When Strangers Ask Me.

Author:Sabino, Mariana
Position:FIRST PERSON - Column

I tend to cringe when strangers ask me where I'm from. In that split-second, my tongue turns into a spring mattress in bad need of oiling, creaking with strain as I get ready to answer. In revolt, even my voice cracks at the summons. A simple answer reverberates like a lie through my senses even though I'm not, in what constitutes a genuine lie, lying at all. Still, in spite of my intent, a single place answer is bound to come out as a stumpy truth.

When the question is, "Where were you born?" (which hardly anyone ever asks, though it's perfectly direct), the answer flows easily: Brazil--the land of copper earth, childhood memories, and volatile, rusty democracy. I spent my early years in the country and had always longed to return someday. So I did. I've been back in Brazil for more than five years now, which is turning out to be a lot more complicated than I had imagined. Feeling like a foreigner in your native land is an interesting side-effect of a floating, hybrid identity.

When asked, "Where did you grow up?" I say the United States--as much as Georgia, Utah, and California can be viewed as a place. Whether it is an omission not to mention the extended summers in Brazil and Southern Europe towards the end of my adolescence or the eight years in Central and Eastern Europe after college, I don't know.

Now, if the question is (as it so often is), "Where are your ancestors from?" then I'm almost totally at a loss. Like most Brazilians, I'm not quite sure who frolicked with whom under the gauzy sway of the tropics. Asking would somehow seem like either prying, as if investigating my grandparents' rate of intercourse, or otherwise be sure to arouse suspicions as to my motives.

There's a saying in Portuguese, put in song by renowned singer-songwriter and author Chico Buarque, that goes, "Sin does not exist under the equator." This pretty much sums it up for me. In a country where the melting pot has long been a palpable reality and not just fodder for politicians, though it is that at times too, the subject of origins seems almost quaint--the stuff of tea parties in nineteenth-century drawing rooms.

There is, however, a verifiable Portuguese branch and with it, my Iberian looks to "prove" it. So, to simplify matters, should I say that I'm Portuguese? That I come from Portugal? Can I wear the "Made in Portugal' label, confident that I'm not misrepresenting myself? I'd hate to overlook the offshoots--incognito sprouts though they may be.


To continue reading