Tough Love

by Elizabeth Kenneally

Rafaela, my host sister, is four years old, blind and a drama queen. In the beginning, I assumed that she would be the most difficult to bond with because much of my early integration involved me silently listening to conversations and simply being present. Since she couldn’t see me sitting there, none of this meant much to her. But we have managed to connect in other arguably more important ways. Her world revolves around sound and touch, so the color of my hair and the brand name on my clothes means much less to her than it does to the rest of Ecuador. In Rafaela’s world, I am just a nebulous physical presence with a foreign sounding voice that sometimes makes weird smelling food. But for some reason, we get along.

If it’s been more than an hour since I’ve talked to her, she will repeatedly shout my name at the top of her lungs. If I don’t answer, she will ask the nearest person where I am and what I’m doing with slowly increasing volume until someone inevitably breaks down and responds. Sometimes, she tells me that she is “in love with the sound of my voice.” Other times, she tells me that I talk like a gringa and should learn Spanish already. Multiple times she has asked me why I’m from the United States and not from Ecuador. My follow-up question of why she’s from Ecuador and not the United States caused her somewhat of an existential crisis resulting in an extended period of silence, but I think that is when I truly earned her respect.

She is one of the most eager learners and teachers I have ever met. Right now, she is learning how to open doors herself. This involves a few minutes of banging her hands on the wall until she finds the doorknob and flings herself into the room, often completely naked and usually before 6 in the morning. She walks to my bed with arms outstretched, feels to make sure I’m in it and then leaves. It’s part of our morning routine. An unexpected side effect of this experimentation with my doorknob recently resulted in her locking us both out of my bedroom and my neighbor having to come and break down the door. Just another day in the life.

Learning English is also one of her current projects. We can spend hours together with her asking me how to say random words in English (“jug” and “cool” are her favorites). And while other people worry about hurting my feelings, she is the only one I can truly count on to correct my pronunciation and help me learn. She will randomly call on me to read to her from whatever book her hands land on and then ruthlessly mock the way I say each word until it is up to her standards. Her tough love has been the best Spanish teacher I could have hoped for.

I have never been an older sibling; even all of my extended family was older than me. Because of this, I am incredibly fortunate to be in this house with this little girl. She has taught me so much about dragonflies and percussion and shamelessly playing the recorder at full volume no matter who is sleeping and how to always get what you want (pro tip- just scream until they give it to you out of desperation). Although the barrier of age and language is too great right now for me to express this in a way she can understand, I really do love her. And maybe one day someone can read this to her in English and she can remember that weird interim family member that taught her how to say “jug” and “cool” and didn’t kill her when she banged on the walls at five in the morning.

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