Fabienne’s legs were still tingling and half asleep when the flight landed. She’d changed planes twice since leaving home two days ago but this final connection lasted almost 10 hours. At 20 years old, this was the first time she had ever traveled by herself, let alone on an airplane, and to a foreign country. Now arriving at one of the busiest airports in the United States, reality sank in that this was truly going to be a new adventure.
She alighted from the plane, pulling her wheeled carry-on bag behind her and following the other passengers through the Jetway and into the arrival terminal. Travelers brushed past her from all directions in a cacophony of voices in various languages. Clicking heels, luggage wheels, and crying children all added to the intensity.
Fabienne stopped and scanned the airport signs trying to find one with directions in Portuguese. Her breath quickened and her pulse raced in a panic as she realized there weren’t any. She instinctively rubbed the palm of her free hand on her jeans to relieve the clamminess.
A very important-looking man in a suit spoke rapidly on a mobile phone. She had no idea what he was saying, but thought she recognized the words “products” and possibly a “thank you.”
She shuddered as two grim-faced men in uniform with the letters “ATF” on their backs walked past, each with a German Shepherd dog on a leash. Her neighbors in Salvador had German Shepherds and they terrified her all the time. She never quite got over the day when they chased her into the house when she was just 7 years old.
A harassed-looking mom was trying to soothe a screaming baby while shouting at a toddler who had just dropped an open bottle of Coke on the floor. The woman’s puffy eyes and the “Cheerios” in her hair made Fabienne wonder if she had made the right decision.
One year ago she had signed up for the Au Pair Cultural Exchange Program. If a family in the US chose her, she would spend at least one year with them, away from her own family, caring for their children. She had known other young girls who had previously participated in the program. Most had positive stories about living in the US and making friends with other au pairs from Brazil and even other countries. But there were a few who left the program early if the rules of the program had been violated and there was no resolution: the families made them work 7 days per week with no break; they weren’t given their own room; or if the father or an older man in the family disrespected them. That was the worst. Or sometimes the host family and the au pair, despite all the interviews and meetings, were just not a good fit. If no other family took the au pair, he or she would have to return home.
The fact that she knew only a small amount of English did not inspire her with any more confidence about this job either.
Despite her fears, Fabienne wanted more than anything else to leave the favela that she was raised in and where her family still lived. The only way out was a well-paying job. The plan was to save up some U.S. dollars to send home each month. She also knew that, after living in the United States for a year, she could return home with a working knowledge of the English language and then she would perhaps land in a better-paying career. The job of an au pair itself was not too different from how she lived now. Had she not been taking care of her own younger siblings since they were born?
But she still wondered, would the Watson family like her?
Would they let her call home occasionally?
What kind of children were they? Would they respect her or would she be caring for the problem children from hell?
Recalling the mom in the airport with the screaming children, she wondered if her host family’s two kids would be the whiny, noisy, spoiled little brats she had often heard about. She wasn’t used to that. Would the host parents always take the children’s side over hers?
She sighed and decided that it was already too late to change her mind about the job.
Fabienne eventually found her way through to immigration and customs. Her J-1 visa and the letter the agency gave her explained why she was there and for how long she would be staying in the country.
She had no bags but her carry-on luggage, so she headed towards the arrival lounge where it had been arranged to meet her host family.
In the distance, she saw a sign being held by a dark-haired woman, flanked by two small children bearing flowers. The sign had her name on it:
A welcome sign! Fabienne looked around to see if anyone else had started to approach them, but no one else paid them any attention.
She cautiously walked up to the woman and asked, “Mrs. Watson?”
“Fabienne?” the lady smiled and asked.
“Yes,” she replied, and showed her the agency folder that she had been carrying all this time.
Mrs. Watson gave her a big hug. “Welcome to the US!” she announced.
The children, who were 4 and 6 years old, squealed and gave her big hugs too, almost knocking her over. “Hi Fabienne! You’re going to be my best friend!” declared the girl.
The boy, the younger of the two, presented her with the flowers he was holding before proclaiming, “You’re going to be my best friend too!”
Fabienne stumbled back a step as the children ran to embrace her. She closed her eyes as tears welled up with this moment of acceptance. She struggled to find the right words in English to express her gratitude, but was finally only able to mumble a simple “thank you.”
She felt a sudden lightness as all the tension that had been building up over the past few hours was released and she thought, “This might truly be the start of a wonderful adventure, after all.”