She seemed to recognize me, though she could only communicate it with her one working eye and the adorable smile on her lips. She was the last in a train of three wheelchairs being pushed by airport workers along the jet bridge to the gate. She didn’t need a wheelchair, though it may have been helpful for containment purposes. Her travel companions were two young boys – one from Cote d’Ivoire, Africa, and one from its northerly neighbor, Burkina Faso. The three of them met in Paris, France, along with their flight attendant escorts, and flew away from their families, across the Atlantic, to a world so familiar to me, yet foreign and uncomfortable to them.
One boy had been to the States before and was familiar with the routine having only been away for a few months. He was greeted warmly by recognizable faces, his own face reflecting the smiles of those who already knew him and loved him. The other little boy was fighting to be brave. He held onto his tears as though losing them would have meant losing a part of himself. He was so cold – arriving unprepared from his perpetually warm climate to the coolness of a spring day in the United State’s Midwest. He shivered while the “host mom” of the other little boy tenderly dressed him in an extra sweatshirt and joggers she had packed.
Host mom … or dad … or family. That’s what you call me … us … I guess. We’re sort of like a host family for an exchange student, though Ma has never been to school here. Just to the hospital well over 100 times.
As she was wheeled towards me, I could see that she bore all the signs of having traveled for more than 24 hours – chocolate on her face, marker on her sweatshirt, crusty eyes, and ashy skin. She was beautiful as always. Ma stared in my direction, but it wasn’t until I said my typical greeting to her – Hi May-May! – that she gave me a little smile, exited the wheelchair clumsily, and gave me a hug.
We didn’t waste time hanging around the airport as I knew there were 3 people well over 3 hours away who were waiting impatiently to see her. We went into the bathroom before we left. I let her lead. When she was with our family last – a year and a half prior – she was just beginning to get the hang of using the toilet on a regular basis. Now, it seemed, she was an expert. She even washed her hands better than my own two girls – a carryover from the training to maintain hygiene during the Ebola crisis, I’m sure.
Ma said very little, but giggled a few times as we walked to the car. I could tell right away that she was less sure-footed than before, but I ascribed it to unfamiliar surroundings. I had fretted a bit on the drive to the airport about the whole carseat thing. When she rode in a car in her home country … which was certainly infrequent … she rode on her mom’s lap. I didn’t want to frighten her by strapping her down within minutes of arriving in the States, but she didn’t fight it. I suppose wearing a seatbelt on the airplane helped get her accustomed to the practice again.
It was dinner time and the only thing for miles was a McDonald’s, so I decided to grab some food.
“Chicken nugget Happy Meal, please,” I spoke clearly and plainly into the speaker in the drive-through.
“Ah-chee-kay?” Ma chimed from the backseat.
Surprised … and assuming she was remembering the word for “chicken” … I said as slowly and as clearly as I had just spoken into the speaker, “Yes, that’s right, May-May. Chicken. Chick … -en. Chick-en”
I had been fully prepared for Ma not to remember me … or the English language. Granted, she had learned to speak English with me when she was a toddler. That said, she had since been with her family who only speaks French and Dyula, her mother’s tongue. Research says kids don’t remember much before the age of 3 or 4, so you can imagine my delight when this brilliant 4-year-old 1) seemed to remember me, and 2) was picking up English within the first hour of her arrival.
“Wow!” I marveled at the brain and its ability to tap into its archives.
I left the drive-through speaker as it was spitting out something incomprehensible and drove to the first window to pay.
“Ah-chee-kay,” Ma said again with more emphasis.
“Yes, chicken is coming soon,” I assured her as I paid.
“Ah-chee-kay. AH-CHEE-KEY,” Ma said with rising urgency.
“No worries,” I said, remaining calm. “Chicken is coming soon.” Though I worried inwardly that this “chicken” was not going to be as good as the fresh chicken we ate when we visited her home country. And I mean fresh. The chicken’s cages were housed within yards of the grills on which they were cooked.
I grabbed the bag handed to me from the window and drove to a spot in the parking lot where I could dole out her chicken nuggets and fries. She seemed a little confused but quiet, so I started again on the highway.
“Ah-chee-kay. Ah-CHEE-kay. Ahhhhh-cheeeee-kaaaaay,” she whined repeatedly.
Then, it dawned on me – atchieke – a side dish made from cassava, a starchy root, served in her home country most often along side fried plantains. Of course! She didn’t want stupid processed chicken nuggets and fried tubers, she wanted atchieke. And to confirm my suspicion, she tossed her nuggets across the car and started kicking, screaming, and crying.
That’s my May-May, I thought. She may be a bit bigger and more mature-looking, but her intensity and determination remains intact. Thank goodness!
Ma eventually settled down and fell asleep in her carseat without eating any of her happy (not-so-happy) meal.
Fast forward several days. It may have been a week. Who’s counting? But, I finally caught on (with the help of my daughters) that “ah-chee-kay” means … wait for it … POTTY!!! Ding. Ding. Ding. And 5 points for anyone who already guessed it.
Yep, it should have dawned on me when I got soaked in urine upon carrying her sleepy body from the car into the house that first evening, but it didn’t. And maybe I should have taken a cue when she said “ah-chee-kay” several times the next day while playing in the yard with Pippa, then dropped her drawers and peed in the grass, but it didn’t.
I not-so-quickly learned that our communication was going to be give-and-take. After our initial interaction, I had expected her to catch on to our English quickly. It’s in her brain after all, I contended. But I had to remember … she’s not American. And I shouldn’t have expected her to act or speak or eat or do anything like an American.
I began to be more attentive to her – learning her words, not forcing our words on her. As a result, she opened up to the English language more quickly. I learned to shut my mouth and open my ears. I learned not to shove my ways on her (as we Americans tend to do, thinking our way is better), and I learned her rhythms of life. Her slower, more care-free rhythms of life. She taught me much about communication during the two months she was with us this time. (She also taught me how to get every last bit of chicken off the bone.) She is my African child. And I’m happy to embrace her and celebrate her culture as much as I can. (And maybe someday I will learn the difference between atchieke and “ah-chee-kay”.)