Learning the Language
Every Thursday morning I have a little cross-cultural experience. The rituals of greeting—taking off my shoes before entering a home, warm exchanges, inquiring about one another’s families—come fairly naturally to me. More difficult is a solicitous style of text messaging, in which it is customary to wish someone good morning and inquire carefully after the person’s health and that of their family before engaging in a simple transaction of information. “Good morning. How are you?” “Did you sleep well?” This is how the student I tutor in English makes sure she is not imposing on me by expecting that her regular lesson is still on. If I am in a hurry, I cut to the chase. “I will see you soon!”
My student, who is from Africa, came here after a decades-long wait for her permanent residency. She has two kids back home, very little education, and few contacts in native-born white America. I am her voice from outside her world. Together we read from a young adult history of the United States, adding to her English vocabulary and helping her prepare for eventual citizenship. Last year the task was different; we diagrammed sentences from the drivers’ education manual as she prepared for her learner’s permit. Regularly, she acts as if I am doing a great work, and I tell her truthfully that I am only doing for her what, if I were new here, I should wish someone would do for me.
While I am her voice from outside her world, she also is mine. Together we’ve sipped Ugandan tea, discussed history and politics, and begun to view our own cultures through the lens of another. Once a week, I take her home country into my worldview, and she usually gives me plenty to think about until the next time I see her.
In recent years, Americans have talked a lot about immigration in our public discourse, but rarely do we get to talk to immigrants. If we know anyone who is an immigrant, likely that person is educated and has arrived on a work visa due to their special skills. Other immigrants—refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—are more likely cloistered; their experiences are muted. Even the privileged immigrant is expected to speak our language, adopt our customs, and veil his or her cultural heritage behind an all-American veneer.
We rarely hear the struggling English learner who laments, “I did not go to school well in my country.” We consistently miss the observations that connect our historical struggles to current events in developing countries. The struggle to send money back to family and still make ends meet here—or to raise children without a parent who has sought work abroad—rarely plays out before our eyes.
Those stories are there, of course, behind the eyes of women who clean our hotels and polish our nails, the men who mow our yards and deliver our pizza, the caregivers in our senior homes, and the student who laments that life in America is hard.
The Scriptures tell us not to “neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb. 13:2) The writer here is referring back to the “Hospitality of Abraham,” in which Abraham found himself playing host to three strangers who foretold him of the birth of his son, Isaac. We interpret this as a command to be nice, offer a cup of tea to the person at our door, or put a coin in the meter for someone in need. In Abraham’s time hospitality was radical. It was customary to feed and house a stranger for three days, sharing stories and giving generously, before even asking the stranger why he has visited. This was not only the custom in the Ancient Near East, but in most of the ancient world. Homer records the Greek hero-king Nestor being insistent on greeting his visitors, seating them “at the feasting on soft rugs of fleece,” feeding them from golden vessels, and, after “they have had the pleasure of eating,” asking, “Strangers, who are you? From where do you come sailing over the watery ways? Is it some business or are you recklessly roving as pirates do . . .?”[i]
This is still the sort of hospitality practiced in the home countries of many who have made our country their second home.
It is a costly form of hospitality which we are called to show to these strangers at our gates. We will have to leave our comfort zones and give of ourselves in order to hear their stories. The writer of Hebrews goes on to remind us that we are all in the same boat, needy and bound to the same frailties of a human body and all its needs, whether we be poor, strangers, prisoners, or people settled in the land.
[i] Homer, and Richmond Lattimore. The Odyssey of Homer. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. p. 53