They bicker, banter, interrupt and finish each other’s sentences. They mock, mimic and spill secrets about the other with relish, but even in the mischievous sparks in their eyes, you see it. Brazilian-Japanese models Daniel and Vanessa Matsunaga are more than fond of each other—these two are as close as siblings get.
It’s not just velvet chocolate-y brown eyes, buff bods, and endearing Brapanese smiles they share. There’s this easy quality about them, a glow that draws people around them like moths to flame. It’s a warmth that’s hard to resist, all the more this season; they’re as excited about Christmas as we Filipinos are.
Just like in the Philippines, the holiday cheer in Brazil begins early. “Everyone’s excited. The streets are already lighting up. Maybe like October, they already start,” describes Vanessa. Drawing out vowels in an accent so delicious it feels like auditory eggnog, the siblings recount what they love about the season.
“Our Christmas tradition siguro is that every time, we try to hang with the whole family,” shares Daniel, saying they alternate between their mom’s and dad’s side of the family every year. “’Cause our family’s huge, on both sides—really, really huge!”
“We always have special dishes, traditional ones,” pipes in Vanessa. Usually an eager cook herself, she relinquishes kitchen duties back home. “When we’re in Brazil, we leave [the cooking] to my mom, ’cause she’s the chef! But we always help.”
Every branch of the family comes to the gathering with a few special dishes, in a grand potluck that doesn’t sound too far from how it’s done here in the Philippines. “The whole table’s really full of food,” says Daniel with relish. That love for feasts and festivities is one of the reasons he and his sister feel so at home here.
Their modeling careers brought the siblings to our shores, oceans away from their South American homeland. Both are used to living overseas, something their job taught them, along with independence and adapting to different cultures and people. But living in the Philippines is different. They may be three-fourths Brazilian and a fourth Japanese by blood, and global citizens by profession, but when asked which culture they identify with the most, their answer is unanimous: “Filipino, of course!”
“I’ve been here four years, I consider this my second home na,” declares Daniel. He already peppers most of his sentences with the vernacular, despite confessing that the language barrier was something he struggled with when he first got here. “My life’s stable here. … I love the people, I love the food, I love everything about the Philippines! I’ve never seen people like the Filipinos. Siguro you can only find it here and in Brazil, people who are really malambing, and open to foreign people. They treat you so well.”
Vanessa concurs. “I find it so easy [here] because everybody is so … warm, always receptive and smiling. It’s very pleasant to be around Filipinos, they’re willing to help no matter what. In Brazil, it’s the same. So for us, it’s like a piece of home here.”
In fact, Vanessa sealed the deal three years ago, when she married Filipino photographer Jun Sunga. “In the beginning, when I was saying to everyone that I really love Filipinos, I think a lot of people thought I was just saying that. But when I married a Filipino, it was like—it’s true!”
It might come as a shock to know that Daniel and Vanessa shared the same dream as kids—but it wasn’t modeling. “We both wanted to be doctors,” says Vanessa, a self-confessed nerd who treated studying like a hobby.
It was the same for her brother. “[Modeling] was not something I wanted. I was studying really hard in Brazil, from morning to night. I really wanted to pursue biology or medicine,” Daniel admits, who was actually accelerated by a year level, thanks to good grades. Talk about breaking the Zoolander stereotype.
After being accidentally discovered by modeling agencies, their plans were considerably derailed. Forced to make such a life-changing decision in their teens, they have no regrets. “I learned so much more traveling than I could have reading books,” Vanessa reflects.
The same sentiment compelled her younger brother to choose the life of a model. “I wanted to learn a lot, and an opportunity like this doesn’t come all the time. I learned so much by traveling, by learning with different people, by studying outside of Brazil—much more than I would have learned siguro if I stayed. A lot of things happened, and you really learn with connections and everything that every country has to give to you.”
Completely independent at 16 and 18 years old respectively, Daniel and Vanessa are confident that anytime they crave for the life they once planned, they can just head home and pick up where they left off. “But I don’t want to. I found out that I’m really kind of scared of dugo. And I wanted to be a surgeon, imagine. You see how things work out,” Vanessa grins.