Sunday, October 5, 2014

Walking a mile in someone else's shoes, and caring enough to remember it.

      That time has come again. The time when thousands of college students return to OSU and flood our little town.  Many of these students are international students coming to live in America for the first time.  In theory, I absolutely love this.  However, the other day as I was driving and trying to make a left hand turn (from a two way street) onto a busy one way street I found myself feeling rather annoyed.  Three very happy international students were also crossing this street on bicycles, from the left side of the street (instead of being on my right where I could have safely turned left at the first opening and they could have crossed when all three lanes of traffic were free.)  I kept looking for an opportunity to just turn in front of them, since they couldn't go, but they would nudge out there.  It was around 5 pm and my children were getting grumpy, as was I.  I kept thinking, "Don't they know they're on the wrong side?" And then I remembered, probably not.
      Flash back to nine years ago to where I found myself living and working for a family in Switzerland for six months, before moving to Germany for another six months. I did not know the language even a little, and even though I had been driving for years in very similar situations with similar laws (yes, they drive on the right side, just like us) I often found myself flustered and alone trying to figure out how things worked as I drove through town, adjusted to the new culture, and in general adapted to living abroad.  My host family was very helpful but it was clear that some of the things that I struggled to understand (often simply because of the language barrier) seemed so obvious to them, and I often felt slow or slightly mocked (mostly by the little boys.)  One day I was helping 7 year old Nikola with his math homework (it was a work sheet with picture problems using simple math.  For example, if Olga has 3 brotwurst and Hans gives her 4 more, how many will she have?) He was having a little trouble with it, but after a while I was able to help him understand how to do it.  At the end he turned and looked at me and asked me how I knew math, since I couldn't even speak very well.  His comment made me laugh, but it also revealed to me how he had perceived me (as I had probably perceived other very intelligent people who didn't speak my language well) to be of below average intelligence.  While I was grateful he started to see the truth behind it, I was felt hurt and embarrassed.  Besides the language barrier, I had other obstacles to conquer. I had never used public transportation at all really, let alone in a new place with a new language.  I also never ironed clothes (at least not more than 1 item every few months) along with a thousand other little changes I had to adjust to.  I longed for someone to know me, to know that I was a normal, intelligent person with thoughts and feelings and to understand all that I was adjusting to.  My host mother had lived in England for a year when she was younger, and did understand to a certain extent, but I longed for a peer to understand and to just be my friend.  Along with all of this I had just come from a very busy time in my life filled with going to school full time, working two jobs and an internship as well as leading a youth group and hanging out with friends and wishing I had a little time to myself.  All of the sudden I had none of that.  I worked during the day, but after 7 I was free as a bird and had nothing to do, and almost no way of making friends it seemed.  I tried to connect with people at church, there was a large group of college age kids and it seemed like it should be easy but they all knew each other and didn't seem to need new friends, let alone the quiet (yes they thought I was quiet, that happens when you can't speak the same language) American girl who doesn't speak much German, let alone Swiss German.
       That first month was very hard and lonely for me.  My host family did their best to include me and we did some really fun things together, but it was hard.  I remember thinking back to times where new people had come to my church and I had hung back by themselves (sometimes from a different country and sometimes just new to the area or church.)  I had often wanted to go and meet them, but I felt awkward and didn't know what to say.  I felt bad about it, but in the end I usually opted to stay where I was comfortable, with my group of friends, and let someone else include them, or not.  As I looked around at church I remembered those times and felt ashamed. If only I had known how hard it could be to be that outsider.  After this, I vowed, I would be different.  After a few weeks a couple of girls started to talk with me regularly at church, at first just a few minutes and then later they would start to invite me to youth outings and a college group, which I started to attend.  After I had been there about a month I found myself in my room one friday evening around 8pm, already in my pajamas and getting ready to watch a movie on my computer and then go to bed, when my host mother came in with the phone for me, I was invited to go spend the night at a friend's house and watch a movie. I am not sure if I have ever been that excited before.  It wasn't a big deal, we hung out, we watched "Remember the Titans" and laughed at how certain things just didn't translate, they really wanted to know what a fruit cake was and why the other football players had called the long haired hippy one.  It was a pretty funny conversation.  That evening we just chatted and laughed (even though I didn't speak much sGerman, they (two sisters) were learning English and were really rather good at it.  I had a really great time, doing something I had done on an almost weekly basis back home and never really thought of as I big deal.  I don't think those girls will ever really know how much that meant to me. Thank you Tabitha and Salome.  That was a turning point for me that year.  Though I still had a lot of lonely times, I had some friends who cared, and through them I gained even more friends along with some great experiences, and a lot of good memories.
      I would love to say that coming back to the states I stuck by my resolve and that no new person to cross my path has ever been ignored, but it's not true.  Although I have had my moments, I too have fallen back into the patterns of this familiar, comfortable life, and all to often choose to just keep to myself, or even worse, as shown by my example with the cyclists, totally lose my understanding of their situation and find myself frustrated and annoyed with them.  If I, someone who went to live in a Western European country had so many difficulties, when much of the culture and daily life was similar to my own, how much more difficult must it be coming from an Asian or Eastern European country.
     I write this today, mostly as a reminder to myself to exercise grace, understanding, courtesy and love when encountering people in these situations, but also to encourage others to as well.  I might find it awkward to have a few people over for dinner that I don't know at all, but I will never know how much it might effect them and help them along.  I might even be blessed by some great friendships, and even if I'm not, isn't it worth the chance?  I know I have lots of excuses for not doing this, we have a small house and our children go to bed early, but even just sharing a smile and a kind word can go a long way.  I am not sure how I can truly say that I love (or even try) to love as Jesus loved and yet ignore those who don't look and act just like me.

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