“Jimin, vem brincar!”
Every time I walk by the new plaza beside my house, I hear the same chorus of voices calling, in quick succession:
“Jimin, come play!”
My response is always the same. I give the group of kids — a motley mix of boys and girls from Candeal, ranging from the ages of four to twelve — a thumbs up before promising my presence for Sunday evening, which has now become my weekly ‘brincar’ date with the local meninos.
It all began pretty innocently. One day, I was walking home from Portuguese class when I stumbled upon a large group of kids sitting by the plaza, some jumping around on feet or on skateboards, others sitting, very contentedly, on a stoop. “Vem acá,” they called — the frequently used expression meaning “Come here”. Having been summoned various times by curious community members wanting to know about where I’m from, who I’m living with, if I’m liking Bahia, etc, I ambled towards the group and introduced myself.
Since then, I’ve been summoned many more times by the same group. I’ve had my hair touched extensively and commented on (“it’s so straight!” they all say), I’ve had my hand held by various kids, been hugged, tugged and showered with questions about my life here in Brazil.
It was when I told them I liked to run that I received my first invitation to play. We set up our first ‘date’ at the plaza, which would involve a quick jog around the periphery of the new space. What I expected to be a quick jog turned out to be an hour-long session of Grandmother’s Footsteps, Freeze Tag, Hide-and-Seek, and a bunch of other games that harked back to the outdoorsy, playground-based evenings of my (not so very distant) youth.
Ever since that Sunday, we’ve played two more times. Yesterday evening I found myself running around the plaza yet again, my name echoing around the space, amused parents watching from the balconies or from the bars on the periphery. Whereas previously I’d have been struck with vergonha (embarrassment), the enthusiasm of the meninos was enough to convince me that there was nothing to be ashamed of. (What I was legitimately embarrassed by, however, were the times I actually screamed after I was ‘found’, then chased, in our games of Hide-and-Seek.)
Talk to anyone I know and they’ll tell you I don’t like kids. I’m as vocal about that as I am, say, about my love for sweet potatoes. It’s a narrative I’ve stuck with for the past few years, but what I’ve begun to realize here in Brazil is that it’s simply untrue. And that it’s probably time to re-calibrate my two cents. So here we go:
I love playing with kids. I love playing with kids, especially in a city where I am a foreigner, and am seen, and treated, as such. I love playing with kids because of how unconditional their attention is, how deep their willingness to engage with someone who is different. I love the way they listen intently even if they may not understand what I’m saying. I love the way they react when I reciprocate the care with which they treat me. I love the way their constant energy reminds me that the long evening hours are meant for more than at-home lethargy, and I love the way they express their abundance of love, through their hugs, their smiles, their eagerness to stand beside me in circles, their eagerness to hold my hand.
Many times in Brazil I’ve felt alienated from social settings because of who I am and where I am. Yet in the plaza, on Sunday evenings, I become someone who belongs.
Last night, after an hour of play I announced to the meninos that I was going to go home. Instantly, three girls came running up to me to give me a goodbye. “Hug me!” they said. I hugged each of them. “Give me a kiss!” one of them said. Having never been much of a kisser, I was a little taken aback, but kissed the little girl on the forehead. Soon, two other girls requested the same, and then they both proceeded to kiss me on the cheek.
How beautiful it was. On the walk home, I felt a warmth that stayed for the evening.