I’m walking down the street in Paraty, a small colonial town about four hours outside of Rio de Janeiro, and I’m searching for a wall-charger for my phone. An incense display outside of a neighborhood corner store catches my eye and I soon realize it’s one of those “we-sell-everything” sort of places, which in Latin America, are often owned by Chinese immigrants. The cashier is a young Brazilian with whom I communicate in Portuguese, so I think that maybe this is an exception. I see a few chargers on the wall, but none for my model phone. I ask her if they have any others in the back.
“Let me ask the owner,” she tells me. She then begins speaking in a perfect, fluent Mandarin Chinese. My mouth drops and I look at her a bit sideways, asking if she is Brazilian. She is, and she just happens to speak Mandarin better than I can. I tell her my parents are from Taiwan and she immediately asks in Mandarin whether I’m familiar with some famous Taiwanese singer (who I later find out is Jay Chou). When I shake my head to tell her I don’t recognize the name, she kind of gives me this look and says, “Hey, are you really a Taiwanese person or not?”
Dyana da Silva Faustino began speaking Mandarin a little over seven years ago and has more or less immersed herself in the Chinese culture ever since. She knows all the music, cooks all the food, and told me the majority of her friends are Chinese. Her inspiration to involve herself in the language (and later the culture) was work related.
“I used to work for this jewelry shop, and I wanted to learn German, but my manager told me to learn Mandarin instead because more people spoke it,” says Faustino. “It was also easier to find a job when you speak Mandarin because it’s very unique, very different. It was good for the opportunities.”
Faustino’s experience is an example of a growing trend of Brazilians (and Latin Americas in general) adopting more Asian languages as China and the East become bigger players in the international market. This is particularly relevant for Brazil.
“Nowadays Brazil is the bigger partner of China, and China is a bigger partner of Brazil,” Faustino says. “Because of that, they are trying to have a direct conversation [with the people], like it used to be that they just used English, but Chinese English is hard for Brazilians to understand, so I think that now it will be better if they have someone that speaks Mandarin. The local language is always easier.”
The Brazilian native speaks from personal experience, as she’s been to the country a number of times, the first being a result of winning first place in a Chinese talent show in her home city of São Paulo.
“The first time I went to China, I won an international championship for people who spoke Mandarin,” Faustino recounts. “A friend of mine signed me up because she knew I was studying the language.”
Singing a song from Wang Leehom, Faustino impressed the judges enough to earn a trip to China, and even sang the winning tune on China’s famed CCTV television station. She visited China a second time the next year, winning the same championship, then a third time to visit, and a fourth to marry her husband, the aforementioned owner of the store.
“It’s funny because his mom first saw me on TV,” Faustino says, her husband smiling right next to us. The two met through a mutual friend, him not believing she was Brazilian when they first spoke over the phone. At 31-years of age, Faustino’s husband Chen Wen Jun has spent the last nine-and-a-half years living in Brazil due to the overcrowded job market in China, the driving factor for most Chinese that immigrate to the continent. Recently, the two opened their own shop in Paraty.
“It’s a very happy affair, working with my wife,” Chen says. “It’s like we’re doing something together. China is better for work, but after a while I got used to being here and now I don’t want to go back.”
With most of his family still in China, I wondered what the experience has been like for the couple, since I spent a good part of my 20’s away from home and am well-aware of Asian familial expectations to marry within the culture. For these two, however, the cultural differences have not been too much of an issue.
“His parents are like most Chinese parents, very reserved and a bit closed, but I’m Brazilian so when I arrived I just gave them a big hug and they sort of got scared,” Faustino says. “Over time though they’ve gotten used to me, the mother even came up to hug me the last time I visited, on her own. The dad though, he’s still a bit scared of me,” she laughs.
Chen adds: “My parents wanted me to marry a Chinese girl, but I don’t think you can just marry someone because someone else thinks you should marry them. You have to follow what your heart wants. That’s what’s important.”