Monday, January 23, 2012

Of hugs, happiness and human connections

So the Brazilians are gone.

After 12 days with us, Paula and Luiz flew back to Washington, D.C., today with their fellow Youth Ambassadors. There they'll meet up with other young Brazilians who spent time in Seattle, Tulsa, Charlotte, and Bozeman, Montana. The full group of 45 will fly back to Sao Paulo on Saturday.

We saw them off with a potluck dinner -- such an American event! -- at the home of the Fortkamps, one of the other host families, on Sunday night. There was plenty of food, a lot of laughter, and more than a few tears.

The tears you can understand from the Brazilians. They're a very open, emotional people to begin with, and when you combine that particular national trait with the fact that they're 15- through 18-year-olds, the waterworks were to be expected.

This was, after all, an intense experience for each of them. They were visiting the United States for the very first time, staying with families whom they had never met, speaking a foreign language and trying something new every day for almost two solid weeks. Seen through teenage eyes, the words "life changing" and "profound" come readily to mind.

But there were also a lot of red-eyed suburban Americans gathered in that basement, which is maybe a bit more surprising. As the Brazilians stood at the front of the room and one at a time expressed their gratitude to the families that had taken them in, there was a lot of sniffling among the natives.

Why is that? It's not like this was a true exchange program in which the students spent an entire school year here. They were here for 12 days. People get less attached to their own relatives in that time.

Well, I was one of those who were teary-eyed as the young Brazilians spoke, especially a very emotional Paula and the normally boisterous but clearly speaking-from-the-heart Luiz. And I have a theory as to why that was.

It stems from the very human need for connection, and specifically connection to people worth connecting to. These Brazilian teens were the cream of the crop. They were 45 selected from a group of more than 7,500 applicants. Each was picked for their character, community service, and (I'm guessing here) the intangible quality that just tells you someone is headed for great things. The "it" factor, if you want to give it a name.

I know I'm better off for having gotten to know Paula and Luiz. God puts certain people onto the earth, I'm convinced, so that the rest of us can benefit from interacting with them. Paula and Luiz are two of those people.

Does that sound melodramatic? Does it seem strange for a 42-year-old man to be gushing over a pair of Brazilian teenagers with whom he didn't even spend half a month? Yeah, probably. But to say that is to miss the value of human connection. And especially those connections that occur when people from different cultures and different circumstances are thrown together unexpectedly.

The thing is, I've lived my entire life in the same city. I've done this by choice, of course, but there are obvious limitations to spending four decades in the same place: Your opinions and attitudes can become static, and you in turn become fairly set in your ways.

When you're forced to confront the "other" -- different places, different people, different perspectives -- you benefit in unforseen ways. This is especially true for Americans, a people conditioned from birth to believe that we are the best and that everyone else wants to be like us.

I've mentioned before that the Brazilians are huggers. They don't always get the concept of "personal space," and that's a good thing. I'm not a natural hugger, but even when I met the other Brazilian kids besides Paula and Luiz, they leaned in for a "hello" hug. It was wonderful way to connect, and it forced me to drop my puritan inhibitions on physical contact between strangers.

Because that's just it: they weren't "strangers." Or at least they didn't think of themselves as being strangers to me. I was a host parent, and therefore I was someone who, to them, was worth meeting. And people worth meeting get hugs from Brazilians. That's just the way it is, and I think it's wonderful. It changed my view of them and their country immediately, and for the better.

There were a lot of examples of these moments when the Brazilian kids caught me off guard. They constantly made me think, made me laugh and -- on Sunday night in that basement -- made me cry a little. And now that they're gone, I'm forced to rely on myself a little more to create those moments where I suddenly realize, "Hey, I think I just learned something." As I get older, I find those moments are the most worth living for, and therefore I chase them all the harder.

I guess it's difficult to convey all this in a rambling blog post, but I have a feeling you know exactly what I'm talking about and have experienced it yourself. They say that life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. I say life is what happens when you're standing in your living room watching your kids line dance with two crazy Brazilians.

I guess that's sort of the same thing.


  1. Scott, I appreciate you sharing your sentiments about the Brazillian students. You brought up some very worthwhile ideas to ponder. We too enjoyed the experience and do feel like it was an honor to be one of the host families! Sometimes we get so caught up in our own lives that it was fun to open our minds and hearts to someone from another country and culture! It brought us all together in different ways too. So, when are you going to write your book!?

