Things President Obama's Briefing Papers Can't Tell Him About Brazil

As you land in Rio de Janeiro with its magnificent mountains rising from the ocean, you may think you're landing in Honolulu. Next you will notice that Brazilians are truly happy.
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Brazilian by birth and having lived in Brazil as a child and in Hawaii since 2003, my dual-cultured heart is bursting with excitement over this opportunity to "talk story" (as we say in Hawaii) with President Obama as he prepares to visit President Dilma Rousseff. It is with this spirit that I appeal to him to open his eyes and heart on this Atlantic journey whose people will make this a nostalgic trip back to his Pacific ohana.

MEMORANDUM TO: President Obama

RE: Your upcoming trip to Brazil

As you land in Rio de Janeiro with its magnificent mountains rising from the ocean, you may think you're landing in Honolulu. This vertiginous bit of rock also serves as a solid symbol of the people's spirit: defiant with dignity and grace in the face of adversity and against any odds. And it is the first of the similarities you should note between Brazilians and the Hawaiians.

Next you will notice that Brazilians are truly happy. And it has nothing to do with the happiness quotient economists and the media banter about. Rather, it's home-grown. Happiness here comes from an organic empathy Brazilians feel for one another that goes, well, hand-in-hand with a natural attachment they feel for one another.

Like a litter of puppies physically entangled with one another -- the families and friends at Ala Moana Park during weekends -- Brazilians are always in close "touch" (remember Lula at the G20s?). And they never seem to let go. Goodbyes last forever with a thousand kisses. So painful is parting for Brazilians that there is a Portuguese word not found in any other language: Saudade, an aching longing for someone far away with its own cliché to illustrate:

Saudade é a presença da ausencia . . . saudade is the presence of absence.

The Brazilian's sprightly walk oozes the bubbly gait of someone confident of experiencing an empathic encounter at the next corner that is always an emotional band-aid for any hurting heart or troubled mind. As the lyrics of Jobim's "The Girl from Ipanema" say, the "sweet sway (doce balanço) is more than a poem."

Indeed, it's a dance. And in Brazil, to move is to dance and to dance is to live. You will see it in their natural step, their hop, skip and jump. Like the Hawaiian hula, one note is enough to set them in motion. As yet another old Brazilian saying goes: "o samba é o pai do prazer". . . the samba is the father of pleasure.

With these words they create songs for every plight and, like the Hawaiians, strum away the woes of life with melodious ditties on the ukulele.

"Cantando eu mando a tristeza embora". . . it's by singing that I send my sorrows away.

The Brazilian spirit itself is spiritual -- full of that Hawaiian mana -- and a testament to their African and Catholic roots. They bless events and things with their lovely and rightfully revered kahus whose tenor-voiced chants bring on the proverbial goose- bumps if not the ancestral spirits they're calling upon. Children ask parents and godparents for a blessing and feel the omnipotent embrace of the Christ statue up high. Like Pelé . . .the Hawaiian God, of course, not the soccer player.

Ditch your entourage if you can and walk with the people. Speaking their rich language is not necessary as Brazilians speak from their hearts with lively facial expressions and emotion-packed gestures and smiles that are worth a thousand words and open doors to their heart and to their homes.

Yes, like Hawaiians, these are genuinely hospitable people. Everyone here is kama'aina. Strangers? They simply don't exist as everyone talks to everyone as if they're genetically related. And just like in Hawaii, everyone is an instant auntie (tia) or bruddah (irmão).
Little wonder an American Airlines ad said Brazilians are the warmest people in all of Latin America.

Brazilians are organic. Lest the First Lady thinks I'm referring to food, let me quickly explain that I mean their cues come from their long and longstanding roots. Their motivation is from within, not from the external stimuli of propaganda or a marketed product or trend. Brazilians rely on common sense. They have coffee -- several times during the day -- because they love it for its naturally delicious taste and not because some science study says it's good for you (or not). And certainly not because a Starbucks beckons at every corner.

