Step by step, crossing bridges that were placed over rivers of plastic bottles and plastic bags, I walked down the cobbled pathways. I followed each gray and white rectangular stone to the small school hosting a summer camp for the children of Jinotega. While we walked through the neighborhood of the Nicaraguan children, I noticed the houses were dark inside, excluding the singular TV playing the latest baseball game. As they popped out of their dim doorways and greeted us with “Hello teacher!” the children shined their bright, ecstatic smiles. Soon the rickety silver fence appeared, and the eager children pushed their tiny faces through the gates to see us filing into the school.
Last spring, I traveled to Nicaragua to teach English to children for seven days. One day, a 7-year-old girl named Sheryl slipped her cold hands into my welcoming palms and dragged me to the concrete where I read her the same book every day about a dog named Bizcocho. As I read to her in an unfamiliar language that I had not studied in school, she mocked my Spanish for the lack of an accent. Even though I pronounced the R’s with a French accent and did not enunciate some of the E’s, Sheryl still laid her small head on my shoulders and listened to my broken Spanish. By the end of the week, she no longer laughed at me, for I was rolling all my R’s.
One day, however, a handful of children came to me and said, “Teacher, you like this!” and proceeded to slap their sticky hands next to their big eyes. They pulled their eyes to the sides of their faces in order to mirror the so-called “slits” on my face. I stared at them in shock. Others came to me and asked, “Ni hao, teacher! Teacher, you from Chee-nah?” I was more than stunned and offended. This had never happened to me in Southern California. After containing my anger, I responded, “No, I am from America. Or... the Estados Unidos de America.”
There were two other Asian students volunteering. On another occasion, the curious Nica children came up to the three of us and asked if we were all brothers and sisters. At first, I was alarmed. I was offended that they even dared to ask me this question. I swallowed my anger and pointed at the other children and responded, “Are all these children your brothers and sisters?” Each time, different children asked us the same question, I responded the same way, and they all looked at me as horrified and offended as I probably looked. With my comment, they nodded their heads and laughed in embarrassment: I had helped them to understand.
Back at our homestay, all the volunteers discussed our shocking experiences. Through these encounters, I realized that in a world like Nicaragua, many children and adults are only exposed to themselves and Westerners. I may have been the first Chinese or Asian person these Nicaraguan children had seen. If only we could be so open and honest in discussing race in Southern California as little children of Nicaragua are.
On the last day, saying goodbye to the Nica children was unbelievably hard. We were allowed to take photos with the children, so I frantically looked around for my “favorite” children. I found Sheryl, Genesis, Francela, and so many more. As we hugged for the very last time, I could not help but wipe the tears trickling down my face. “Why are you crying, teacher?”
On the plane, I pulled out my journal and started writing all the Spanish words I had learned. From rojo to morado, I wrote simple words and phrases such as the colors of the rainbow. I wrote the sound that the golden retriever puppy from Bizcocho made when he barks at his fellow owners: guau! guau! Lastly, I wrote the lines of a book about a bear who climbs up ladders to get to his treehouse: el oso verde sube.
I often hear about teenagers who are changing the world, and by going to Nicaragua, I did actually change someone’s world. However in the end, it was not the children who were changed forever; rather, it was me. Thinking of all my memories I had made and all the little ideas the children had taught me, I flew off into the sky hovering over the lush tropical trees and the smiling Nicaraguan children.