14: Content with What I Have

14: Content with What I Have

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

Content with What I Have

The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.

~James Oppenheim

My grandma hugged me tight. “I wish you didn’t have to go,” she said, and tears fell down her wrinkled cheeks. I didn’t understand why we had to leave our hometown, our country, my friends and the grandma I loved so much.

But my parents had decided that Bolivia would not be the place for us. The United States would give us more opportunities to go to school, build a career when we grew up and live better lives.

“You’ll see,” my mom said. “The United States has so many things to do that are exciting and fun, some of which you’ve never even seen or done before.”

Two months after my twelfth birthday, the day to board the plane came. I snuck some of my favorite things under the clothes Mom had packed in one of the two huge suitcases, but she found them.

“No, this can’t go,” she said. “There’s a weight limit for our luggage.”

So I had to leave the things I liked so much, including my favorite magazines with the characters I’d grown to love.

A lump formed in my throat as my mom, my brother and I rode in the old taxicab, passing through the narrow dirt streets as we left our neighborhood. Mom must have seen my sad face because she patted my leg. “It’ll be okay. Remember, Dad is waiting for us.”

Dad had left Bolivia a few months prior. During his time in the United States, he’d managed to get a job, an apartment and a small car. After all those months of separation, we finally would be together.

I turned to my left and looked out the window. A couple of neighborhood kids played on the familiar playground. The rope holding the wooden swing was frayed and the seat had some splinters on the side. The slide was rusted underneath and dull from the sun beating on it. Weeds grew everywhere, and spots with dirt had rocks protruding here and there.

Although it wasn’t pretty, it was the place where my friends and I played ball and dared each other to climb the monkey bars. But now, all of this was staying behind and I was heading to a strange and unknown place.

I managed to sleep for a time during the eight-hour plane ride that was sometimes bumpy and loud. They served us food wrapped in plastic — something I’d never seen before.

When we got to Miami, we entered the huge airport. People rushed everywhere. We stood in long lines while loudspeakers called out stuff in a language I couldn’t understand. No one spoke Spanish besides Mom, my brother and me. We finally got to the counter, and the officials behind it were taller than any men I’d ever seen. When Mom placed papers on the counter, none of them smiled as they stamped our passports. And their blue eyes had such a serious look.

As we walked among crowds of people looking for the exit, we came to a set of stairs. A strange and bizarre set of stairs — they moved! Mom told me to place my hand on the black banister while putting my foot on the first step at the same time.

I froze. I’d never seen steps that moved. I waited for them to stop, but when they didn’t, I grabbed tight to the banister and stepped on with trembling legs.

Once on the next floor, we found the glass doors marked “Exit.” And then, a few feet before we reached them, they opened on their own! That was the scary part. How did those doors know we were coming?

Then we saw Dad at a distance. He waved and my brother and I ran to give him hugs.

As we drove through the streets of the new city, I gazed out the window at the scenery that was so different than in Bolivia. Streets were clean and wide, with white lines marking the lanes of traffic. But unlike the crowded sidewalks back home, the streets had a ghost-like appearance. The sidewalks were completely empty.

“Remember, we’re in the greatest country in the world,” Dad said as he drove the small car. “See how that police officer stopped to check our registration?” He glanced at me and my brother in the back seat. “That’s efficiency we never saw in Bolivia.” Some time later, with the aid of a dictionary, he learned that what the officer had given him was a speeding ticket.

Weeks went by, and attending school while we spoke no English was a nightmare. At the time, there was no “English as a Second Language” program, so we went to school unable to understand the teacher or students.

My parents didn’t understand English either. Days passed before we learned that Mom was serving us cat food. She saw the picture of a fish on the can and thought it was tuna.

One Saturday afternoon, we went to Sears and Mom bought me the gym shorts indicated on a note I brought from school. Although she used a dictionary to figure out what it said, she purchased the wrong thing anyway. When all the girls in sixth grade took off their uniform skirts on the first day of gym class, they had navy blue shorts on. And me? I wore old-lady underwear.

The United States was nothing like they’d told me. Everything we encountered was kind of scary. And the adjustment was difficult. I missed home and my friends more than ever.

I had no friends until one day when a nice girl took me by the hand and offered me a chair beside her at the lunch table. She became my friend. Slowly, I learned some words in English, then some sentences, and pretty soon, I was able to communicate with her and the other girls.

More months went by, and I could laugh at their jokes. I could tell them about my country and teach them some games I knew. Before long, we even played some of them at recess.

One day, on the way home, we stopped at a park and I saw the same things I’d left in Bolivia. But here, they were new. The ground had nice green grass. The swing had chains rather than frayed ropes. Just for fun, my friends and I raced to the water fountain and they later invited me to their homes to watch TV.

Years later, Grandma visited us from Bolivia. I showed her some parts of my new life — the music and songs I’d learned, the books in English I read and the certificate showing I’d made the honor roll.

She placed her folded lace handkerchief on the table beside her, cupped my face in her hands, and looked into my eyes. “I missed you so much,” she said, “but I’m so proud of you.”

I learned that when I moved from Bolivia, I didn’t leave things behind; I’d just exchanged them for better ones. And the experiences in both countries taught me to be happy where I live and to be content with what I have.

~Janet Perez Eckles

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