‘Você fala português?‘ the man questioned me.
I shook my head sadly, embarrassed that my Portuguese skills were solely confined to obrigada and ola. ‘Inglês?‘ I asked hopefully.
The man shook his head and fired one back. ‘Espanhol?’ he offered.
I made a whole bunch of noises, which in every language mean ‘a bit, but hardly at all, even though I spent a few hundred dollars on lessons a few years ago and I don’t have much to show for it today’. Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning.
‘Nihongo ga hanasemaska?‘ I inquired in halting, rusty Japanese.
The man lit up like a Christmas tree. ‘Hai!‘ he quipped, and proceeded to inform me about the ramen and gyoza offered at his little cafe.
This exchange did not take place in Asia. Or Australia, or even Europe. It took place in Brazil, in the little Sao Paulo neighbourhood of Liberdade.
I have always had a very simple, Anglophile view of immigration and settler societies; I’ve looked at countries such as the United States, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and my own native Australia as melting pots and generally where immigrants have headed over the last few centuries.
It’s only been in the last couple of years, when I studied migration history as part of my Masters, that I realised I was missing quite a bit. Not to mention all the migration that’s happened in Asia, Europe and Africa, I’d also completely forgotten about South America.
Brazil in particular is fascinating when it comes to the multiple identities of its people. There is a small Indigenous minority, millions who trace their roots back to Spain, Italy, Portugal and Germany, just as many whose ancestors were kidnapped from Africa and enslaved, and then pockets of Syrian, Lebanese and Japanese communities.
In Sao Paulo alone, there are more than half a million people who claim Japanese ancestry and the city has the largest Japanese community outside Japan in the world.
I don’t know about you, but I found this all fascinating. Many of the first Japanese immigrants settled in the hilly, swampy district of Liberdade, in sort of a Japan Town reminiscent of Chinatowns and Little Saigons around the world. As soon as I read about its existence, I knew I had to go there and we made a beeline for it when in Sao Paulo.
And I loved it all. I felt like I was in Tokyo. It was all in the little details; the stores that sold plastic display food, the white square tiles on the buildings and the street vendors selling manga comics. On the weekend there’s a market on the main square, and often Harajuku girls can be spotted, doing a regional version of cosplay. And even though there was a smattering of Portuguese and English on the streets, the dominant language still seemed to be Japanese.
But most of all, it was my ramen and gyoza, found at the brilliant little restaurant called Aska. Shrieks of ‘irasshaimase!‘ when greeting customers mingled with salarymen slurping their ramen at the counter, facing the chefs. The noodles were homemade and the gyoza cripsy and fresh.
I am telling you, it was quintessential Japan. Except for the prices; a big bowl of ramen and a generous serve of gyoza worked out to be a bit over five euro. We may have lined up for a table for half an hour, but it was probably the best Japanese food I’ve had outside of Japan.
I had high hopes for Liberdade and the little neighbourhood somehow managed to exceed them. If we weren’t staying in a neighbourhood further away, I could easily have eaten every single meal in its side streets. Paul had to drag me away from the little Buddhas, the Pocky and the Pocari Sweat.
Liberdade ain’t a Japanese Disneyland created solely for tourists and other curious Brazilians. No, it’s a focal point for the half a million-strong Japanese-Brazilian community in Sao Paulo State and 102 years after those first immigrants set up shop in the district, it’s still going strong.