Letter from Portugal

Letter from Portugal

Porto

Walking the streets of Porto in the autumn of 1979, novelist José Saramago “feels the stare of everyone he passes stabbing him in the back, or perhaps that’s just an impression, perhaps the person observing him with such curiosity is really inside himself.”

Ordinarily I would sympathize with this vaguely paranoiac notion—not with the sort of autonomic acceptance that one accords to the thoughts of a Nobel prize-winner, but with a rueful self-knowledge. Saramago’s words ring true because they are true. Day in and day out, we are by far our own most dedicated observers. But on my family’s last evening in Porto, while emptying the trash from our third-floor vacation rental, a voice manifestly not in my head jeers from the sidelines: “Hey, chino. Classic chino.”

The sidewalk between the apartment door and the dumpster is lined with men on a smoke-break from a nearby café. Some lean their backs against the tiled wall, others stand with their hands in their pockets, shoulders hunched against the December chill.

The speaker is perhaps two inches taller than me, and likely twenty years younger. His hair is cropped close to his narrow skull and his chin is dark with stubble. Under the glow of the streetlamps, his eyes appear to glitter with malice and alcohol.

A moment earlier, I’d been drinking port wine and eating roast duck with my wife and children, flush with good fortune. Now I’m royally pissed off. How can this asshole presume to know anything about me?

I don’t consider the wisdom of a lone stranger confronting more than a dozen men on their home turf. I don’t wonder if any of them have been feeling displaced by the years of recession, or threatened by the influx of foreign property-buyers. Instead I feel absurdly mistreated, wronged at the most basic level by an idiotic comment that could only have been inspired by the color of my skin.

“Don’t fuck with me,” I say to the speaker, pausing in front of him.

I’m holding four bags of trash, two in each hand; one of the bags is heavier than the others because it contains a broken wine bottle. That one slips from my grasp. Duck bones and orange peels muffle the clink of glass on concrete. Even as I bend to retrieve the bag, I can sense my cone of vision constricting like the iris of a camera lens.

 

Sometimes your life and work can achieve the sort of convergence that feels like something more than coincidence. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, it can feel as if you’ve been doing the right thing all along. Other times, everything just goes to shit.

I’d been daydreaming about Portugal since a 1998 trip to Macau. In those unenlightened times, I still believed the little egg pastries that the Cantonese call daan taat had been invented by dim sum restaurants. They were a childhood favorite, a delectable remembrance of my grandparents’ weekend excursions to Manhattan’s Chinatown, enshrined in the same pantheon as steamed pork buns and shrimp dumplings.

But in Macau I learned that the combination of flaky pastry and egg custard was one of the many legacies of European colonialism, an imposition of the homesick Portuguese, not dissimilar in essence from Macau’s tiled squares or taste for salted cod. And because our two children were finicky eaters at the time, unlikely to indulge their parents’ curiosity about roast pigeon and congealed pork blood without some other species of diversion, we embarked on a sort of egg-tart odyssey. We rambled from the ruins of St. Paul’s to Taipa and on to Coloane, pausing whenever prudent for a restorative dose of custard and pastry.

All four of us remember that trip fondly, so it’s no wonder we repeated that strategy on our first visits to Lisbon and Porto. Sometimes we’d take our treats at table, each with our own pastel de nata and a cup of espresso, other times standing on the sidewalk outside the pasteleria, sharing a single specimen bite by bite, parsing the relative quality of filling and crust.

Beyond the pleasure of such appetizing pursuits, roaming the streets of these cities provided me with other savory impressions. Although I am no scholar of Portuguese literature, my job as an editor has introduced me to Almeida Garrett and Eça de Queiroz, among other fine writers. Garrett’s masterpiece, Travels in My Homeland, masquerades as a sundry travelogue, including “a fine burst of romantic style,” “a solemn declaration that [the author] is not a philosopher,” and “a list of books which should have no titles and titles which should have no book.”

As someone who was (favorably) disposed to England via Dickens and to France via Baudelaire, I found Garrett’s voice a fine invitation to Portugal. How could I not admire a country that produced the author of this passage? “Oh blind nation that God wishes to destroy! Can you not see that you are nothing without us, that without our alcohol, whence came your wit, your science, your courage, you will infallibly go back to your ancient, lazy, Saxon uncouthness!”

A few weeks before our departure, I was offered the task of copyediting Alexis Levitin’s translation of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen’s Exemplary Tales. Born in Porto, Sophia is popular enough in her home country to merit the sort of name recognition ordinarily reserved for fado singers or futebol stars. After reading this collection of short stories, I completely understand the appeal. Her work encompasses both the mythic and the personal. In perhaps her most harrowing work, “The Journey,” the narrator describes an ill-fated quest in deadpan prose: “It was a place to which they had never gone before. They didn’t even know anyone who had ever been there. They only knew of it from the map and by name. It was said to be a wonderful place.”

