On being a foreigner

What I learned in 2019…

Before I left for Africa, I used to make a list of the things I learned every month. Since I’ve come home, I haven’t been able to write a list like that. I experienced a lot during my time overseas, but I’m still not sure what I learned. I haven’t been able to organize my experiences into tidy, obvious lessons. In fact, I’ve mostly discovered that there is a lot I don’t know about the intertwining of faith and culture.

But I do know what it feels like to be a foreigner.

I know what it’s like to feel stupid because I can’t understand a question no matter how many times it’s repeated.

I know what it’s like to be confused by a medical system that’s based on radically different assumptions about health.

I know what it’s like to rely on someone else for help with the logistics of paying my utility bill because I’m incapable of doing it myself.

I know what it’s like to walk into a grocery store and not recognize a single brand.

I know what it’s like to be discussed by strangers who are speaking in a language I don’t understand.

I know what it’s like to be tired because nothing is normal or automatic—not even using a toilet or taking a shower.   

And in that space of confusion and vulnerability that goes on day after day after day after day, I know how much it means to have a friend—an insider who can help explain what is happening, someone who has grace for my ignorance, someone who is willing to sit in the awkwardness of the gap between two cultures and two languages.

Wiem, Amal, and Nawel, thank you for being my friends. I follow Jesus—his peace be upon us—and he taught, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” Thank you for treating me with that type of kindness. Thank you for going out of your way to share your culture, your food, your music, your families, and your city with me. I learned so much from you about how to be a good friend. Back in America, I am looking for ways to carry on your hospitality in my friendships with international students and refugees.

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