christ the redeemer

On Cultural Identity and Mixed Feelings

In Blog, Brazil, Storytelling by Kay4 Comments

cristo kay joe

My friend Joe and I at the Christ the Redeemer statue, looking Asian as always.

For the millionth, trillionth time, I am not Japanese, I think to myself, my blood boiling as yet another person here in Brazil calls me Japanese. Here in Rio, they have a saying called engolir sapos, literally “to swallow frogs,” but figuratively meaning those tense moments when you have something you’d like to say angrily, but you bite your tongue and keep it to yourself. During many of these occurrences, I’m definitely swallowing some pretty large frogs.

I know people don’t ask me about my nonexistent Japanese heritage out of malice. On the contrary, they usually ask to make conversation, to be friendly, or because they’re genuinely interested in knowing. They ask because Asian populations in Rio de Janeiro are scarce at best, and because an Asian walking on the street isn’t a common thing here. In São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil and the fourth largest in the world, there are a lot more Asians, primarily Japanese, and thus people are aware of the prevalence of Asian culture there.

Despite having a minuscule Japanese population, cariocas (people from Rio) love Japanese food, with Japanese restaurants on virtually every corner. Sometimes I can smell the scents of cooking teriyaki and fresh sushi while I’m walking to the bus stop. Yakisoba, a Japanese-style noodle dish, is sold at basically every diner and juice stand. Sake is sold in the grocery stores. And ironically, there are no Japanese people in sight at these various restaurants. The fascination with Japanese food and culture is prevalent here, probably because Asia is such a different, far away land with an entirely different lifestyle.

So, when I respond politely to every person who asks me about my heritage that I, in fact, am Filipino. I always get strange looks. At first, it kind of hurt a little, as many people would continue to call me Japanese after I told them the truth, or would make a rude racial slur like yelling “SUSHI” or “TERIYAKI” loudly from across the road. Oh, japonesa, they would say, especially men sitting in open air diners on the side of the road. On a good, day, I’ll only have one person ask me about my race. On a not-so-good day, five or six, many of whom don’t ask nicely.

I’ve traveled enough to know that side remarks such as these are not important. I’ll never see many of these people again, and even if I do, what does it matter? I know I’m Filipino, and that is all that counts.

But at the same time, it’s frustrating to repeatedly have to tell people over and over again that I am not, in fact, Japanese. That Japanese culture is entirely different than Filipino culture. That I would really prefer not to be called japonesa or even the occasional chinesa, especially if you’re trying to sell me something.

So now, when people ask me (or tell me) that I’m Japanese, I simply look them in the eye and tell them this – “I’m from the US.” Then, if they ask why I don’t look American, I swallow frogs once more and say, “I was born in the US, but my parents are Filipino.” If they’re truly interested, they ask more. If they don’t care, they walk away. It is a direct and honest response that seems to resonate with people, especially those of foreign descent.

christ the redeemer

Soaking up the sun with good old Cristo.

I am proud of my Filipino identity, despite the fact that a lot of people have never heard of the Philippines and many of those who have don’t know a thing about it. That’s okay. I don’t mind explaining why I have a Spanish last name (Rodriguez) but look like an Asian. It’s alright when I have to explain why I don’t speak an Asian language. I don’t mind giving the history lessons, the geography lessons, the culture lessons over and over and over again until I’ve memorized them like my multiplication tables, because I want people to know that the Philippines is a real place with real people (and that it’s not Japan). I also want them to realize that Americans come in all colors and ethnicities, and just because I am of Filipino descent doesn’t mean that I am not American.

I will continue to deny the fact that I am Japanese/Chinese/Korean/etc. until I stop being asked about it. Wishful thinking, but that’s okay with me, because I am happy to share who I am: the Filipino-American exchange student in Brazil with a Spanish/Latino last name.

At the NGO I work with, there’s a young boy, maybe ten or 11 years old, who always called me Japonesa. Not only that, but he would say things like sushi or go back to Japan. For the first week I volunteered, I just accepted it. Then one day, I was serving snack, and he said it again. This time, I wasn’t going to accept it. I held the snack in my hands and asked him, in my best Portuguese, “where am I from?” He looked at me, wide-eyed, and after a moment of shock muttered softly, “the US, por favor.” I smiled at him, my anger dissipated, and I handed him his snack. “Good,” I said, “now remember that for next time.”

I haven’t heard him call me Japonesa since.


  1. I like what you said, that Americans come in all colors and ethnicities. I don’t know personally this feeling that you have experienced except that as a pasty-white female with blond hair I get harassed in many countries that aren’t used to seeing someone like me. Things change, just very slowly! Then when I say my name sometimes people think I’m Irish. I have maybe 1/12 Irish in me and am actually more Italian. Very different! Good for you telling that boy finally. A good lesson for him.

  2. Great points made – I grew up in a large city in Illinois where only about half of the population was white, and I grew to love having friends of every color and race and religion and shape. Moving to a smaller suburb for me was a weird type of culture shock where every single person looked just like me (I had ONE Jewish friend in high school…and more in my sorority in college!). Ethnic diversity keeps up curious and interested in bridging gaps.

    I now live in Seville Spain, where every white person is a ‘guiri,’ and every person with Asian features is automatically Japanese, too. Every South African is called ‘Macchu Picchu’ thanks to a famous TV show. I teach and try and teach my students about the importance of ethnic diversity (hell, Spain is Spain because of the Romans, Visigoths, Celts and Moors!), but the discrimination has been so far ingrained in their heads by their own parents. As immigration here grows, I can already sense the sad consequences.

  3. There are a lot of people in the world that just don’t understand how someone can look one thing and be 100% another. But by traveling and little moments with people like that boy, you’re stamping out ignorance a little bit at a time.

  4. Thank you, Kay for sharing this. I totally agree with you about not giving up, and continuing to educate people about the Philippines and our heritage. And good for you for teaching that boy a valuable lesson.

    P.S. Recently went to Rio where my brother and I were called japonese one day AND chinese the other by random guys on the street. On the other hand, while we were in line for tickets, we talked to a Dutch guy and told him that we were from the Philippines and it was such a pleasant feeling that he knew the geographic location and general history of the Philippines. He didn’t even make that “you’re english is so good” comment. I don’t know, I felt like that was worth a share 🙂

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