Out of Context

I don’t really know what I look like anymore.  I’ve been called so many different things that it’s hard to cling to one physical identity over another.

My previous personal descriptions have long been thrown out the window as I’ve struggled to understand the perceptions of my physical presence here in Brasil.  I have found that my mirror changes with each new place I go, as every community reflects (or perhaps projects) a diferente physical reality.

I left the United States as a brown-haires, brown-eyed, slightly-shorter-than-normal white girl with round cheecks that dimpled when I smiled and that unfortunately tended to squeeze my eyes shut in photos.  Long days at the beach have since bronzed my skin and bleached my hair, and yet, I still look more or less the same, and in the States would use the same physical description as before.

But in Bahia, the mirror is held with darker hands.  Here, my sandy-brown hair is briliantly blonde, my bronzed skin a betraying branco, and my hazely-brown eyes as good as blue.

I am a circle amidst a sea of squares, and I know it just as much as they do.  No matter how much I try to wiggle my tongue around the local gíria, or slang, speaking “bem baiano” at times, still I can’t seem to escape the question, “Você é de onde?”, which sometimes even proceeds an introduction.

One day when my friend Rebecca and I got on the bus headed to our afternoon English class in the bairro Lobato, reviewing our lesson in Portuguese, a man in front of us became convinced that she was from Italy.  When she said no, he proceeded to guess every country in Europe and Latin América, from France to Argentina–all except the United States.  Gleefully beside herself, Rebecca finally told him, “americana!”  For her, being an estrangeira from Argentina is at least better than being branded as American.

In the city or in the suburbs, on the beach, the bus, or in the classroom, everyone who sees me knows that I don’t really belong here.

In my whiter, lighter circles of friends, I’ll sometimes pass as brasileira, but never as baiana–only carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) or paulista (from São Paulo), if I’m lucky.

But on the streets of Salvador, my loira looks spark all kinds of unwanted attention, turning the tables on this seasoned observer, placing me in the uncomfortable position of constantly being watched.  When my personality would just like most to slip from one shadow to the next, unnoticed and unseen, my fairer skin screams instead, “Look at me!”  And when people look, they recognize, “Ah, ela não tem cara de brasileira, não.”  I know.  Here in Bahia, é óbvio, né?

However, all it takes is less than a two-hour plane South down the coast to Rio to completely transform the looking glass.  When I took a trip to Rio de Janeiro with my study abroad program a few weeks ago, I felt as if I had entered another world.  Another bigger, brighter, lighter, and whiter world in which all the buses were numbered and actually claimed to run according to some schedule (one which I never quite figured out in my 4 days there).  I felt as if I was in the middle of New York City and somewhere in Europe.*

The hardest part of Rio was trying to find its carioca residentes.  That city is filled full with foreigners, mostly European tourists and English teachers (of course, the fact that I stayed in an international hostel didn’t help my impression).  Besides the breathtaking beauty of the city itself, the best part about Rio was that I became Brasilian!  Or at least I was mistaken for one.  That or someone from Portugal, since my Bahian accent and introverted histency was confusing.

My bronzed branquitude blended beautifully in the chic neighborhoods of Ipanema, Copacabana, and Leblon as well as in the comercial center of the city.  There, if I avoided English, I passed and my fairer appearance was accepted at any corner juice bar, where I could order a deliciously cheap cup of açaí to-go like a local.

Yet, when my friend Rebecca and I hiked a trail behind the favela Vidigal which climbs the mountain on the far-right said of Praia de Ipanema (facing the sea), we quickly realized that we were the only two white people in the bairro.  Once we reached the trailhead, however, we passed mostly white-skinned Brasilian tourists from São Paulo and other parts of southern Brasil.  Back on the beach again in Ipanema was another story, and we would’ve passed for Brasilian if not for the fact that we brought napkin-wrapped sandwiches from the hostel instead of ordering food from the beach barracas.

The image in the mirror morphed yet again when our plane touched down in the city of São Paulo.  In the short walk from the plane to the airport, I was convinced I was dying from frostbite in the rainy, upper-fifty degree windy weather as all I had packed were shorts and tank tops.

I had never seen so many naturally blonde Brasilians in my life!  True to the stereotype, everyone in the airport was classily dressed in chic jackets, pants, and scarves (it was cold, people!), and as I looked into pairs of blue, green, and hazely-brown eyes, I felt simultaneously accepted and wierdly out of place as my bright Bahian colors and tan skin betrayed my foreignness as there’s no coastline in São Paulo.  Seriously though, I had forgotten how white people could get.

Rafting down the river beneath the Falls of Iguaçu and yelling in Portuguese to Rebecca as we raced back and forth along the border with Argentina towards the thundering waterfalls, we were baptized yet again with new identities.  While our very presence at the tourist centers of the city gave us away as non-locals, the fact that we spoke Portuguese convinced everyone we met that we couldn’t possibly be American.  Most often we were mistaken for/assumed to be Brasilians on vacation in Foz do Iguaçu.  One woman from São Paulo actually thought we were joking when we would say an English word here and there, as it is comman for Brasilians to play around and throw in an English word in conversation.  She didn’t believe us at first when we said that that was really our first language.

Being thought Brasilian, instead of merely being present in a Brasilian space is a wonderful thing.  And the sense of belonging that results from this recognized inclusion is a wonderful feeling.  Acceptance creates security for your soul.

That is why, as I boarded the plane to Salvador, I was filled with apprehension at the thought of losing this welcome misinterpretation of my national identity based on the south-eastern and south-western Brasilians’ social reflection (or construction) of my phsycial appearance and linguistic ability.  I didn’t want to give up these precious sentiments of acceptance that I felt due to the false conclusions of others as a result of their own social and racial norms.

As I bounced along the bus from the airport in Salvador to my apartment in the city’s center, I felt–even more profoundly than before–my foreignness.  I realized for the first time that while I felt as if I was coming home, to the rest of the bus I was just another blonde, blue-eyed tourist.  I have lived here for the past 4 months, dogonnit!  But as I looked into the dark eyes of the man next to me and felt the curious glances of the old woman two rows back, I understood just how irrelevant 4 months can be when all people can see is your reflection in their mirror.

While I’d like to be dramatic and end my story there, I have experienced more hopeful angles that keep me anticipating greater complexities in the outward understandings of myself.

The day after I got back to Salvador, walking along Rua de Graça, I heard someone call, “Moça!”  I looked up, startled from my concentrated navigation of my feet along the broken sidewalk tiles.  To my pleasant surprise, a woman proceeded to ask me directions to Campo Grande.  What was even more exciting, however, was that I actually knew what that was, where that was, and how to tell her to get there!

You couldn’t have stretched a bigger smile across my cheeks as I skipped and tripped along those same old broken tiles, my eyes no longer on my feet, but lifted high above the ground, as I headed back home.

*Disclaimer: I’ve never actually been to Europe.