 

In certain complicated or dangerous situations, I occasionally experience a heightened awareness of my surroundings. Time doesn’t exactly stand still, but it seems to slow to a manageable pace. It’s almost as if I can feel each threat coming, anticipate its approach, and mitigate its arrival. The night in Porto is not one of those occasions.

On this night, the shadows lengthen while the sidewalk narrows. I walk the requisite few paces with my back to the men, then swing the bags into the dumpster. Upon my return, the jerk replies: “I not fuck with you, man. I only fuck with my wife.”

To their credit, none of the other men laugh. Having already exhausted my own fund of witticisms, I simply keep walking, eyes hooded, hands empty, until I reach the building’s entryway. Another man is standing directly in front of the door, smoking a cigarette. As I turn my shoulder to edge past him, he holds the door open for me.

 

Early the next morning, I set off on a long run across the city. In the hour before dawn, the sidewalk beneath the apartment has filled with a drab assortment of men and women tending meager plots of derelict goods—like a crowded flea market, only without the festive atmosphere that typically accompanies buying and selling. Both vendors and pedestrians keep their heads down, as if searching for a dropped coin.

The air temperature is near freezing, and the fog off the river seems to drive the cold right through my skin. I briefly consider returning to the apartment for another layer of clothing, but the downcast throng catches me in its current and bears me away.

Two blocks later, the crowd thins enough for me to swing my elbows and raise my knees. The city’s remaining streets are nearly empty. I run to the west, roughly paralleling the Douro, toward Sophia’s childhood home, now Porto’s Botanical Garden. I don’t imagine that it’s open at this hour, but the thought of my feet treading on the same stones distracts my weary brain.

As racial epithets go, “classic chino” feels oddly oblique (for the record, I was wearing a pair of khaki-colored pants). But to be frank, I’ve been addressed by many worse names over the years, and with greater degrees of hostility and crudeness, so what explains my sudden anger?

Any North American citizen of color can tell you that slights and slurs are a fact of life; even if you never quite get used to it, you necessarily develop some techniques of self-defense, most of which involve pretext and rationalization.

Should I care that imperial Portugal sanctioned the use of Chinese slaves until the end of the sixteenth century? Or that in 2014, Chinese nationals accounted for more than 80 percent of the resident permits issued under Portugal’s golden-visa program? Or that some linguists believe that the word’s power to offend partially derives from the Spanish cochino, meaning “pig”? (A quick online search of the terms “asian american europe” will reveal some spirited discussion of race and identity, not all of it civil. This despite the fact that none of these words bears any particular freight on its own.)

Although I am never unaware of my status as stranger, I do not perceive myself as slant-eyed or yellow-skinned. To my mind these are derogatory terms, descriptors imposed by others. If you want unmitigated facts, I was born in New York, work part-time in Mongolia, live year-round in Morocco. When I have been out in the sun, which is almost all the time, my forearms darken to the amber shades of burnt cork and maple syrup.

 

The fact that I am a privileged participant does not escape me. What other words could describe someone who stumbles about the globe, sampling egg tarts? By my own calculus, the opportunity to be insulted derives from the freedom to move. Like a migrating stork, I can navigate from place to place at my own whim and in my own ungainly fashion, crossing borders with an ease that a Syrian or Senegalese can only dream about. It’s not fair, but isn’t that the whole point of racism as well? Why else would a thirty-something, chestnut-skinned man choose to taunt a gray-haired, maple-skinned one? Isn’t the taunt itself an expression of a perceived wrong, as in “What’s wrong with this world, in which a stranger may impose himself on my sight while I am captive at home?” In the absence of such inequity, wouldn’t the default response to a stranger be curiosity?

The answer to this question is unequivocally no. Though it has taken me decades to admit it, inequity and ignorance are not the root causes of intolerance. I’ve been subject to similar tauntings in Orlando, Florida, home of Walt Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” as well as in Brooklyn Heights, within shouting distance of that mother of all exiles, the Statue of Liberty. If the U.S. public-school curriculum, with its emphasis on the heroic aspects of the American melting pot, can’t inoculate against racism, then what hope is there?

In the universe of forces, perhaps empathy most resembles gravity. It’s everywhere, even in the tiniest of bodies, always attracts and never repels. But racism is more like magnetism: capable of both attraction and repulsion. Magnetism occurs between charged particles and is far more powerful than gravity; a magnet the size of a gumball can easily resist the gravitational pull of our entire planet.

