by Baishakhi Taylor
I grew up in India in the 80s and 90s. When I left ‘home’ in search for another, I never knew of Joaquina beach. There are forty-two beaches in the island of Florianópolis in the province of Santa Catarina, Brazil. What was I doing in Brazil in 2019 and why I was no longer in India is a story for another time. But on this particular morning on June 1, what I heard was a love story that also started like mine leaving one country to find another ‘home’, of finding love through ‘mis-encounters’.
Joaquina reminded me of Hawaii, of Kwai actually. The clouds crowned the mountains, the green of the forests blended into the green blue of the water as we walked through the mossy rocks to sit on the vista point, looking out on the Atlantic. It was almost winter in Brazil. I should have travelled North, I thought. The beautiful Australian summer I left behind at the beginning of the year was already a distant memory. I was ready for more sun. Yet on this side of the Atlantic, the earth and the sun followed the same zodiac patterns of movement and the winter weather snuggly wrapped around my travel route, without the warmth I craved in the wind.
Apple weather had predicted a long day of rain, it had poured yesterday. I was in Florianópolis for two days and I was prepared to leave feeling cold and sad. And yet, this morning the island magically came to life and the sun rays sparkled defeating apple’s weather app and restoring my faith in life.
I was in Brazil for a week, reviewing our programs in three different sites. Three nights ago, we had landed in Rio De Janeiro amidst protest and demonstration against Bolsonaro. Our first site to visit was in Niteroi. We spent two nights there with the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer, looking at us at all hours, before flying to Florianópolis. It’s the two of us who flew out of Miami to Rio and met with Sylvia in Niteroi. Sylvia has travelled to Florianópolis with us also. She manages the three sites in country. However, the ocean and the island this morning did not appeal to Sylvia, who stayed back at the hotel to work.
He has been here before. He grew up an hour away from Sao Paulo. This was home for him. A home, he left ten years ago to find another home in another country, to start a different life with his wife and daughter. The waves splashed hard and washed away some of the stresses of a hard spring semester at work. Free speech, academic freedom, inclusion, vanishing civil rights, increasing wealth gap- everything I was trying to manage at work for almost six months now, suddenly seemed manageable as I saw the Atlantic and felt the sun.
It was one o’clock in the afternoon and the rational thing to do, was to walk back through the water to the shore and get some lunch before we had to leave this magical island behind for our next site visit in Belo Horizonte. We stopped for lunch at a sea facing restaurant near Joaquina. We sat facing the ocean as we bit in to bacalau fritters and potatoes and shrimps and other unknown (to me) Portuguese inspired food.
He told me he was half Japanese and half Italian. His father was Japanese. His grandparents left Okinawa after the World War I, looking for jobs and livelihood in the Americas. They came to Sao Paolo. His mom’s family landed in the same place from Italy around the same time. “Okinawans are proud people,” he said, “but also closed”. I understood exactly what he meant. Every immigrant community that I know, particularly my own, have fought hard to preserve what was our identity by holding on to old values from the motherland. In his case, the rules that came to Sao Paolo from Okinawa, extended to marriage. When his father fell in love with his mother, the love had no future. It did have a fleeting present, the love morphed into his birth. Yet, his father never could tell his grandfather about the son and the Italian woman he fell in love with. A woman he knew would never get entry into the community guarded by traditions, by rules and moral codes that were hardened and felt like fossils after the long journey across the Atlantic. Who knows what traditions and values left Japan and what washed up on the shores of Brazil when his grandfather finally reached Sao Paolo? All that mattered to his grandfather was his mother was Italian, she did not come from Okinawa. She also had a daughter when she met his father. It was understood that she would always have to live in exile and in the shadows, in complete secrecy from his father’s family. And she did so for years. His mother lived without existing in his father’s world. He didn’t even know about his father till he was a teenager.
By this time, the food has started to test sad. He was still looking at the ocean. I could see that he was in a different afternoon at a different time and no longer in Joaquina. He was tall for a sixteen-year-old. He and his sister were walking through the farmers market in Santos, when he first met his father. “How did you know it was him”? I asked.
He put his beer down on the table. The sun hit the brown glass bottle making rainbow light patterns on the napkins, on our skins. The pretty sparkles filled in the silence between us. “I don’t know,” he answered finally. “He gave me vegetables and a phone number to call if I needed something.” His voice was trailing off…”I went back home and gave the vegetables to my mother. She started putting them away and finally told me the man in the market was my father”.
He said he started going back every Saturday to the market and would bring vegetables back home to his mother. His father was a dutiful son. He was the oldest who had an arranged marriage to a nice Okinawan lady. His father has a son with his wife. “My mother loved my father. She knew what she had and what she didn’t. She loved him not for acknowledgment or acceptance by my father’s family. She loved my father because that’s all it was, love.”
They had fallen into a routine as the months went by. He would go see his father every Saturday at the market. He said, all those afternoons were fun. His father was tall too. His father said his grandfather has changed a lot. His step-mother knows about him. His father said one day he should come home and meet his half-brother. His mother never asked him anything about these Saturday meetings. And then his father stopped coming to the farmers’ market. Like every sixteen-year-old, he was angry, he felt rejection, he could touch his rage and hurt. And yet two months went by and his father did not come to the market.
“I finally called the number my father gave me the first time I met him,” he said. The Ray-Ban shades covered his eyes. We were both looking out at the ocean. It felt quiet. The waves silently crashed in front us. “The woman who answered my call at the other end,” he said, “knew who I was, when I asked for my father. I didn’t ask for my father on the phone, just asked for him by his name”. She said “you are his son right! Why don’t you come over the to the house and we can talk. I went the next day”.
I could tell that he was still in Santos, a long time ago. “My father has died. He was not well the day we first met but he never told me anything about it. I met my grandfather and my half-brother for the first time that day also. I came home and told my mother that my father had died”.
I tasted salt in every bite. I don’t know if the salt was added by dried tears or the splashing waves sprinkled it as they crashed on the shore in front of us. I don’t know how long we sat at Joaquina pretending to eat our lunch. I finally felt his smile on the side of my face as we were sitting next to each other facing the ocean. “I don’t think my mother was ever upset with him,” She just knew it would never work out. She also had a big job raising me and my sister. My father did not know he could leave his family. My mother knew he wouldn’t leave his family.
“What about you?” I finally asked.
“What about me?” he asked. “Sometimes love is a series of mis-encounters. You don’t love someone less because you did not get enough encounters; you cannot choose how you love a person or only love someone in a way you are taught to love by your family or society. My parents loved each other through their mis-encounters, and I loved my father in spite of my mis-encounters.” He was still smiling as he slid the Ray-Ban down the bridge of his nose and on to the table.
“We should get back before Sylvia sends a search and rescue party for us,” he said. The smile deepened on his face as he tugged on his wallet. My phone started to buzz. The screen lit up with Sylvia’s name. I could also see the time. We had two hours before the flight left for Belo Horizonte. The waves were crashing on Joaquina beach with deafening loudness.
Baishakhi Taylor is Dean of Smith College and vice president for campus life. Previously, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, where Taylor co-led the Alliance for Inclusive Middlebury, a presidential committee charged with developing a strategic plan for making inclusion a priority for the institution. She arrived in the United States in 2000 to start a graduate degree in Women’s Studies Prior to her work at Middlebury, Taylor served as the associate dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University and the program director of DukeEngage-Kolkata. She was also a member of the faculty at the Duke Center for South Asian Studies and Program in Education. Taylor holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Kentucky, a M.A. in women’s studies from the University of Northern Iowa and a M.A. and B.A. in comparative literature from Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India.