Thursday, May 21, 2009

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

No, this is not a post about Mr. Rogers, though I could write one. It's about Mr. Li or Ms. Pushkin or Dr. Garcia any other of many possible last names that don't belong in American English. Do you live near a university or college? Do you live near a place where people from different countries come to work? I do.

Actually, I live near two major universities and a huge research area, and I am surrounded by people who speak different languages, eat different foods, wear different clothes, and just do things differently. I have a lot of interesting neighbors, figuratively and literally. In fact, the folks just next door, whose children my boys play with, are from Ecuador.

Have you ever thought about what it is like to move into a new culture, to leave behind everything that is familiar to you, to have no idea how to navigate the grocery store or the doctor's office or public transportation, to be unable to understand the bank teller or the person running the checkout line? Imagine getting your PhD in a foreign language setting or taking a job where everyone speaks too quickly for you to understand. Imagine how isolated you would feel.

Imagine what it would feel like to be invited into someone's home in that culture, to have someone take the time to speak a bit more slowly and to ask about your culture and what you have left behind. Imagine how it would feel to have the hand of friendship extended to you, even if awkwardly, to be invited into someone's life and family and to go from isolated outsider to friend and neighbor.

My husband and I just finished hosting dinner for some Chinese friends of ours who used to live here but have moved to another state, a place where they are the only Chinese people. It is a small town, and he is teaching at a small college. For most of us, that would make finding friends easy, but for them, it is incredibly difficult and lonely. I know people aren't trying to isolate them or to be rude. Most people are just afraid, afraid of making cultural mistakes, afraid of not knowing what to say or how to welcome.

The truth is, hosting cross-culturally will mean mistakes. It often means making a fool of oneself. In fact, we still make mistakes with our Chinese friends, who have been to our house many times. But do you know what? People are very forgiving. They are used to living in another culture, and they expect for things to be strange and for their hosts to make cultural mistakes. They are happy to be there, in a home, being loved in a messy, awkward, wonderful way. It doesn't take a degree in InterCultural Communication to befriend a person from another culture. It just takes a willingness to look foolish, to welcome kindly, to share stories and food and warmth.

There are a lot of isolated people out there, especially new immigrants and international students. If there are some in your neck of the woods, why don't you take the chance and invite them in?

And if you happen to live in a small college town in Idaho that has only one Chinese couple, would you please have them over for dinner? No rice required. They love lasagna.

1 comment:

evenshine said...

Really nice post. Xenophobia sometimes isn't as obvious as a bad perm- it's much more insidious, like an absence of something rather than a concerted effort towards inviting people in. The shoulder-shrug of "why should I?" can be much more damaging, though harder to notice. Great stuff!