Monday, May 28, 2012

International Americans

I am an ESL teacher who works with international students. Everyday, I learn something new about their culture, language, customs and food. I even have the incredible privilege of being invited to share these things with them. I am truly blessed because of these people in my life.

Five years ago, I made the decision to sacrifice a year of my life to live and teach English in China. I had always known it was going to be a monumental step in my life, but I never saw it happening the way it did. When I first felt the Lord calling me to China nine years ago, I thought it was going to be for life to live there with my own family working as a missionary. By the time I got there in '08, I realized God was calling me for only that year. During the years of praying and preparing myself to go to China, my mind and heart began to be opened to the culture, food, and language. I had not yet experienced or had any understanding of the people. I began reading books, eating the most authentic food I could find, and I dabbled a little in the language. When I actually set foot in China on August 16, 2008, it all came rushing over me; the joy and realization that I had accomplished a huge dream of mine. The year itself was challenging. Not loving everyday, and struggling to make it, it was one of the best character builders in my life. Each day I went out among the natives, I was forced to use Chinese. I had no idea what to say, so I learned some key phrases; "Wo yao na ge!" I want that one! and "Ni you mei you"... (that is when I'd held up a picture of what I wanted) That meant, do you have this? Soon after, the store owners and shop keepers got to know me, they would help me with the words. I learned the language through everyday life. Everyday, I had a battle in my mind and heart.... I yearned to get to know them, ask about their families, and so on... but an enormous part of me was terrified. But on the days I had more strength, from God, I ventured out and accomplished what I had come there for; to experience the culture.

Once holidays, birthdays, and family events had come and gone, I had an opportunity to travel to southern China, Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand and Laos. I traveled for 18 hours by train from Zhengzhou to Guangzhou in southern China. There we (two colleagues and I) caught another train to Shenzhen, a city close to Hong Kong. Three days following, we flew from Macao to Bangkok, Thailand. There we spent four wonderful weeks exploring, eating, and meeting people. None of us knew Thai, or where to go. We just had to wing it and try our best. We spent most of our time in the southern Islands of Pukhet, and the northern hills of Chiangmai. We also spent a week in Laos, visiting my cousin and his family who live there. Today, I can say that this adventure mid-way through my year in China is the main cause of my thirst for travel. There is more uncharted territory for me "chart".

Now, you may be thinking, "how does this relate to her first paragraph?" Well, among all the positive experiences had, there were some negative ones. Shop owners would jack up the prices for me because they saw that I was American, little did they know I worked and lived in Asia. When I told them, they were more understanding. There were so many times I felt alone and much like an alien in a distant land, which was so true. Being away from my family and my lifestyle was the hardest thing. Everything I experienced, I wanted to share first hand with those I loved.

Now, I'd like to switch the focus from my own understanding of living in a foreign country to those living in our home country.... Over events in history and America's past, we have become a melting pot of ethnicity and races. After returning from China, I have had the wonderful opportunity to teach English to students from several countries around the world. At first, I was scared, not sure of what a person from such country would do, and how they would behave. After getting to know them, I have learned to understand each student for who he/she truly is, not based on their ethnicity, skin color, religion or gender, but who they are as individuals. I have learned that they are human just like me who have emotions, fears and hearts that feel. They have dreams and aspirations for the future, just like I do. Just like every American does.

I have learned of some encounters that some internationals have had with my fellow Americans. Some have been positive, some, regretfully so, have been negative. As I foster and guide the students in teaching them about our culture, we have had some very positive experiences where we were received with open arms and smiles. One example of this was at a retirement home. The residents were all so interested to learn and speak to another person from a different culture. They even made a flier with all their nationalities. Other times, we have had some very unfortunate experiences that opened my eyes to how closed and narrow minded some people are. Any person who hasn't had the privilege to experience another culture first hand  may act out of fear and misunderstanding. Trying to teach our students about American culture can be difficult when we are faced with wrong accusations, judgmental actions and stereotypical comments. Sadly, certain ethnic groups get the worst of it. In my heart, I want to show these people who our internationals really are. Arab, Chinese, Korean, Hispanic, African... you name it; each is deserving of a fighting chance to be an accepted part of our culture.

What is America? Is it expensive cars, comfort, and big houses? Or can we strive to be a something bigger, accepting, understanding and loving people who have been given so many privileges in life? We are "rich" in America, not necessarily by monetary means alone, but also by intangible means. We have been given freedom of speech, lifestyle, and religion. The people who come to this country want the same opportunities.

What is my heart in sharing this? I am not saying that every American is selfish or racist, I am only emphasizing how we may misunderstand and misjudge someone who is different. Sometimes what we do not understand causes us to act out of fear. Let's explore the misunderstanding and learn something new!