By this analogy, there is no hope. We shall never overcome racism, at least not in the way that we have vanquished smallpox and rinderpest. The human reservoir is deep, its waters too murky to fathom. As I write, Bavarian police have detained thirteen people suspected of plotting to attack refugee shelters. None of these extremists is older than thirty-six, which means that all were born decades after the so-called defeat of Nazism.

I accept that there is at present no nation where people of different cultural or ethnic backgrounds infallibly treat each other with empathy and respect. And to tell the truth, when I look around the world, I see neither the necessity nor the demand for it. There are some people who will succeed regardless of racial antagonism, and others who will antagonize regardless of success.

I would willingly relocate, however, to any republic that could achieve a bedrock level of open-mindedness. Not lip-service tolerance, in which certain groups continue to receive preferential treatment, but a country essentially devoid of racial fear or favor. Is such a place—a society where indifference to ethnicity is the default position—actually possible? I am manifestly the wrong person to ask. As one character in Sophia’s “Journey” wonders, “How are we going to find that place if we don’t even know where we are?”

 

In one sense, racism is another form of groupthink. It’s a way to define (and even defend) the group in which one finds refuge. I understand when I walk the streets of Porto that I am obviously a tourist. The markers are there for anyone to see: the bland, sensible clothing, the reflexive dependence on a camera, the unabashed admiration for decorative tiles. If my status as stranger is so evident, however, then what would move a local resident to jeer at me? Surely the shouts are not intended for my edification. Nor are they a bid for conversation. I can only guess that they are public declarations of association, as in I-recognize-you-as-different-therefore-I-must-belong. Very seldom does a solitary person greet me in this way—perhaps because there is no audience for the performance.

The term microaggression is not one I invoke with any confidence. I don’t know if it’s apt or inapplicable, only that I’ve begun to encounter it all the time. And the same goes for culture of victimhood. In any event, I am not interested in public shaming, nor in grand theories of culture, nor in the pablum that entrenched elites use to condone their nostalgia.

What I am interested in is coming to a better understanding of my own relation to the world, and thenceforth to change it. Because no matter how skillfully I’ve accustomed myself to strangeness, I dearly want to belong, too.

 

My wife’s ancestors immigrated to the United States from England and Scotland. Now that our children have grown into adults, we make a striking foursome. Confronted with our range of hairstyles and fashion statements, new acquaintances sometimes are surprised to discover that we represent a single family. Surprise, of course, is just one of the many possible reactions, but I’ve grown accustomed to the occasional hard glance over the years and, for most of this trip, I did not feel like an object of unwelcome attention.

And yet there was hey chino, and classic chino, and fucking chino. Impressed by the word’s apparent versatility, I consulted Rutgers University professor Thomas M. Stephens, author of the Dictionary of Latin American Racial and Ethnic Terminology, now in its third edition. His response: “None of that surprises me. I have worked on racial terminology since 1980, and believe me, I am never shocked.”

I also asked the owner of the apartment about the local meaning of chino. “I don’t know why they said that,” she replied. “Maybe because you have that look?” But, I protested, it’s a Spanish word. “Sometimes people shout on marathons to give strength to the runners,” she suggested. “Maybe it was that!”

I like this reply because it indicates how far I have to go.

 

A braver soul than I might point out that there is no intrinsic shame in exclusion. A sterner one might argue that my petty travails are as nothing compared to the wounds of the Hazara in Afghanistan, the Rohingya in Myanmar, or the Yazidi in Iraq. Both would be right. Thanks to the accidents of birth and education, all of my self-imposed displacements are easily accomplished with the wave of a passport and the swipe of a debit card.

Such comparisons might make sense if I could find solace in the sufferings of others, but it’s not solace I seek. I was angry, not injured, and I can see now that the anger arose from disillusion. With its generous offerings of food, wine, and literature, Portugal felt like a potential home. I was having such a good time that I forgot there are imbeciles everywhere. (For the record, the jerk was again standing outside the apartment when I returned from my run. Our eyes locked on each other for a long moment—then he looked wordlessly away.)

Perhaps I give the guy too much credit, but at the very least he did me the favor of bursting my bubble. Because I’ve lived and worked in a half dozen different countries, I’d begun to think of myself as adaptable, but really I’m not. Instead, I’m beholden—to all the people of varying nationalities who have extended welcome.

As antidote to anger, I have no use for sympathy. What I want is something more complicated and expansive, something like doubt or inspiration. Here again I turn to Sophia. At this juncture in the story, the character who utters these words is certainly lost and probably doomed, and yet: “Even on this road that leads I don’t know where, the trees are green and fresh as if nourished by a deep certainty. Even here the light settles gently on our faces as if it recognizes us.”

Peter W. Fong is the author of the award-winning novel, Principles of Navigation. His stories and photos have appeared in American Fiction, Gray's Sporting Journal, the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler, and many other publications. He lives in Tangier, Morocco.

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