I finally figured out just what I have been missing in my life in Central West Brazil. On this past Sunday, I was traveling by bus with a friend back to my city of Campo Grande from a World Cup match in Cuiabá. On the fourteen-hour bus ride, I was questioned four times about my nationality and ability to speak Portuguese. These were not harmless inquiries but pointed interrogations to discover what in the world a non-Brazilian person of color was doing in Brazil. The first question came as an onslaught in the ladies’ bathroom at a rest stop. Not soon after I exited the stall, a fellow passenger quipped, “Are you Haitian” in Portuguese. I responded, “No,” and she asked again, as if I would change my answer and my nationality in a moment’s notice.
Minutes later, the waiter at the restaurant at this rest stop approached my Angolan friend and I speaking in French, under the assumption that we did not speak Portuguese and that we were Haitian or Senegalese. My friend responded in Portuguese, and the waiter laughed and smiled. He proceeded to recount to us stories of immigrants from Senegal and Haiti who had come through his restaurant without paying and his brute response to their not paying. Implicitly he was warning us, the two black bodies in his restaurant what would happen if we decided to abscond our monetary obligations. Later on this same bus ride, an older Brazilian woman sitting across the aisle from us asked if we were Haitian. Completely forgoing any travel etiquette, she stood and waited for our answer. We responded with our respective nationalities and conversed about Brazil before she sat down again. Finally our bus arrived to Campo Grande.
I was missing anonymity. Not anonymity in the Western sense where no one knows my name or cares to know my name but anonymity to board a bus, walk down the street, go to the grocery store, or enter my apartment building without being asked if I am Angolan or Haitian. Anonymity in the sense that people stop asking to touch my hair or feel the need to recount stories of the last Angolan/Haitian/African/black person whom they were friends with or raised their children or was their favorite black actor on TV. I take no offense in being Angolan or Haitian; I take offense in the assumption of nationality because of my physical appearance. I want to be anonymous. I want to belong.
Living outside of your home country comes with rewards and challenges, and one of them is representing and answering for your home country. I enjoy speaking about South Carolina, my African-American identity, and my family. But when these inquiries come from a place of preconceptions and stereotypes about black immigrants in Brazil, my desire to share and embrace is destroyed.
Dear Central West Brazil, I know you are unaccustomed to foreigners living in your lands, but please stop reminding me that I am not from ‘round here’, as we would say in South Carolina.
I am not an exhibit at the World Fair. Get to know me for who I am and for who you think I should be.