(sitting down to dinner)
Me: How was your day, Hank.
Hank: (full of sass) Horrible, glad it’s over. Never want to do it again.
Molly: (looking down at her plate) What’s that?
Pai: That is tuna pasta.
Molly: Is carne (meat).
Me: It’s fish.
Pai: Peixe (fish).
Molly: It peixe (fish)? Oh! Peixinho (little adorable fish), yummmmy!(digging in)
Hank: It’s the chicken of the sea.
Pai: Oh, that marketing campaign…. Only in America!
Me: If I were you I’d let go of that brand fail, Hank. It will only get you in trouble. Just ask, Jessica Simpson.
Hank: I don’t even understand it. Who is stupid enough to think there is chicken in the sea?
Me: (raised eyebrows, my point proven) You’d be amazed what some people believe.
Pai: So, not the best day at school?
Hank: I mean, it was fine. I got a 96% on my English test.
Pai: Well done.
Hank: Not really.
Me: Whoa, how so?
Hank: Because another girl in my class got a 96.5%.
Pai: It isn’t a competition.
Me: Good for her, but what is a half a point between friends? This isn’t Olympic Gymnastics.
Hank: It wasn’t her. She is nice. It was everyone else. (pushing his food around his plate).
Me: You’re gonna have to elaborate.
Hank: Everyone started making fun of me. Like, Ooooooooo, Maria got a better grade than Henrique and he is American. Americano, Americano! That is all I hear all day long from everybody! Americano! Argh, I hate it.
Me: You hate being American?
Hank: A little. I am so different. Everyone notices me. Everyone talks about it. I was born in America and I speak English and my mom is American and then I don’t do the best in English and everybody notices. Argh. (dropping his fork)
Me: Next time someone gets a bad grade in Portuguese you should question them. Hey, Simão! How come you got such a bad grade and you even SPEAK Portuguese! Har-har-har! Their logic is way off. They’re ten.
Hank: I would never do that. I would never make fun of someone they way they make fun of me. They’d call me emotional.
Pai: Who? Who is they?
Hank: I don’t know, everyone!
Pai: Be specific.
Hank: It’s the whole school! The whole school talks to me and about me and knows me. They are always talking about my hair and my eyes and my clothes. 8th graders come up to me and even remember my stupid red bubble backpack from primário (grades K-4).
Me: What I think your papa is trying to discern is if it is everyone that is teasing you or if your lying, irrational brain is telling you it is everyone.
Hank: It is everyone!
Me: We believe you.
Pai: But we don’t understand why you’re protecting them. Say their names. They go out of their way to tease you so why won’t you go out of your way to tell us who they are?
Hank: It doesn’t matter, there is nothing I can do about it! It isn’t like I can change who I am. I am just different. I don’t even look Portuguese.
Me: I beg to differ. You are the carbon copy of your Pai (dad). The only bits you got from me are your fair-ish skin and your insides: the way you think, feel and look at the world. The rest of you is distinctly Portuguese, not that there is a particular Portuguese look, this country is rather diverse. Even you hair is turning black!
Hank: Which I cannot wait for that to happen! I should go around school with a photo of papa and show it to everyone and say, “Here, see! Stop calling me, Americano!”
Pai: Who? Who would you show the photo to?
Hank: It doesn’t matter.
Pai: I think it does. Are these your close friends or just kids in your class?
Hank: Some are my close friends, some are just boys and you know what boys are like. The boys in my class always say, “Oh, you’re too full of emotions, Americano.” And then they walk around hitting each other and playing sports and fighting all the time, yelling and being mean to each other. I am the only person who feels this way and I hate it.
Me: I hear you. I know it feels isolating, but I promise you are not the only person feeling this way and that is why you are noticed! They see you feeling exactly like them, but you are brave enough to show it. Unlike them you are not bottling up your big feelings and forcing yourself to conform to what this collective, toxic, “everyone,” expects of you. You are brave enough to feel everything NOW instead of putting it off until it is far too late and all these big feelings poison the person you were meant to be. I know how you feel. I also had a lot of nicknames given to me growing up.
Hank: Oh yah, was it as bad as Americano?
Me: When I was your age my nickname was cow.
Me: Afraid so and when I walked past any of my classmates, in school or even outside of school, they would moo at me.
Pai: Kids are assholes.
Hank: No way.
Me: This is when I lived in Ohio. It was a small town, smaller than Guimarães, so when I’d go to the skating rink or a high school football game, American football and not futebol (soccer), picture a large group of kids mooing as I walked past.
