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FELIZ NATAL! — MERRY CHRISTMAS!: The Brazilian Connection - Part 1

It wasn’t until the samba beat of the tune “Brazil” roused me from a semi-stupor that I realized our Varig flight was finally approaching the Rio de Janeiro aeroporto Galeão. The early morning skies were lit enough to reveal Sugar Loaf and blue-green beaches in the distance. The perky flight attendant, speaking Japanese and Portuguese, hurried about the cabin collecting the empty cups of café zhinho and small breakfast croissants and instructing us to fasten our seatbelts. I unzipped my black bag and re-read cousin Alberto “Beto” Kuroda’s note in English and Brazilian Portuguese:

Cara Tia e Prima (Dear Auntie and Cousin). Welcome to Brasil. A minha irmã (My sister) Iolanda with me will meet you after you come out of customs, OK?”

With our belongings in hand, my trilingual (Portuguese, Spanish, English) daughter Sara and I hurried to baggage claim, where strains of “The Girl from Ipanema” relaxed passengers. With nothing to declare except for a few boxes of chocolate-covered macadamias which the customs officer waved off, saying “Obrigado Senhora,” we exited through the frosted sliding doors and scanned the waiting crowd for some vaguely familiar faces. Alberto and Iolanda were the grandchildren of my mother’s younger sister. They were college-age students around Sara’s age, so we assumed they resembled other relatives and would be rather easy to recognize.

Suddenly, two attractive young people waved their arms wildly at us.

Oi gente,” Sara called. “A minha mãe ta aqui comigo (My Mom is here with me)!” she said, pointing to me.

Ah yes, that was them alright—the same bright eyes, high cheekbones and slim, narrow chins like most of the Kuroda clan of Japan, southern California and Hawai‘i. In no time they were hugging and kissing us Brazilian-style and picking up our bags. How wonderful kith and kin are. We had never seen them before, but had heard from each other periodically. And yet there was that connection. Although we didn’t speak the same language, somehow we managed to get our points across without too much effort.

After settling in at the Sheraton across from Copacabana, Beto laid out the game plan for the day: “We will walk on the beach, do a little shopping, visit another cousin who works as editor-in-chief at the Rio de Janeiro Press, have lunch at a churrascaria, then drive to our home in São Paulo,” he said. “It will take about five hours, and by the time we get there, a minha mãe will be cooking dinner for us.”

We had changed out of our warm travel clothes into cotton pants and green and white University of Hawai‘i T-shirts and sandals, for although it was December and winter back home, here it was summer and very hot. We strolled among the crowds of beautifully tanned, bikini-clad sunbathers and black and brown men enjoying a game of beach volleyball. We passed a spicily delicious-smelling kiosk that read “Cachorro quente.” “You want a hot dog?” Beto asked. We found a table where we sat and ate leisurely.

“I used to hear my mother, with sadness in her voice, telling someone that her brothers could not come to American because of a strict law against Japanese immigrants. So they went to Brazil, as if it was like going to hell,” I told my cousins over lunch. “These young brothers would be your late grandfather Heihachiro and Uncle Tadashi.”

“Yes, to hear the tough stories of the old days, it was hell, according to an old distant uncle. But like so many of the Issei, they worked really, really hard, and they succeeded. Have you heard of this old uncle, Quimura (Kimura)? He made lots of money in garlic and onions and other things and went back and forth to Japan lots of time. But he was not well liked over there because he always bragged that he had so many hundred hectares of land and the small village people in Fukuoka didn’t know what the heck a hectare was, nor garlic and round onions for that matter,” Alberto laughed. “He’s still around, you know. He must be close to 100, is still sturdy, drives his own old car, which he fixed himself. He also used to be a cowboy, too, you know…gaucho.”

I seemed to recall an eccentric old man named “Kimura” the last time I visited a relative in Kurume. Her uncle had come from Brazil to live with her in Japan, for he had given her his house and rice field, but after several months, he had become unbearable. So loud and restless; he did not like her cooking and could not tolerate fish all the time. He wanted meat, but it was so expensive she could not afford it. She was exasperated and I could see it on her weary face. I offered to take him to a yakiniku place or a yoshoku restaurant; I didn’t mind having some western food myself, for a change. To my pleasant surprise, the old man could speak English and quite well at that. He told me he had fun growing up in America from the time he was 14 when his father had taken him from Japan to work in the fruit orchards in central California. He didn’t like it there, but he did like the horses and the ranches, so he escaped to Texas, went to school, rode horses and took care of beef cattle. I hoped to see Quimura-san again since Beto said he was living on a ranch near São Paulo.

