From the very start of the program, one of my favourite things has been the fact that every single one of us would celebrate our birthday in Brazil. In a country known for its parties and bolos and shameless dancing, it didn’t hurt to know that we’d have seven, very Brazilian festas before our departure.
In January, we surprised Jordan on her 19th with cake, pagodão (the term to describe not-so-tasteful music that is nonetheless seriously addictive) and later an evening of musical improvisation and camaraderie in the heart of Candeal. In March, three birthdays passed by in a blur: on Alejandro’s we went bowling, on David’s we watched the sunset at Barra and ate our favourite bobo de camarão, and on Asia’s — the first after our relocation — we surprised her in her own home, where her homestay sister satisfied our saudades for Salvador with copious amounts of acarajé and abará and shameless, shameless pagodão (yet again).
Here’s another fun fact: my birthday comes three days after Asia’s. This has occasionally been a topic of banter for the group — let’s get a big bolo for Asia so we can eat the rest on Jimin’s birthday! — which I took somewhat seriously. I mean, it’s a pretty hard feat to pull off two surprises back to back.
On Monday, I woke up and I was nineteen.
Actually, I’d celebrated the night before — thanks to the crazy way in which timezones work, my family back home had videocalled me so I could watch them eat Rocky Road cake and see Millie, the cat, being her usual moody self. (All humor aside, however, it was a sweet gesture that left me a little heartbroken, but in a good way.)
This was the first time I’d celebrated my birthday in Brazil. And I think on birthdays everyone has the right to be a little selfish — one can expect birthday greetings, nice words, and all the little cozy things that make a day great. So I woke up that morning looking forward to my first birthday in a place where strangers make you feel like they knew you since you were attached to an umbilical cord, and where there exist what feels like ten different iterations of the Happy Birthday song.
The day passed quickly, and wonderfully. For one thing, the sky was blue for the first time after a long — and much needed — bout of constant rain. I had a lovely lunch with Asia, Leopoldo and Jordan at Leo’s homestay, where his dad made us lasagna and maracugina juice. I spent the rest of the thick, hot afternoon crocheting with Asia, made myself a nice crochet hat, talked on the phone with my homestay mom back in Salvador, and received an unexpected phone call from a friend back home.
On a quick, slightly unrelated but still kind of relevant note — a popular birthday pleasantry here in Brazil that people wish for the birthday boy or girl is ‘muito anos da vida’, or many years of life. It’s as cliché as most pleasantries go, but when my homestay mom in Salvador said it over the phone I found myself tearing up. How beautiful and thoughtful it is to wish someone many years of life, which translates into many more places and faces met, many more experiences had, and with it more joys and sorrows and the deep complexities that make life so worthwhile.
As it was a Monday, we had our usual group meeting. Afterwards the whole group went back to my homestay, as my homestay mom had invited everyone over for some cake and celebration. It was great to have everyone in my living room, eating a delicious chocolate cake and sharing small talk. Yet I couldn’t help but feel a little bummed by the fact that people seemed to have other things on their mind, that there was no dancing, that the only ‘music’ in the room came from the chatter of the TV and that, worst of all, everyone left right after eating cake for various reasons like dance classes or family obligations and the like.
After everyone had left, I sat in the kitchen with Henrique, my eleven year old homestay cousin, and talked about his day. Yet even he, too, went home because he had to watch cartoons with his five year old brother. And so,after thanking my homestay mom for the thoughtful gesture, I begrudgingly trudged into my room and began responding to messages on Facebook. Maybe the fact that my birthday fell on a Monday — whilst all the others had fallen on Fridays — explained it. Or maybe people just hadn’t been in the mood. For a while I tried to justify the anticlimactic nature of my birthday celebration, and although it was quite selfish of me to have expected something to begin with, I granted myself the right to be sad.
Ten minutes into the process, my homestay mom walked into my room and asked if I could walk with her to Paulinho’s house to grab some documents. Paulinho and my mom work at the same environmental organization, GAP, the headquarters of which is located next door to where Paulinho lives. It was late, she said, my twin sisters had left for a school theatre rehearsal, and she hated walking alone in the dark. Of course I had to say yes.
And so I went. I was still feeling down, so talk was minimal. One thing that excited me, however temporarily, was the idea that my sisters — who are quite timid — would be in a school performance that would happen on the 18th. I asked if I could go, but before my mom responded she pointed to the GAP headquarters and said maybe Paulinho would be there. There were candles on the ground leading into the main entrance, which she said they sometimes did at night. Seeing as the people at GAP are the alternative type, I didn’t doubt it. É lindo, I said, it’s beautiful.
And then I saw a Korean flag on the floor, but before I could ask if that too was something they did, there was a loud noise, the lights went on, and in front of me I saw twenty people — all the people I’d grown to care for in Palmeiras — singing parabéns para você… and Jordan coming closer with a cake in her hands, all lighted with candles, and everyone clapping and smiling and Joaz putting a stick of sugarcane in my hands and
I burst into tears.
I cried out of shock, of gratitude and of the guilt that came with having thought the people I care for hadn’t thought about me all day. I cried because the space, decorated with fabrics in a task that took all afternoon, was so beautiful. I cried because Asia’s homestay sister, Herica, came up to me with a bowl of sweet potato moqueca with a lighted candle in the middle and told me she’d prepared this ‘Afro-Korean’ dish.
I could’ve cried more, but I didn’t, because my (real) mom is always telling me to not cry so much. Besides, I was too busy dancing to shameless pagodão and Gangnam Style and all sorts of other classics, as well as learning forró, a traditional Brazilian dance, from Jordan’s homestay cousin Jorge. For hours we danced and laughed, until the last of the group trickled out, the rains started, and we went home.
I went to bed that night feeling like the luckiest nineteen year old alive.