Hank: Did you die? I would have died.
Me: Nope. It took a minute to get used to, but it was silly and I saw it that way eventually and it was all because of my epic Lisa Frank cow 3-ring binder.
Hank: Like your school portfolio?
Me: Yup. All the other girls choose kittens or dolphins or puppies and I chose a blue and white cow, wearing sunglasses, seated against a hot pink sky on a beach with a sunny expression on it’s face.
Pai: Kids are assholes.
Me: So of course, because I chose to be different, the kids in my class and in the other classes at my school picked up on it and from then on I was called cow until I moved to Indiana and got other nicknames, but I’ll save those for another day.
Hank: Did you cry?
Me: Nope. I mean I didn’t like it, but it wasn’t about me, it was about them. Those kids aren’t making fun of you, Hank, they envy you. You’re from America, although you are 100% culturally and 50% genetically Portuguese, and they think that is the coolest thing about you ,which also kinda sucks because there is so much more that is cool about you, you’re amazing. But on the surface they’re like, Henrique understands and speaks English, Uau (wow)! You can play every video game without having to wait for the Portuguese version, watch every YouTuber, every movie, television with reading the subtitles and know what the lyrics to their favorite songs mean!
Pai: You have lived in and visited America! You have American snacks brought to you by friends and family and they are from Minho, which is also cool, but they don’t see it that way because it is all they know.
Me: Yes, they’re from Guimarães, which is an important historical city, but it isn’t America and America to them is the coolest.
Hank: (whispering, trying to crawl into the shell of himself) But I still hate it.
Me: And we aren’t telling you not to.
Pai: We are listening.
Me: Nicknames suck, being different sucks, for you being SEEN sucks.
Hank: I hate it. I just want to be invisible.
Me: I know, but you’re shinny and wonderful and I am sorry you don’t blend. This is just something you will have to survive.
Pai: I don’t like being seen either and it is really hard with my work because I am supposed to attract a lot of attention to my research and to my team. I have a group of important and great friends and I let your mother be my PR representative and that is it. I am not good at being in groups. I hate talking on the phone. I hate chit-chat/small-talk. I do it because I don’t hate people, I like people, but it is the hardest thing for me. Your mother is great at it.
Hank: Everyone likes you, mom. Everyone says you’re so nice and is so happy to see you.
Me: Yup, and a big part of that is because I survived being called, cow, being mooed at and I never took it personally. If I had my heart would have been broken by that nickname and others and who knows if I would have been brave enough to heal. Instead I chose to be me and survive the powder keg that which is elementary, middle and high school. I was myself and that was enough for me and still is, and it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. Now, I know how to not take everyone and what they say to heart. I don’t let individuals hurt me; hurt people hurt people. I choose to not let them have any power over me.
Me: By being brave. I won’t lie to you, at first being bullied was crushing, but I was too stubborn to let them win so I painted on a brave face and I was me anyway. I would not let them win and soon I was actually as brave as I pretended to be.
Pai: Fake it till you make it. That has been scientifically proven to work.
Hank: But how did you know you were worth it?
Molly: More water!
Pai: How do you ask kindly?
Molly: More water please, papa.
Pai: Of course, filha (daughter).
Me: I knew I was worth it because why else would I be here in the first place? Why would I exist if not to be me. I am the only me there is! Why else would I have been born than to make and live my best life possible? And your life, being my son, is proof that I was right, Hank. It was easier to embrace the idea that I was worthy than it was to let them destroy me! My bullies, my “everyone” was easier to survive than is was for me to change, because being me was all I had and I didn’t want to be them. I would never moo at a girl because she had a cow 3-ring binder. Who does that?
Pai: Kids are assholes.
Me: You would never do that. You would never moo at a girl because everyone else was doing it.
Hank: No, I wouldn’t.
Me: So find the nice people, Hank. That was the advice Josita (dear family friend) gave me when I moved to Portugal. She told me to find the nice people and forget about the rest. Only nice people are worth your time and attention.
Pai: That is great advice.
Hank: (deep sigh)
Pai: If Americano is your only nickname consider yourself lucky.
Hank: I know, right? Cow!
Me: Comparison is the thief of joy and this is not a competition. I am sure Americano hurts just as much as being called cow was in the beginning.
Hank: No, I don’t think it is, mom. I think being called cow must have been way worse.
Me: Thank you for empathizing.
Hank: Can I have permission to swear just this once?
Pai: Your language is your choice.
Hank: Kids are assholes and I am not going to be an asshole.
Me: Wise decision.