  2. We also were a host family and Victor instantly became part of our family. I will cherish the every moment my children and of course our puppy shared with Victor. It was also an honor and a pleasure to meet Victor's parents, grandmother and sisters through Skype.

    We will keep in contact with our new extended Brazilian family.

    The Salibellas Family

  3. Kathy Giordano - CCWA - Volunteer IVP committee memeberJanuary 24, 2012 at 9:13 PM

    Very nice commentary. I am glad Gina posted it on Facebook. A few years back, I hosted a CCWA Brazilian Mayors delegation for dinner one evening and felt the same warmth.

    For all the hosts, thank you. Your efforts go a long way towards building positive, foreign relationships which last a lifetime.

  4. ...voltei no tempo com esse relato ...Experimentei novamente uma forte e indescritível emoção. Há alguns meses, tive o privilégio e a honra de hospedar em minha casa a jovem embaixadora americana, Valentina Duong. Ela é incrivelmente sensível, amável, companheira, humilde, uma característica que prezo muito numa pessoa. Apesar das barreiras linguísticas, pois não falo quase nada o inglês e ela não falava quase nada o português, nós falamos muito, apenas com o olhar, os gestos e tudo mais que os sentimentos mais sinceros e puros podem dizer, sem precisar abrir a boca. Agradeço a Deus pela oportunidade de ter vivenciado esse momento. Acredito que essa troca é muito valiosa para ambos. Somos culturalmente diferentes, porém o respeito e o amor são bases para qualquer relacionamento duradouro. Ganhei uma filha e ela ganhou uma família inteira. Sentimos muita saudades de todos os dias que passamos com ela.

  5. For English-only speakers, here's a rough Google translation of Eliane's very nice comment:

    ... back in time with this account ... I tried again a strong and indescribable emotion. A few months ago, I had the privilege and honor to stay in my house the young American ambassador, Valentina Duong. She is incredibly sensitive, loving, companion, humble, a trait that I value a person. Despite language barriers, because I do not speak very little English and she spoke very little Portuguese, we talked a lot with just the look, the gestures and everything else that the most sincere and pure feelings may say, without opening your mouth . I thank God for the opportunity to have experienced that moment. I believe that this exchange is very valuable for both. We are culturally different, but the respect and love are the basis for any lasting relationship. I gained a daughter and she got a whole family. We really missing all the days we spent with her.

    1. Scott thank you for translating.
      Sorry did not write in English because it is difficult for me.
      Eliane Suguy

  6. When I first saw you, Terry and Chloe, I didnt know what to do or say,but you received us with a big smile and I think you said that we got the best family. It was the best family for me. I don't know what Gina did, but she was great in every detail. I had example of dad, an amazing mom and 6 siblings, just for 12 days. It was more than I expected. I saw an incredible father and a pretty and divine mom. I had the best of what a couple of parents could offer for their children and today I can say that I'm a different person. I met people that changed my life in a certain way. Elissa, she is so smart and I am sure she will go to a great university. Chloe, I miss her hugs!! She is so crazy and funny, and I love it at her. Jared, Melanie and Jack.. He said my rice was good hahaha I the Tennant's so much!!! Thank you for share these amazing 12 with me. I love you so much!!! Paula Santiago

  7. Where does the belief come from that everyone wants to be American? How was it instilled in you? I find the idea quite fascinating. And nice to see you recognise that it isn't true.

    For us kiwis, we're like a very small town in the global world - we know we're small and we want everyone to like us. And you haven't "done well" unless you've done well internationally.

    Really enjoying your blog!

  8. Mel: Didn't even see this reply until now. Thanks so much for posting! As to the origin of the view that the world revolves around the U.S., I'm not quite sure. Our country has obviously done well economically and militarily over the last 200 years, and to some Americans, those are the only factors that count in judging the value of a nation. We tend to do fairly well in international athletic competitions (if you don't count the World Cup!), and again, that matters to a lot of people here. They seem to derive their own sense of self-worth from their country's success, which comes off as a bit backward to me. But in any case, your question is a good one and would probably be the subject of a really interesting sociological study.