Ask Who I Am Not What

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There. A NPR article finally said what I’ve struggled to find the words to blog for months. In just six words, no less: “Ask Who I am, not What.”

No matter where I go here in interior Brazil my funny accent opens the door to the same conversation every time: “So, where are you from?” They seem to feel it is a social obligation (one shop girl actually apologized–“I’m so sorry. I forgot to ask where you are from!”). As the NPR article says, my heart breaks a little every time they do it.

I struggle with this sadness, the anger that flares with the pain. After all, universally they are just trying to be nice. To them being American is a lovely thing to be. “Que chique!”(How cool/stylish!), they coo. Funny, I didn’t think what I am was any sort of fashion choice. I was just born there.

In addition, I’m a silly sort of American. I haven’t ever met any movie stars. I’ve never been to a Lady Gaga concert. I’m not from any city that they can name (e.g., New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, or New Jersey). I think I prefer feijoada to McDonald’s. And I like it in rural Brazil and don’t think that I’m missing out on that much by being far from the USA.

I’m not any of the things that they think I am, and I am so much more than what they ever could have imagined. Nine times out of ten we never get there because we get stuck on what I am and not who. A few start off right and finally get around to asking where I’m from 10-15 minutes into the conversation, and I nearly tear up every time. I’m so tempted to say, “Thank you for letting me be me first.” Except that they would have no idea what I’m talking about.

I’m lucky. As far as being oppressed by a stereotype goes, I´ve got it pretty easy. I know this. Many of my friends back stateside get this conversation daily too. Except that they’re U.S. citizens and they’re getting questioned in their own home. They just happen to be African-American, Filipino-American, Mexican-American, or Puerto-Rican. I’m lucky because the stereotypes that my nationality and ethnicity trigger are positive ones–movie stars and fancy cars and tall buildings and money growing on trees, not welfare moms or crack or sweatshops or ethnic restaurants or mail-order brides.

I never really liked the American custom of asking what you do for a living as a conversational starter, either. Interestingly, that’s taboo here in Brazil. Probably because it’s a sore topic for many for so long. At heart it’s the same issue: ask me who I am, not what.

The next time you meet someone, what can you do to get to know this new person in front of you? How would you go about getting to know the Who and not the What?

In the meantime I’ll be here in Belo Horizonte learning a new set of skills because my old ones didn’t make it in the move. Sure, I could teach English like everyone seems hell-bent on encouraging me to do. In a larger city where there were more immigrants, where I could blend in more I think I might. Here, if I have one more thing that defines me to everyone as what I am not who I think I’ll scream. Instead I will be Malvina das Boas Mãos, Malvina of the Good Hands who has a knack for making things grow, who massages away your sore muscles, whose tasty cakes and wine are legend. That’s a little more like it.


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