I’m Not Your Filha

I have never lived with children, both of my sisters are within two years of my age, and apart from occasional babysitting I have never spent much time with anyone more than five or six years younger than me. When I saw that the paper with the profile of my host family included a three year old host sister, I pictured snuggling in our pajamas and eating cookies together and playing with bubbles and drawing in coloring books. I was absolutely not prepared for what my host sister Rebecca had in store for me.

Our relationship is complicated, definitely the most nuanced of all of the relationships I have formed during my homestay so far. There have been many stages of our journey as sisters so I will try to guide you through the rollercoaster that is Rebecca.

When I first arrived, Rebecca loved me. Her obsession with me was precious and made me feel immediately welcomed and more comfortable in my home. Whenever I didn’t know what to do with myself, which happened a lot while I was still figuring out my role in my new home and what my boundaries were, I could always count on playing with her to give me something to do. She would call me “irmã” (sister) or “prima” (cousin) which was very endearing and cute. I was still deep in the honeymoon phase of my homestay, and couldn’t imagine how anything could possibly cause my life here to be anything less than blissful.

Eventually Rebecca switched to calling me “filha” (daughter), and insisted that I call her “mãe” (mom). These names usually transferred into cute games that we would play together where we would pretend that she had to dress me and feed me. She would tell me what to do and of course I would play along, because it was the silly game of a three year old. But Rebecca didn’t stop telling me what to do when the games were over. All of a sudden she decided that she had to control me and constantly tell me what to do. The words I heard her say most during this phase in our relationship were “tu não pode__” (you can’t), “tu não consegue___”(you aren’t able to), or “tu tem que___”(you have to). It was very strange having a three-year-old command me to do things. At first I thought it was totally harmless, and when she told me that I wasn’t allowed to watch TV with her or look at her, I would look away or leave the room. But I wasn’t going to give this spoiled three year old control over me! When she told me to go to my room, I firmly reminded her that I am an adult and that I can stay in the living room if I want to. I had to remind myself as well that she is three and I am eighteen, because she was very comfortable in her role as my superior.

She still had the upper hand over me, as I was a stranger in her territory and she speaks better Portuguese than I do, but I somehow I manage to have full blown arguments with her. It is a very good language exercise and the consequences are very low if I speak incorrectly.  I noticed around this time that many adults would call each other “filho” or “filha” when someone was being stupid or needed reprimanding. It isn’t a term of endearment, but rather a patronizing term used when someone is acting like a child. What started as a fun game very quickly turned into a power battle between me and a three year old.

After a while her interest in me being her “filha” fizzled away and was replaced with another role change. This time, however, it wasn’t just our ages that were switched, but our entire identities. She decided that I would be Rebecca, and she, Julia. It began as another fun game, where she would pretend to go to my apprenticeship in Garopaba while my host mom would pretend to feed me her candy. We would jokingly talk about how she was a tall, eighteen year old girl from the United States who doesn’t speak Portuguese, and she would eat it up. She loved being me and wanted to sleep in my bed and was willing to give me all of her toys and sweets. But during this time her terrible behavior towards me got worse, and while she wasn’t trying to be me she was trying to push me out of her house and life. She wouldn’t let me near her or touch any of her things, and any time I would talk to my host mom Rebecca came in between us and insisted that we allow her to speak at great lengths about whatever gibberish her three-year-old brain could come up with to keep us from having a conversation about anything besides her. It didn’t take long for me and my host family to figure out that this behavior was because of jealousy for me, but that doesn’t make it any easier or less annoying.

She is only three, but she is a damn smart three year old and it took her about two seconds to figure out exactly what things I care about the most and how to use them to infuriate me. She is only three, but when I speak Portuguese we are at about the same intelligence level. She may only be three, but she has a very powerful presence in our household and knows exactly how to get what she wants and also ruin each individual family members’ day while she is at it. She has put me in my stretch zone more than anything else during my Global Citizen Year even though she is less than one meter tall and has only been alive since I got braces Sophomore year in high school.

Even though this blog post has been very long I hope you have read to the end because I saved the best for last. After consistently asserting myself as older than her by reading to her, by teaching her how to write her name, helping her when she needs to open a bag of chips or reach something on a shelf, and protect her when she is scared of the dark or storms, I have finally earned Rebecca’s trust. I guess it just took some time for me to find my voice and for her to finally see me as someone who deserves respect. Now, she still wants to play with me, but will accept if I say no. She often talks about how much she will miss me when I go back to the US and then clings to my and tells me she loves me. She used to actually incite fear in me when I would see her first thing when I wake up in the morning or when I would hear her little voice on the other side of my bedroom door, but now our relationship is something that I cherish and brings me so much joy. She is still a “chata” or annoying three year old, but I love her with all of my heart.