Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Embracing the Other

"Miss, I loooove Christmas!  Lights.  Pretty."  This from one of our Muslim students the other day.

This comment really touched something in me.  How incredible if we could all view the unknown, the different, the new- through eyes like hers.  Not only to appreciate the Other, but to embrace it.

Many of us move away from what is unfamiliar and from places and situations where we don't feel we fit in.  This is understandable; it's human nature, and we all have a desire to belong.

 However, stretching ourselves and leaning into the new and unfamiliar can be life-changing.  Especially when doing this with other human beings who are different than us.  It can be uncomfortable, awkward, painful even.  But, when we move toward the Other and open ourselves up, we  find that we grow and evolve in unexpected ways.

 You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable to grow.  You have to open your heart in the biggest way in order to learn.  But the results are that you understand more about other cultures, other lives, other human beings.  More understanding, less judgement.  More love, less fear.

Here are a few experiences I have had in my life in which I felt like the Other, sometimes acutely and painfully so.  How I stayed with it and came out the other end better and stronger.

Gringa in Costa Rica

When I was a senior in college, I spent a semester in Costa Rica.  I lived with a host family in San Jose that only spoke Spanish and I studied Spanish all day.

 I stood out all the time, with my blonde hair and blue yes.  I got used to cat calls and being stared at.  This wasn't the most difficult thing, though.

For a while, I was really kind of terrified about making my way and interacting with others.  I could understand a lot but my spoken Spanish was not strong, so every little interaction- taking a bus, ordering at a restaurant, asking for directions- felt like Mount Everest.

 I want to be clear that I am not even remotely comparing this experience to that of a refugee or new immigrant.  I was a privileged college student with enough money to study abroad just to enrich my education and it was temporary.  Still, those feelings of being the Other did give me a small insight into how ridiculously challenging a new country, culture, and language can be.

Close to the time I was ready to leave, I had gotten much more comfortable.  I was bolder with my Spanish-taking risks with the language and it was paying off.  I was getting better, much better.
I even did a 2 week rural stay on my own with a family and worked in a 1 room school house. My language skills improved a ton, but more importantly:  My confidence and inner strength grew.

Hmong funeral

I taught night ESL classes for a while, and the majority of my students were  working all day and then coming to four hours of class four nights a week and then going home to take care of their families.  I was in awe of their stamina, their desire to learn this language, and their motivation to improve their lot in this country.

They were a lively group and we had a lot of fun and they learned quickly.  One woman in particular was so bubbly, gregarious, energetic, and outgoing.  She was that person who just lit up the room when she walked in every night.  She made us laugh.  Everybody loved her.  She was doing so well, I was getting ready to move her to a higher level class.

Which is why, it was particularly devastating when we learned she had committed suicide.  I felt sick for my students, for myself, and especially bewildered that I had seen absolutely zero signs of distress.  Telling my class what happened was one of the most difficult and painful conversations I have had.

I wanted to go to her funeral but I was unsure of the protocol and the appropriateness of me doing so. So I asked around and was told that I would be welcomed there.  I didn't really know what to expect but a few other teachers and I decided to go.

Everybody looked at us when we walked in.  It was a traditional Hmong funeral.  There was drumming and chanting.  Her family was gathered by the entrance greeting people as they walked in. I felt awkward.  I felt conspicuous.  I wasn't sure exactly what to do, where to go, what to say.

So, I just thought of my student and I focused on her family in front of me- parents, a husband, small children.  I told them simply how much she meant to me, how much I enjoyed having her in class, how smart she was, how well she was doing, how she made us all laugh.  I said I was sorry for their loss.

Then I sat down with all the others and listened to the drumming and chanting.  I didn't feel separate. I didn't feel like an outsider.  I felt like part of a community that loved someone.  I felt connected.

How do I eat this?

Many years ago, when I was in my twenties,  I volunteered in a program that paired people with new refugees.  It was just a simple program of befriending someone new to the country.  The idea was to spend time with them, maybe help them with English a little, and be available to explain things that were confusing in this culture.

I was friends with a lovely woman from Ethiopia.  We took long walks.  I helped her with her English.  We went out for coffee.  We talked a lot but some days she was just so sad.  I didn't know specifics, but I knew she had been through a lot of trauma.  So, at times there was a heaviness and an unbearable sadness about her that I could not begin to reach.

One day she invited me and my husband over to her apartment for dinner.  I knew she didn't have much and it was really an honor to be asked. There were quite a few family members and other friends there- all Ethiopian.   It was uplifting to see her in her own home, her comfort zone, her element.    She was lighter and moved with more confidence.  I could tell that she enjoyed taking care of me for once.

That was the first time I had eaten Ethiopian food.  So, she served us this injera, which looks like a big spongy pancake.  It's a sourdough risen flatbread.  On top of the injera was a stew of meat and vegetables with lots of spices.  There wasn't  a table, so I sat down in a chair balancing the plate on my lap and wondering how exactly I was supposed to eat this.  I had not been given any silverware.  I'm sure I looked a bit confused.

My friend caught my eye, nodded at me, and without any words  demonstrated how to tear off a little bit of the injera and scoop up the stew and eat it.  Others in the room caught on to what she was doing and smiled and laughed.  And, then I was able to laugh at myself and clumsily started to eat.

It was so good-delicious food- but made so much richer by the experience.  How nice it must have been for my friend to be my teacher and the culturally competent one for a change.


Yesterday, I was wearing some sparkly snowflake earrings.  When the same student from the beginning of my story saw me in the morning, she exclaimed to me, "Miss!  Christmas earrings!  Beautiful!"

What a joyful and refreshing perspective she has.  She is a Muslim girl experiencing her first Christmas in America.  And her eyes are wide-open in the best possible way.  She is seeing it all with wonder, awe, and appreciation.

We can all learn something from her when we deal with the Other or when we feel like the Other. We can learn to move towards the new, the different, and unfamiliar.

Even go a step further and Embrace the Other.

Maybe, just maybe, you will experience joy and beauty like my precious student.

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