They devour pastels and empadas and pão de queijo -- you haven't lived till you've eaten these so you must have some and often -- because they are true delicacies and found at "little pukas in the wall" all over town. Brazilians don't consume anything because the fad is to stand in line for an hour at the latest enterprise, like the Cupcake store in Georgetown. This is truly foreign to them because it's simply artificial behavior orchestrated by someone else's baton.

Like Hawaiians, they stick to their staple poi. The comida caseira (home-cooked meals) are proudly touted in restaurants. You are bound to crave their staple of arroz com feijão once you get a whiff of its garlic-infused aroma emanating from residential neighborhoods from lunchtime on. Like Hawaii's huli chickens on Nimitz Highway that you slam on the brakes for.

Brazil is a melting pot of races that truly melds and mixes with each other. Like a Hawaiian tossed salad, you have Portuguese, African, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and French stirred together but noone really questions what's in another's background. And everyone gets along. Growing up in Brazil meant color or ethnicity was not part of our vocabulary. My parents took us to the favelas where we played with the children while our parents enjoyed a cafezinho together.

To the shock of some in the northern hemisphere, Brazilians sometimes refer to their black friends as negão (big negro) or neguinho (little negro). But here is a lesson: it is not only NOT off-color, it is infused with affectionate regard and the suffix symbolizes that this is so. Add ão or inho/inha to any word and you add instant adoring warmth. Just ask Ronaldinho (Ronaldo + inho).

Look down at Rio's sidewalk and you will behold a piece of Brazilian artistry and creativity. Niemeyer concretely captured the waves of the ocean and the Brazilian sway, I dare say. Even manini (tiny) shops throughout Ipanema and Leblon boast sophisticated fashion that advertise not just their exquisite aesthetics but the Brazilian's soulfully frugal resourcefulness that renders silk out of sow's ears. Like bracelets made of seeds that stand up to any Tiffany design and at one thousandth the price.

And you might say "enough said" after my mention of the originality of the unrivalled Carnaval costumes and floats. These are not pedigreed Fifth Avenue couturiers but simply the indomitable Brazilian spirit -- mostly of favelados, mind you -- diligently and humbly transforming their own designs into dreamy spectacles. It's not just the mix of vibrant colors in the feathers and sequins you see but the passionate Brazilian soul shimmering with their every move.

And there is pride of nation. But it's not about waving the flag, it's about upholding the people. It's not jingoistic, it's organic. Just flash back to the explosion of emotion in Copacabana when Brazil was selected to host the Olympics in 2016. Their pride is with the same humble gusto of hula dancers conveying their multi-faceted heritage with the gentle grace of the fresh hula leaf-skirts they heartily transport to Hawaiian Airlines' destinations on the mainland and throughout Asia and Australia.

A peaceful nation, a peaceful people who correct their hearts through their eyes, as the Shakespearean Garrick said. No imperialistic ambition here. No bellicose spirit. No "Uncle Sam Wants You" propaganda.

Brazilians rise to be not just a great nation but a nation of great people whose thoughtful humanity is the best example of Plato's "society is the soul writ large". So it is not farfetched for this BRIC nation to be touted recently as peacemaker in the Middle East. Africans and Middle Eastern countries root for Brazil the minute their team falls out of contention in the World Cup. Just ask any cab-driver in DC and NYC. Woops, I forgot you don't take cabs.

No doubt there will be talk of trade with China replacing the United States as Brazil's biggest trading partner and exports helping tilt the balance of trade in the United States. But that's natural, given the demand for the various necessary commodities and agricultural products Brazil provides. A virtual food-basket for the world. And soon-to-be the fifth largest economy given its economic success and huge oil fields of late.

But, President Obama, the best export coming out of Brazil, and something you are bound to hear before you climb on Air Force One to go back to the White House, is something I believe Lula whispered to you, if I remember correctly:

"O melhor produto do Brasil é o brasileiro". . . Brazil's best product is the Brazilian himself.