-“Tudo bem?” The flight attendant asked me with a smile if all was well in Portuguese as I boarded the plane.
-“Beleza,” I replied. “Vôcé?”
-“Jooooya. Bem-vindo a bordo.”
I welcomed this brief interaction as a sign I was heading home to Brazil. Flight attendants have been assuming I’m Brazilian for some time, and now that I actually live here and have a decent amount of Portuguese in the repertoire, it’s nice to have them be somewhat right. For anyone who’s known me for a while, my desire to live in Brazil is old news, and the actual move more of an eventuality than a surprise. Brazil has long held for me a sense of belonging, of place that I can relate to as an ethnically-mixed Diasporic African: watching blondes dancing samba and practicing capoeira amongst the crisp angles and curves of Brasília illuminates the innate African-ness of the country and reinforces the inextricable bond among the three founding populations that collided and colluded to produce that magnetic cultural force known as Brazil. After my first trip to Salvador Carnival in 2005, I knew I was home.
Though I grew up in Jacksonville, I never really feel at home when I’m there. Of course, I’m at home-home in my parents’ house―that type of familial comfort will never go away. But the city and I have parted ways, socially, culturally, politically. People at stores and restaurants now ask where I’m from, despite the remnants of a local accent when ordering my sweet tea. They ask why I travel so much, why I like going to the “third world,” why I speak other languages. Most of the very few people from high school I keep in contact with have families, and the others struggle to create some semblance of sophistication in a doggedly provincial place.
Of course, there’s The Big Issue that pervades everything else in the city to the point that the church congregation I grew up in, and those of a handful of other black churches in the city, are pretty much the only groups of people who don’t want Obama out of office “by any means necessary.” While I understand (and teach) the history behind the racial divide, after living away from the U.S. version for so long, it’s disheartening and nerve-wracking to encounter it again. I can see it in the strained smiles at the airport or the DMV or other places where people have to interact; that forced politeness which barely conceals the contempt. I think there may be only four or five American cities that don’t give me the heebie-jeebies anymore.
I also searched for that feeling of place for four years in Colombia, and didn’t find it. I never felt I could break out of the “gringo” box, no matter how well I spoke Spanish, how well I danced cumbia, or even how flaky I got about keeping appointments. “Pero el es un gringo,” I’d hear people say, drawing the line they’d not allow me to cross and encapsulating everything they thought they knew and were interested in knowing about me in that one misused word. I learned daily that ignorance transcends all human-devised categories.
By no means is Brazil immune from the isms that plague less-paradisical locales. Even here in Fantasyland, I struggle daily to understand a culture, a language, and a people that get more and more complex the moment I think I’ve got them pegged. Their conflict-avoidance annoys me, as does their interminable noisiness. But the ubiquitous optimism mixed with melancholy―saudade―is soothingly infectious, and Anglo-Saxon stoicism stands no chance in the face of tropical emotion.
See, I’m not just on vacation here; I live here. I’m developing relationships with the people and the place. I have friends in other cities who ring me regularly and want to know when I’m coming to visit. I flew to Brasília, got into my car, and drove to my apartment (where I rested for, oh, five minutes before being whisked off to watch our team get spanked by the Netherlands).
And there are people who automatically assume that I belong here. They speak to me in Portuguese, then look at me in semi-disbelief when I relay my true origins, then smile, compliment me on my pronunciation, and tell me they’re glad I’m here. They accept my dueling and complimentary identities without question and they’re as open to learning my way as they are about teaching me theirs, their jeito brasileiro. It’s not so much that I’ve found a home in Brasília―São Paulo’s more my brand of Sodom―it’s that I’ve found a homeland in Brazil. I love this country, warts and all, and I always want to have a presence here, even if I end up living somewhere else for a time (NY, I’m tawkinna you). Because I feel claimed here, I belong here, and that’s what home feels like.
I called my mom to tell her that I made the flight to Brazil (see this post), and before telling her I loved her and I’d shoot them an email once south of the Equator, I said I felt like I was heading home, to my home. “That’s good,” she said approvingly. That’s all I needed to hear.
The Queen of Brazilian Music, Elis Regina, extolling the beauty of Brazil and of nappy hair: