“She can speak a little English. Just speak really slowly.”
With that, my friend left the room.
And there I was, staring at her beautiful friend, her dark eyes nervous in her olive face. I smiled. This is the new normal – being in a situation where I have almost no ability to communicate.
Months ago on a trip to Israel, a friend and I hailed a taxi and asked the driver if he spoke English. “Yes. But you really shouldn’t be traveling to my country until you learn Hebrew,” he said, wagging his finger at us.
My friend laughed.
“I’m serious,” the taxi driver said.
Oh my. If only that were possible. By this point with all the flying around, I’d be in the dozens linguistically. The parrot at the last hotel I stayed at spoke more languages I ever will.
I wish I was a cultural and linguistic ninja. (Like this guy.)
Instead I resort to following around the friends who live in each country, mimicking their every move. If they don’t speak, neither do I. If they kiss people 14 times each, so do I. If they sit so they don’t point their feet at people, I do the same.
They could really have a go at me if they wanted. I’d probably believe and do anything they told me to.
But now, with my friend having left the two of us alone in the room, I was left to my own devices with my new Central Asian friend. It went OK for the swap of a few simple phrases. We hit a lull. And then something unexpected happened.
“I heard it is your mother’s birthday tomorrow,” I said slowly, enunciating each word.
She stared at me in confusion.
I said it more slowly, and added “and there’s going to be a party” at the end. (As if that would make it more clear.)
I thought she didn’t understand me, but as I was trying to regroup a second time, slowly she said, “I don’t know when my mother’s birthday is.”
“Oh.” I smiled and laughed a bit. (Obviously I had gotten her mixed up with someone else on the whole party thing. It was, in fact, the mother of a different friend I’d been told about. Oops.)
Now I was the one who didn’t understand.
If an American friend had told me that she didn’t know when her mom’s birthday was, it’d probably just mean she didn’t have her iPhone calendar close at hand. But what my new friend meant was that her mom didn’t know when her birthday was.
And this friend didn’t know when her own birthday was either.
It’s not that it’s an uncivilized place … it’s a country where women get university degrees in computer science, wear high heels and shirts with trendy English slogans, go bowling for fun and notice if their friends’ eyebrows aren’t threaded well enough.
But I understood better when I met her mom a few days later. I was a guest in their home – one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time, spread on the kitchen floor for probably 15 of us, rice and vegetables and these fabulous things that were like lamb meat in the middle of hushpuppies.
The matriarch of the family was timid and beautiful, sitting on the floor in a loose dress with her head covered, not speaking much. After a little while – through the translation of a friend – she quietly began to tell the story about how, when their city was attacked by outsiders years ago, she had to split up the family and they fled for their lives over the mountains. On donkeys.
Some of the kids went one direction with relatives, and some went with her the other direction. One was born en route — she hiked while in labor, had the baby, then kept hiking. Some of the children she didn’t see again until several years later, and they didn’t recognize her anymore when they were reunited.
It’s been a story of fear, attack and fleeing for generations. Few people know their real birthdays.
It seems hard to relate when you put it that way.
But at the same time, it’s easy. They’re beautiful people who love their families, their country, their food and their friends just as much as I do.
And it’s necessary. One guy wrote a book after asking people around the world how they felt about people from the West who share their faith with them. Their answer was that they always felt those people acted like they thought they were better than them, and that made it harder for them to listen.
Our best intentions can become insults without even realizing it.
So what do we do to work past some of that? The inclination is to shy away, but it has to be the opposite response – we have to be willing to go deep into their culture with a humble attitude.
We have to be willing to sometimes sit politely for a long time in a situation where we can’t understand a word that’s being spoken – because their presence is an honor to us, and we love them enough to show them respect in that way. If bilingual westerners are with us, we shouldn’t demand every word be translated so we feel included – sometimes there’s something bigger going on that doesn’t need to be interrupted.
I try to just be a sponge.
And when I mess up, I try to move on and keep showing love as best I can.
Paul says to the Jews he became a Jew, to the weak he became weak so that people could come to know the message of Jesus with as few cultural roadblocks as possible. And Jesus washed His disciples’ feet to show us how our status should look when we serve others.
Sometimes the best thing a cultural ninja can do is just be there – and love.