Brazilians are always happy. I know this is a broad generalization, yet I’m not the first traveler to marvel at the carefree lifestyle in Brazil. Perhaps, like the inhabitants of some other Latin American countries, Brazilians are more easily satisfied than North Americans because they have lower expectations.
For example, few Brazilians drink their tap water, yet no one complains about this inconvenience or the added expense of bottled water.
Brazilians are happy because they’ve learned to celebrate their fate. They get excited by simple pleasures, like having hot water in the shower without first igniting the gas in the laundry room.
Brazilians are happy because they are eager to share their good fortune, such as discussing the discount they received from the plastic surgeon for an excellent tummy tuck.
When a young Brazilian couple gets married, they have faith that patience will provide for their expanding family, and if not, God will sort things out. Americans have less faith in the deities to put their lives in order, reward kindness, and punish evildoers. Rather, Americans expect to accumulate as much as they can to prove their worthiness to God.
Brazilians have a way of welcoming their everyday lives with open arms. They revel in public affection. Women kiss men and other women to say hello and goodbye. In Rio, they kiss on both cheeks. When women speak on the phone or send emails, even at work, they close with “um beijo,” a kiss. Men sign their emails, “abraço,” a hug.
At the supermarket or the fitness club, there is no clearly defined personal space. In conversation, Brazilians stand close enough to touch each other, as if talking without touching depletes the power of words. As a result, it’s common for foreigners to be offended (or delighted) by incorrect assumptions of territorial breaches or sexual flirtations.
American tourists are equally surprised to see pregnant Brazilian women wearing belly shirts with their enormous stomachs exposed to the sun and fun. It’s not unusual to see men with prosthetic arms and legs wearing short-sleeved shirts or shorts. Life in the US is not so open, so blatant.
Even the Catholic Church in Brazil is more open. The famous annual bacchanalia of Carnaval is a religious holiday. And many Catholic priests in Brazil practice liberation theology, which ignores the dictates of the Pope. The priests tell their congregants it’s fine to follow the superstitions of their ancestors as long as they live with humility and grace.
Church leaders believe ‘helping others less fortunate’ is the true message of Catholicism. The liberal priests, who don’t use the ecclesiastical collar, do not object to seeing a church member wearing the Jewish Star of David. They understand that faith in God presumes a devotion to family – a Star of David worn by a Brazilian Catholic signifies only that she has a son named David.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen an ancient religious symbol co-opted by fashion. The first time was when I was working as a volunteer in a school in New York City. I was assigned a student who had just arrived from China. Her appetite for learning was voracious, everything from grammar to American slang and how to read a subway map.
Jun was 18 years old and had left China by herself, intending to spend the rest of her life in the United States. First, she told me, she would get a college degree with her student visa, then use the degree to find a job, and that would lead to her permanent residency. She had her life mapped out, and she was full of energy and charm.
Jun hoped I would guide her through the only obstacle that stood in the way of her dreams: conquering English. We worked together for months, and since then we’ve remained friends. Now, ten years later, she has her bachelor’s degree in architecture, a job, a husband, an apartment they bought in New York, and a new baby.
I’m telling you all this because Jun wears a gold Cross around her neck. It was given to her by her mother when she left China. Jun is not religious. She says it’s common among the Chinese to wear a Christian Cross as a symbol of good luck.
Should I be surprised that a symbol can modify its meaning? Perhaps it’s nothing more than globalization – the altering of religious icons as a symptom of the breakdown of international barriers. If the Internet can connect the world, why not religion?
I’m wondering if the key to peaceful contentment lies in opening the symbols of the world’s religions to everyone.
Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Brazil. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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