A Reflection on Family This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

July 9, 2011
By , Oak Park, IL
The sun poured in the window, and I awoke squinting in the bright light. That was something I was used to. But the sounds of car alarms, a guy yelling “Fresas! Tomates!” into a bullhorn, and the constant airplanes, were completely new to me. Wishing for earplugs, I glanced at the clock whose neon green lights said 7 a.m. It was early, but I heard movement, so I decided to get up and check it out. I put one leg on the floor, and a rush of cold air hit me like the shock of the pool after jumping off the high dive. So much for eternal spring, I thought, shivering as I pulled the rest of my body from the blankets. Grabbing a sweatshirt and slippers, I headed to the dining room. My host mom was up, hanging laundry on the backs of chairs.

“Buenos dias,” I said. She looked surprised to see me up so early. She told me I didn't have to get up and that I should go back to bed. I didn't have the words to explain that I was used to getting up early, and I wanted to help her and get to know her. So I went back to bed and read a book.

Later, after breakfast, she said we should go for a walk. It was Sunday, my first day in Ecuador, and this whole day was supposed to be about getting to know my host family, so I said yes. We walked to the park nearby. It was a pretty quiet walk; my host mom would talk and I would listen. I wanted to keep the conversation going, and occasionally, in broken Spanish, I would try. She would listen patiently, but eventually I got frustrated with myself and stopped trying.

After the walk we had dinner (the large midday meal), and I expected the whole family to join in. Or at least the daughter who was still living in the house and I hadn't met. Instead I ate alone. My host mom plopped down a plate filled with rice, beans, a large portion of meat, and “onion salad,” which was just raw onions in some kind of seasoning. Then, she left.

Ten minutes later, I was attempting to swallow food over the lump that was forming in my throat as I remembered the countless meals I had shared with my family. I remembered our Sunday dinners. Often my sister or I would sulk about the family meeting part of the dinner, but no matter what, we all sat down and ate together every Sunday.

When my host mom returned I told her I was done, even though I had only eaten half of the meat and barely touched anything else. She gave me a short lecture about how lunch was the biggest meal, and that I should eat more, that dinner wasn't going to be like what I was used to in the States. I didn't really hear what she was saying. I was concentrating on trying not to cry.

As soon as I could I went to my room and called my parents. I hadn't gotten an Ecuadorian phone yet, and I knew I was only supposed to use mine in emergencies since it was really expensive, but I counted this as an emergency. When my mom picked up and I heard her voice in my ear, the flood of tears I had been holding back broke loose.

“Mom, I want to come home,” I ­blubbered.

That was the first of many long conversations with my parents that would begin and end in tears. Often, when ­people ask me about Ecuador, I tell them it was the best – and hardest – experience of my life. The funny thing is, they think I'm talking about the food and how difficult it is to communicate in a foreign language. But for me, Ecuador wasn't really about Ecuador. It was about me.

When I left home to go abroad, I was leaving a strained relationship with my family. For over a year we had been fighting about where I wanted to go to school. I had suggested a million options that would make me happier than my high school, which I hated. But they had said no to all my ideas.

I felt like they didn't believe that I would be able to learn without a highly structured environment. They didn't trust me to be able to make a good decision or trust that I knew when and how I could learn best. I also felt like they weren't listening to me or cared about my happiness. I was growing into an adult while they were still treating me like a child.

As a last resort, I suggested a compromise. If they let me leave the country for a semester, I would come back and graduate from my old high school. I didn't think they'd agree, but they did. I thought Ecuador would be the solution to all my school problems, and in a way it was. While I was there I realized that a lot of my issues were not with the school but how I approached it.

I realized I had isolated myself freshman year, and I needed to let my guard down, meet new people, and try new things. By being alone while abroad, I learned to trust my own judgment and decisions, both of which have led me to be a better student. But the most important thing I learned academically in Ecuador was not to be afraid to make mistakes.

In Ecuador I was constantly making mistakes. Once, I called our classroom a jaula (which means jail) instead of an aula (classroom). Once, I said I got stung by an oveja (sheep) instead of an abeja (bee). But regardless of what I said, the world didn't end. People laughed at me, I laughed at me, and that was it. I realized I didn't have to be right all the time, and that I wasn't going to be right all the time. And that was okay.

But Ecuador was actually a solution to my family problems too. You know how they say that you never really appreciate something until it's gone? Well, as clichéd as it sounds, it's what happened. I talked to my parents every day, and I rediscovered how wise and caring they are, and how much they love and trust me. And I relearned just how much they mean to me.

When I got home from Ecuador, we tried to keep up this relationship. But recently, we have fallen back into the old routine. I barely see them with my hectic school schedule and their busy lives. Our occasional conversations are filled with small anecdotes and snippets of our day, instead of intense dialogue about our lives. I love them, but I have begun to feel like we are pushing each other away.

As much as this hurts me, I'm also afraid to do anything about it. I am afraid to try to strengthen our relationship and become close again because I am leaving at the end of the year. I am going off on adventures around the world, and around the country, and I think it might be easier if I didn't miss them so much this time.

The day after Thanksgiving in Ecuador, I called my parents and told them I wanted to come home. I had made it that long, but I couldn't bear to think of spending Christmas with my host family that I barely liked, and miss spending it with the family I loved. I talked to my program leader the next day. She understood and we booked a flight home for the week before Christmas. I felt bad about leaving a month early and wrote a long e-mail to my mom about how I didn't want people to think I was a quitter. But she told me it was okay, that I needed to take care of myself, that I shouldn't make a decision based on what others might think of me. So I came home.

I came home, but in a way I feel like a quitter. I want to go off and have wild and crazy adventures next year and in the rest of my life, but I'm scared. I'm worried I will miss my family so much that I will have to quit in the middle again. I'm scared that I will miss millions of opportunities out in the world because I can't bare to leave my family.

Sometimes I wish that I had a family I hated, a sister I always fought with. I wish I had a family that didn't make me feel so at home, because then it would be easier to leave them.

But then, of course, I feel guilty. There are millions of people who do have families like that and would kill for a family like mine.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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