My heartbeat rings in my eardrums as the 18 Mexican children I am supervising flood the playground, heaving water balloons at one another and screaming in fast Spanish. A young girl scrambles toward me and screams the three words I would learn to fear: "Aquí, toma esto!"
In the moment before the water balloon smacks my arm and explodes on my shirt, I realize the only thing worse than being in charge of a herd of children throwing water at one another is being the victim of a group of children throwing water at one another.
It is important to note that, having immigrated from China, I struggled to understand basic English, let alone Spanish. Hours earlier, I haphazardly volunteered to babysit for a local church. Unbeknownst to me, the children at the Mexican church only spoke Spanish. It seemed I could never overcome the language barrier that embodied cultural differences.
Forced to lead among people who could not understand me, I resorted to the universal language of promised piggyback rides and Hershey’s kisses in order to express authority.
As the adults listen to the sermon in a hushed circle, their children run around outside. Frustrated, I quickly Google translate, “Aquí toma esto” (“here, take this”), making a mental note to duck whenever I heard the phrase. The youngest boy, Antonio, attempts to toss a bulging green balloon, only to see it pop above his head as it leaves his hand. Seeing he was about to cry, I quickly laugh and intentionally break a balloon above my head in imitation, hoping it would change his mood. He smiles, and suddenly all of the children are grabbing water balloons and popping them over their heads, giggling as the water splashes onto their dark skin. Suddenly, every child grabs a balloon and charges at me. They chase me and knock me down, leaving my clothes wet and covered in mud. In the moments our differences in age, culture, and language are being stripped off layer by layer, I think there is nothing better than being here, with a group of children, throwing water at one another.
I would find myself visiting them every week: the kids who helped me build a community beyond the confinement of language. After all,
creating relationships with those vastly different from us is the first step towards open-mindedness in the future. Since this day I have never let seemingly unconquerable barriers prevent me from understanding someone, and have stopped hating my Chinese heritage.
As the night pushes on, I wrap my newly made friends in towels and push them inside. For a while, we lay on the floor, with the younger ones asleep on their older sibling's laps. When it is time for me to drive home, Antonio runs up to me, eyes heavy and worn out. He presses a Hershey's kiss into my palm and whispers, “Aquí, toma esto.” I promise him I will visit again soon and in that moment I know he understands.