“Social Pariah,” by Amanda Smera Welsh

Apr 26th, 2023 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be North American.

Goodfellas references aside, the reason behind this rebellion against my Brazilian nationality was very specific, and I will get to it in a second, but the impulse to feel that way came from my fellow citizens often pointing out that I didn’t look quite as Brazilian as some of them. Which let me tell you, doesn’t make any sense.

You see, there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as a Brazilian face. Sure, we have our majority, and yes, just as you’ve guessed, they are mostly tall, tan, and gorgeous, but to say Brazilians have a signature feature that makes us universally identifiable would be a lie—well, beside our asses, and when it comes to that, I am as Brazilian as they come.

I know you’ve watched Encanto by now, and while I am most definitely not here to talk about Bruno, you’ve probably noticed that the many faces that compose the Madrigal family are all pretty different, and my Brazilian family is similar in that sense. A bunch of people flew here after the war, and since I didn’t flunk History, I know this means a lot of crossbreeding happened in Brazilian soil, so yes, we are available in every color. And here’s a fun fact about that: That’s the reason why our passports are so valuable in the black market, quite literally anyone could pass for a Brazilian.

On my mother’s side, I have German, Italian, and Spanish roots. My dad’s side is a bit of a mystery, but I know it’s partially German for sure, and maybe Turkish, or Arab, no one really knows. My own father is a whole espresso shot darker than I am, while my mom, for reasons unknown to this day, resembles a young Barbra Streisand—at least she did before her rhinoplasty. And this magnificent genetic mixture created this very short, blonde headed, green eyed gal. Go figure.

Whenever people saw me near my parents, they would joke that I was adopted, but one quick look at my German grandma and they’d know the Grace Kelly-esque features I humbly carry are undeniably embedded somewhere in my DNA.

And to me, this is the beauty of my people, we come in every shape and color, we are all unique in our own way. But for the folks that tanned easily, I still didn’t look the part. And I surely wasn’t the beauty standard either. Especially coming from the bay area of Brazil, where women carried bikini tan lines as if expensive jewelry decorating their décolleté and, if I were to try and do the same, I would end up looking like a lobster that had just been scalded – and later on, like a snake shedding its skin.

While most of the other kids’ parents were only concerned about reapplying tanning lotion on them every couple of hours, my mother followed me around with a bottle of SPF 99 at all times. My cousins would bathe themselves in Coca-Cola to achieve a darker tan (another beautifying myth that I am sure dermatologists are very thankful for), while I stayed safely in the shade, avoiding a severe case of sunpoisoning.

I remember when we had an exchange student at my school from Denmark, he was the city’s hot topic for a second. I was head-over-heels in love with him from the second my eyes landed on that non-bleached blonde head of his. And I certainly had hopes that in the vast ocean of girls falling for his broken Portuguese, I’d be the one to catch his attention. That went down the drain the minute I forced an interaction, in which he made sure to inform me: “You look just like my sister.” I wasn’t feeling the whole incestuous vibe, and resigned my quest for his love immediately.

The nickname my family awarded me with was Snow White, at school however, I was known as Transparent, you know, because I was just so white you could practically see-through me. But by far, the worst thing I’ve ever been called, came in the form of a catcall from a construction worker who yelled: “Hey sexy albino!” from the top of his lungs as I crossed the street.

I knew plenty of white people in Brazil—like, 90% of both my family and my classmates. I didn’t understand why I was the butt of the joke when literally everyone around me was some degree of white. Until one day, when my older cousin (also white and also blonde) posed an idea for a new game.

To explain this game, I have to tell you why I (and basically every kid I knew) had this desire to be American: It was all thanks to the Disney Channel phenomenon High School Musical. In 2006, at seven years old, that was my very first contact with the American Dream – and by that, I mean schools with lockers, cafeterias, and teenagers who could legally drive. Me and my cousins watched that movie religiously, as if singing along to every song would answer our deepest prayer: We wanted to live that too.

That was the first movie that came to our national televisions that while still Portuguese-dubbed, came with its soundtrack in English, and while my cousins and friends gibberished through most of the lyrics, I felt powerful by simply being capable of understanding what Zac Efron was singing about.