“And your father, has he adjusted well to life here?” I asked, for I was anxious to see cousin Hiroshi and hear more of his escapades. ”I remember he stopped in Hawai‘i years ago after finding his way back to Japan from China, only to learn that you had all moved to Brazil. He wanted to eat Chinese food, so we took him to Hee Hing in Kapahulu. He was delighted to find that one of the waitresses understood his dialect. He was so happy to eat all kinds of dim sum. Breaking open a manapua he recalled that when he and his friend escaped from the Chinese prison camp, they made “Shina no manju (Chinese manju, or manapua)” before working their way down through the countryside. They finally came to a port where they stowed away on a freighter to Pusan, then Kyushu.”

“Oh yes, he is looking forward to seeing you. He is so busy with his food business, but he will take you to the huge place where he and other associates work.” Iolanda said, her graceful hands and expressive eyes emphasizing her point.

We visited briefly with the lively but extremely busy editor of a metropolitan Rio de Janeiro newspaper, João Murakami. He said that unlike in the U.S., Japanese Brazilians were able to advance based on their abilities and brains because they did not have to buck the white supremacy attitude of the U.S. mainland and the “haole prejudice” that he had heard existed in Hawai‘i. “We taught the Portuguese and Italians a lot—about farming, especially, and education, and we also learned a lot from them. We have some Nisei and Sansei writers and filmmakers. I think you already know Massaco Iamazaka.” I remembered Iamazaka’s film on the Brazilian Issei. João promised to call me the next time he stopped in Honolulu on his way to Tōkyō.

“When we come back in a couple f days, we can go to Ipanema and swim and eat at some of the beachside cafes,” said Iolanda as we got back into their Passat for the long drive back to São Paulo.

The Kurodas’ srawling casa came into view as we rounded the avenida. The two-story home with Japanese and Italianete features was surrounded by tall, ornate iron fences and a formidable front gate. Three huge Akita dogs came toward us, barking. On hearing Alberto’s voice, they squealed into submission and allowed Sara, the animal-lover, to stroke their furry necks.

Kinu-obasama, who looked all over my mother, came running through the stained glass front doors. “Bom dia, bom dia” she called out, greeting us with a huge, very un-Japanese kiss and hug, laughing happily, telling me how much I looked like her “Onee-san.”

She then returned to her large black gas stove to stir something that smelled incredibly delicious. She had poured some olive oil into a heavy cast iron pot, stirred in a handful of chopped garlic and something else, threw in a large cupful of raw rice and stirred them around. She then poured about a litre of chicken or beef broth over the mixture and plopped a heavy cover over the clouds of steam. There were tantalizing smells coming from other large pots and bowls.

Kinu-obasama, widowed for over 10 years, was the second of seven sisters—my late mother having been the eldest. She took my hands in hers and with tears in her eyes told me how much Mom had done for her when they were growing up. I was delighted to hear her colloquial Fukuoka-ben interspersed with Portuguese phrases. She told me how hard life had been in rural Brazil, how she had helped grow Japanese vegetables because there were none, and how her husband and son Hiroshi liked her tsukemono so much they started a business. Soon they were able to export their products to the Japanese living in Mexico, Argentina and Chile. The Japanese consul general in Montevideo heard about her takuan, salted takana and eggplant and had his chef order some directly. Even the non-Japanese liked her pickled vegetables so much that their family started a factory.

Dinner was fabulous!—steaks that edged themselves off the huge serving platters; fejioada so full of beans, sausages and meats; a salad called mayo-nezu filled with potatoes, shredded bacalhao and homemade mayonnaise; sopa de feijão (delicious spicy soups); and finally her tasty maze gohan, prepared Fukuoka-style with lots of tiny clams, mushrooms, green beans, carrots, fresh takenoko and other tidbits of the region. We finished dinner with a rich flan and café zinho served in oba-sama’s ornate demi-tasse cups with heaping teaspoonsful of sugar.

Hiroshi’s charming Brazilian Japanese wife, Carmen, helped her mother-in-law with all the details, with Iolanda assisting as needed. The three-generation family lived together harmoniously.

Part 2 >>

* This article was originally published in The Hawai‘i Herald on December 19, 2008.

© 2008 Fuku Y. Tsukiyama

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