A Baiana Coreana
“Eu vim da Bahia cantar, eu vim da Bahia contar tanta coisa bonita que tem na Bahia, que é meu lugar…”
So go the opening lines of Gilberto Gil’s Eu Vim da Bahia, a song Alejandro sang — and consequently memorialized as a Bridge Year classic — at our farewell party in Salvador before we left for Palmeiras. The song illustrates the visual beauty and joie-de-vivre that characterize (an idealized) Bahia and the baianos that make the region what it is.
I may have left Bahia, but Bahia certainly hasn’t left me. Less than a week after my move, my saudades led me through Seoul’s Itaewon — a neighbourhood known for its cultural diversity — searching for a way to stay connected to the people and language I’d grown to love. In a country that loves its unlimited bulgogi and other marinated meats, it wasn’t a surprise that I came across several churrascarias serving Brazil’s answer to Korean barbecue.
Lo and behold, I lucked out: not only did I get to speak Portuguese to various Brazilians that evening, the next day I received a phone call to let me know I’d landed a job as a waitress.
Over the past four days, I’ve worked daily six-hour shifts at a churrascaria named Tabom. I’ve learnt that waitressing is no easy feat: it’s a complex choreography of knowing where to go and when, how to interact with different people and how to manage multiple tasks at once whilst maintaining incredible stamina. I’ve learnt how to work cash machines, explain wines, serve beer from the tap, navigate a crowded kitchen, set tables, greet customers and all the usual things, sometimes doing all the above in very quick succession when the night is busy.
(I’ve also learnt that it’s a good idea to look in a mirror every once in a while — towards the end of our busiest night, I went to the bathroom and discovered half my braid had fallen out and that my baby hairs were a mess… and I’d been rushing about, serving customers, in that fashion. Now that was embarrassing.)
As cheesy as it sounds, I feel the happiest I am in Korea when at Tabom. It helps that I work alongside a loving Brazilian family that offers me everything from caramelized slices of pineapple to cheeky brincadeiras (jokes) on nights both busy and calm. Taeho, the only other Korean, sings loudly and shamelessly when making caipirinhas and explains the restaurant trade with patience. When all of us are together, conversations are a melting pot of Korean, Portuguese, and English — to varying degrees of fluency, but with consistent camaraderie.
Truth be told, I’ve found the transition to Korea a lot harder than I thought it’d be. I think I’ve cried more times in the past week than I have in the past two months, and a lot of it has to do with how I still feel like a foreigner despite, ironically, having returned ‘home’. I left Hong Kong hoping to learn what it’d be like to have a sense of place, in a country where I’d live with people who share a mutual language and history. Instead, I’ve found that people don’t see me as one of their own. Many a time I’ve been asked where I’m from, and when I stumble in my Korean — for example, when trying to figure out bank accounts and such — people talk to me in English, often condescendingly, as if I don’t speak Korean at all. Surprisingly, just because you share a common culture with someone doesn’t mean they become friendlier. In my case, I’ve found that it creates the expectation that either you’re in or you’re out. And as an outsider, I can’t help but feel like a sore thumb.
Which is why a lot of me misses Brazil. I mean, I was always conspicuous in Bahia— yet I never felt like an anomaly, largely in part because everyone was unique in their own way. Besides, even if I’m not Brazilian, neighbours, friends and even strangers would claim I was basically a baiana; or, more frequently, of a hybrid identity: afro-coreana. Like that, people were willing to accept me as part of the culture even if I wasn’t fully part of it linguistically, historically, spiritually, etc.
I find the contrast with Korea startling, and kind of heartbreaking. But I am who I am, and the individual I am, it seems, does not belong to any single nation, but rather a collection of places and cultures that cannot be placed in a single box.
And I’m learning to tell myself that that’s okay. And this is yet another reason why I love Tabom: when I’m at the restaurant, it is okay. I’m all the more useful — and interesting — for the fact that I hail from a variety of different places. In four days, I’ve interacted with customers in English, Portuguese, Korean and even Chinese. When all of us in the kitchen don’t share a universally mutual language, it matters less what languages we speak, and instead what matters are our characters, the way we laugh through a particularly busy shift, the way we converse over dinner when the buzz dies down, the tales we tell about our little intersection of Korean and Brazilian worlds.
(Of course, the whole Brazilian hospitality / acceptance stereotype still holds true. Everyone in the kitchen claims I look like a baiana, thanks to my many-colored maxi-skirts and headbands.)
So there you have it: the story of a baiana coreana waitress. I’ve only done four shifts, but I already feel like I’ve done many. Perhaps I won’t ever feel completely ‘at home’ in Seoul. But it consoles me that there are little pockets tucked away in its many neighbourhoods in which I feel appreciated for being who I am — a mix of many things, often wonderful.