I happened to have learned English at a very young age. My father wanted me to be bilingual, and so, on top of being super white, I was also granted two first languages, which meant that sometimes, a world in Portuguese would be replaced by one in English, and vice versa—hence being the butt of the joke. Our obsession for the movie, and consequently, desire to be like the characters, only grew, and that’s when the genius idea behind the game came: Whenever we were in a public space, and surrounded by kids our age, we would pretend I was American. I mainly liked it because I got all the attention, I was the main character. But in hindsight, it fulfilled my deepest fantasy: I got to be part of a nation that, in my mind, I fitted in like a glove.

The first step was to find a victim to fool, bonus points if it was an entire group. I’d force the best American accent I knew (which was terrible), and I could feel the heads turning in my direction immediately. The smirk stamped on my older cousin’s lips told me it was go time, and whatever direction she led me, I followed. I would pretend not to know any Portuguese, while my cousins got to brag about having an American in their family. And it worked. The kids that fell victim to our scheme never failed to look amazed. It’s a funny thing you know, how much we put, not even just Americans, but anyone from abroad on a pedestal. And sure enough, pretending to be American made me feel more interesting, prettier, and dare I say better than anyone around me. I kinda don’t really know what was in for my cousins, but to me? That charade of a game felt pretty damn good.

It only got better when my parents announced they were taking me to Disney World, my first time traveling abroad to my true homeland. I figured it was time to elevate this performance from a local theater act, to an Oscar-winning international career. The plan was simple: I would bring this character along with me to the United States, where I’d both continue to pass as an American and be accepted as one. In my mind, they’d offer me a green card the minute I crossed the border, but for that to happen, I needed to work deeply on the construction of this character. And so my American alter-ego was born.

Even though I wanted to change my name to Emma (yes, after Watson, what about it?!), I kept my name Amanda because I knew that name also existed in the U.S.—thanks, Amanda Bynes—plus, less of a chance of breaking character. The last name was another problem, none of the three I had felt American enough. So very originally, I came up with Smith. And I was not the girl from a small town in the bay area of Brazil, none of that, I was from Miami Beach, honey! (Miami is the Brazilian equivalent of the Maldives to any American.)

I didn’t end up getting to interact with a lot of kids my age during that trip, until the day we went to Typhoon Lagoon, where instead of walking all day and going on rides, we got to relax by the fake beach they had there—which was a gazillion times better than the real beach and ocean we had back at home, of course.

My mom told me to go and make some friends, and it was like my director had just screamed “Places!” My one woman play was about to start. I kept seeing small groups of kids around my age here and there, but something really strange kept happening. Whenever I approached a group of kids, their parents would take them away from me. And I don’t mean discreetly, I mean grab them by the arm forcefully, and pull them away from me.

I must’ve lapped the entire fake beach, and not a single American kid wanted me near. I knew from my past mischief that I looked and, in my childhood delusion, sounded American, and while I was aware speaking English was nothing special with them all doing it too, it frustrated me that I never even got to try out my American character on actual Americans. The Amanda Smith solo act had flopped before its debut!

I had practiced my his, hellos, and heys in front of the mirror for weeks in anticipation of this moment. I had killed my R curling in that perfect way Americans do when they go to say “How arrre you?” and I didn’t get to do as much as wave to some of them before they were carefully escorted away from me? I felt like an actress whose movie got canceled before the audition.

I came back to my parents frustrated, wondering if the scheme had to be done backwards. Maybe, I’d have to be Brazilian and speak in Portuguese to impress these American kids, but let me tell you, that didn’t appeal to me in the slightest.

It was when my mom approached me quietly and tried to put on the top of my bikini that I began to understand why adults, and even some kids, were looking at me strangely. I protested, of course, every kid knows the top piece is uncomfortable, annoying, and completely useless when you are a child with nothing to cover. But she lowered her body to be close to me in height and said in that serious tone I knew not to ignore, “Baby, look at the little girls around you, they are all wearing theirs. We are not at home, we have to follow their rules.”

And then I finally got it. I thought I had overheard the concerned mother on the phone correctly when she said: “Hello 911, there’s a topless kid on this fake beach near my properly dressed children and I don’t know what to do about her…Oh, okay, get the kids away from her, and shame her into submission. Got it. I am on it! Thank you!”

A cultural normalcy, something so trivial, so common at home, turned me into a social pariah before I ever even got to break character. And let me tell you, it took me twenty minutes wearing that annoying top to finally accept that I was indeed Brazilian, and there wasn’t anything else I’d rather be.


Amanda Smera Welsh is an essayist and journalist from Brazil who is currently obtaining a master’s degree in writing at Rowan University. She writes from South Jersey.

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.