Am I Doing This Right? (And Lots of Other Rhetorical Questions)

I’m currently sitting next to a 7-year-old girl who’s picking her nose and wiping it on the couch (“leave no cushion untouched” seems to be her policy) and I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say anything. My grip on the nearest armrest tightens as her booger-clad fingers near my seat. Luckily, she is called downstairs for bath time before an exclamation of my disgust becomes absolutely necessary, and I can exhale with relief of avoiding a confrontation. This adorable little slob is one of my Chilean host “sisters”, and this event was just one of many that have left me wondering what’s my place here in this family, how I should act, whether I should be here at all, and am I doing this right.

The Chaleco family (name changed because they don’t know I’m writing about them and I feel weird about that) is composed of Laura (24), her boyfriend Nacho (29), and their two daughters Carmen (11) and Lucia (7). Did you do that CRAZY MATH? Okay, calm down for a sec. I know that Gilmore Girls and Teen Mom did not prepare you for this. We’ll get there (in a later post).

The Chaleco family is truly an adorable, fun, affectionate family. And before I go any further (this feels like a post that should have started with “Dear Diary..”), I’d like to say that I’m very lucky to have been placed with them. In some ways, they’re the perfect family for me. The parents are around my age and, despite the fact that they have two kids, they’re up for a carrete (party in Chilean Spanish) and understand the place I’m at in my life despite never having fully experienced this phase of their life since they had kids at my age. The house is often filled with music (Nacho drums in two bands) and the entire family loves dancing around and being silly. Someone’s always singing (badly) and those of you who know me well know that that’s what I’m all about. YouTube videos of people falling, getting smacked in the face by expensive electronics, or taking themselves too seriously while singing poorly are big hits here. They possess an unparalleled zest for the Harlem Shake.

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That said, it’s also rather hard living with two sisters again*. As a person who spends a lot of time in the bathroom, I feel that each step to one’s personal hygiene routine is essential. A simple knock on the door can be enough to throw off the chi of a morning routine. Well, I don’t have to deal with knocks on the door, but a new part of my morning routine is having Lucia barge in on me while I’m in the bathroom. How she has not been conditioned to knock yet, I don’t know. I’m going to have to consult Pavlov directly on that one. I have told her in my best Spanish that she needs to start knocking but she is truly a free spirit and doors and knobs and the concept of personal space just won’t stand in her way. She’ll come into my room, grab my pillow, and rub her face against it saying “Qué ricoooo!!!” (meaning, “how nice/ delicious!”). Then Carmen will pop her head in, sweetly ask me what I’m up to and, next thing I know, she’s sitting in my place on my bed using my laptop for the next 45 minutes.

The family perfume

I’m pretty sure there is a bottle of perfume that is shared by everyone in the family, including Nacho. I think I heard him yelling downstairs the other morning, asking Carmen about its whereabouts. I then saw Lucia liberally spraying this elusive, unmarked bottle of perfume all over herself the other day, seemingly one spritz at every joint in her body. They also have one of those air fresheners in the house that automatically dispenses every 15 minutes or so. My nose is pretty sophisticated, but I have not yet concluded whether or not this scent is the same scent as the family perfume. I will keep you all updated on this very important matter.

The family playlist

Nacho’s main job is as a transportista which, as far as I can tell, is a scarcely employed short distance truck driver/ delivery person. The driveway and our part of the cul de sac are filled with various sizes of trucks. Nacho drives us to school in the morning in these trucks (“Special delivery!” we say, as we drive up to school**). Nacho DJs our morning drives, with occasional input from Lucia and Carmen. The family playlist is something like the following:

  1. 7:30am: Regina Spektor-Alright. It’s super early but this is pleasant and happy and light. I think today’s gonna be okay.
  3. 7:37am Ratatouille- Is it safe to be watching Ratatouille in the front seat of a moving vehicle?! (the truck’s soundsystem contains a dvd console, right next to the driver’s seat, because LATIN AMERICA?! No, that’s not true. Not all Chileans are irresponsible drivers. But Nacho is.)

Not mentioned above: I’m woken up at the crack of 6:15am to the sound of Spice Girls’ “Wanna Be,” the 7 year old’s favorite song and her alarm tone of choice.

 Elyssa contemplates change:

I’m by no means unhappy in my current living situation. I thoroughly enjoy the family and occasionally even feel as though I’m part of it. That said, there are definitely adjustments and/ or sacrifices that I never fully considered I’d have to make when moving in with a Chilean host family. Perhaps I should also explain that it would be fully possibly for me to take the stipend the Ministry gives to the Chaleco family to feed me, house me, transport me, etc, move into an apartment of my choice, and commute to work. And while that’s often so tempting, would that be best? I came to Chile to experience something new, and living with a young family is definitely that, but it’s not what I’d been hoping for. So should I be taking action to make my experience more like I hoped it’d be, or should I be flexible, adaptable, open to the possibility that this is the adventure I was, perhaps, meant to have? If I do nothing, am I settling? Is being “flexible” a euphemism, in this case, for being passive? I’ve been given a rare opportunity to experience a type of family life I never thought I would (teenage parenthood just was not in the cards for me), but it means forgoing the experience I originally wanted for myself.

I occupy this strange space in their home—far from third daughter (I’m just two years younger than Laura while I’m 11 years older than Carmen) but I still must rely on the parents (what do I call them?! Roomies? Host Bros?) to feed me, take me to and pick me up from the school I work at, show me how to do my laundry, turn on the hot water heater (which must be done manually every time you want to shower), and even give me lunch money. I wasn’t one of those kids who was in a real rush to grow up, but now that I am grown up and have lived independently for five years and made this huge decision to move even farther away from my family and everyone I know, it feels somewhat confusing and frustrating to be forced into a sort of regression to childhood.

I’m not sure how much of my time I owe to the family, and how much they even want me around. I have no idea what they expect from me—not their daughter, but a foreign ambassador—and I can’t help but think I’m letting them down in so many ways. What were they imagining when they signed up for this, and is it so different from what they got? What were they hoping to gain from having a foreigner in their home, and can I deliver? Should I even be worrying about this? This was supposed to be MY experience and now I suddenly have to take 4 other peoples’ experiences into account!

Last but not least, I should not be allowed to represent the United States. My host family asks me what are some typical foods in the USA and I resort to stereotypes: hamburgers, pizza, donuts, hot dogs***. They ask me about popular music in the USA and I can only think of Indie music, which is wholly unknown to/ not understood by the people I’ve met here and was only once recognized enough to elicit an, “Ah, gringo music.” (People usually think I’m referring to music originating from India.) After a demonstration of cueca, Chile’s national dance, they ask me to show them the national dance in my country. I demonstrate the Electric Slide. I know I’m a good daughter (right, Mom and Dad?!), but I have no idea how to be a good host daughter.

*Love you Jess + Amy <3

**This is a lie

***As it turns out, United Statesians don’t eat nearly as many hot dogs per capita as Chilenos do. What does per capita mean?

  1. April 14, 2013
  2. April 14, 2013
  3. April 14, 2013

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