaraná (a type of soda) and pão de queijo (an appetizer or snack). Sure, the Brazilian grocery store in Queens is formally part of U.S. territory. That said, you can sort of think of it as a small part of Brazil. You find Brazilian food there. You meet Brazilians who go shopping there. You can speak Portuguese with the store clerk. You need a visa to go there if you’re American—not really; I got carried away. Plus, the guy behind the counter was Brazilian: I heard him speak perfect Brazilian Portuguese with one customer, and later he spoke English with another customer—perfect English, but with an obvious Brazilian accent.
After getting everything I wanted to buy, and as I was putting all the items on the counter to check out, I asked the guy (in Portuguese, of course) if they no longer sold a certain brand of guaraná that I particularly like but couldn’t find in the store. In Portuguese, he reluctantly said, “no,” and later asked me, “you’re not Brazilian, are you?”
Now that was a bit startling! I had just spoken Portuguese with him. Why would he ask me that? I replied, in Portuguese, “sure, I’m Brazilian; I’m gaúcho.” (Gaúcho: a person born in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state or, quite simply, the best state in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro? Bahia? São Paulo? Nah. Just another common misconception I’m helping to deconstruct here. Ok, I admit it: we gaúchos might be just a bit parochial. But that’s only because we really are the best there is in Brazil. And we never lie.)
The guy finished adding up the prices and told me how much it was. “Thirty-one, twenty cents [or however much it actually was].” In English! Then I was completely startled. I had spoken Portuguese with him and told him I was Brazilian after he had put it into question. Oh, come on—drop the English, dude! It got even worse, though, when he didn’t help me to bag the groceries. That’s not how it works—neither in Brazil nor around here—and I started to feel awkward and unwelcome. At that point, I just wanted to leave as soon as I could show my passport to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer standing at the sidewalk just outside the store—sorry, I got carried away again.
On my way back home, I kept thinking—why would he act as if he didn’t believe I was Brazilian? Granted, there’s always the possibility that he was simply a weird person, but I had the impression he might have thought that I was an American trying to pass as a Brazilian, just because I don’t look stereotypically Brazilian (whatever that means). If he was really Brazilian, as I assumed he was, he should know better. I shouldn’t need to explain to him that there are blond, white Brazilians. Well, there are at least a few of us. And most of the few of us don’t live in tree houses anymore.
Not that I really care that the guy behind the counter in the Brazilian grocery store in Queens might think I’m not Brazilian. I have stockpiled guaraná and pão de queijo for the rest of my time here in New York. That conclusively proves that I am.