I’ve held American babies– but never Asian babies.
Back in March, I asked friends to help gather baby items for a couple of my expecting students. I have more to say about that experience—but suffice to say for today: I was overwhelmed with help from some truly kind and genuine people.
In late April, when we learned that the expected twins would be coming sooner than we anticipated, we were able to deliver a load of things to one of the mothers, Leanne. We brought newborn diapers, teeny-tiny clothes, a beautiful wooden crib. We carried wash cloths, bottles, and paired socks inside the small apartment. A dear friend who took this project upon herself too showed us how to use a double-seated stroller.
It was an afternoon of joy and thankfulness as we helped a sister feel more prepared for this next season, and in return she gifted us sushi rolls her husband had prepared. She told me thank you so many times I lost count during those few weeks.
A few days later, just before the twins were expected to make their arrival, I stopped by the apartment to visit Leanne. Because I knew that I wouldn’t be in town to welcome the babies at the hospital, I wanted to set aside a time to pray over my friend. I had no clue how awkward it would feel, or if she’d appreciate the gesture. But it gnawed on my heart, and I wanted to do it.
On my commute from one job to the next, on what was my “lunch break,” I swung into that apartment complex on the hill. I had told her I wanted to stop by for a short visit, so I didn’t knock on the door to the home for very long before she answered.
I stepped inside, and asked how she was feeling. She told me about the last hospital where her toddler was born in Malaysia. “The doctors care in America. It’s very good,” she said, as I reassured her that the delivery in the Nashville hospital would be safe, clean, and nothing to worry about. A reassurance like that feels necessary knowing some of the places my students have been in. Health, cleanliness, accurate medical attention—these are luxuries of the first-world lifestyle that my third and second-world friends are not used to.
My friend is a believer. In fact, that’s why her tribe was forced to flee their home: they are refugees because they claim Christ when others tell them to change or leave. They choose to leave.
I’m on this earth for two reasons: to tell people about Jesus with love and kindness, and to take care of those who already know about Him. And as much as I love to show the love of Christ to those people in my circles who don’t know Him, I also love to love on my sisters who have met Him, loved Him, and sacrificed for Him.
When the conversation got quiet, I asked her, “Leanne, can I pray for you?” She nodded. And there, with the woven rug beneath my feet and the images of these coming twins in my mind, I lifted this family. I asked that they come safely, and that Leanne would heal. I asked that He guide and love this family in special ways. And at the end, I thanked Him for guiding them here. For giving me the chance to know them. For keeping them safe.
I only stayed for about 20 minutes, but the “amen” we said together before we hugged goodbye assured me the time wasn’t wasted. My love for this student, and my hopes for her family were deepened in that moment. I left, and the only thing I could think was: I’m a fool for not doing this sooner.
I’ve stayed up late lesson planning, and I’ve woken up early to print lessons. I’ve driven across town to meet with students who weren’t ready for class that day, and knocked on doors that were never answered. I’ve taught, retaught, taught again. I’ve made sacrifices on the altar of a successful ESL experience for my students. But nothing the works of my own hands have made compare to getting to pray on behalf of them. Nothing is more important than getting to speak their names in prayer to a God who knows the wrongs that have been done to them, and longs to fill their voids with peace and hope.
Thankfully, the babies did come. And on their second week of being on this planet, I got to meet them. I stepped into that same apartment, and held each of these sweet 5 pound babies. Their heads were full of thick hair, and their eyes closed as I rocked them. As we sat together in that living room with the woven rug beneath our feet, I thought about how many beautiful moments I don’t deserve—including this one.
Why would this woman allow me to hold her babies, pray over them, step into their home? Why should I be given the opportunity to witness such miracles of His hand?
I have no answer. But my God has filled my life with these beautiful moments, and it’s all I can do to love in them to the fullest.
– – –
Forgive them, they know not what they do (or ask.)
When I arrived at my Burmese student, Sarah’s, home there weren’t any cars in the driveway. This usually makes me nervous, because showing up at the door of a student who doesn’t want or isn’t able to have class that day is not unheard of. I knocked on the door, and waited. No one came. My worry increased. I texted Sarah, and just a moment later, the door opened and she invited me in.
She apologized. From what I gathered, her husband was out of town and she had overslept because the baby had kept her up all night. She got a glass of water, grabbed her English folder, and came to sit around the living room coffee table. God bless her for allowing me to be her alarm clock, and still being dedicated to English class.
About halfway through class, the phone rang. Her husband. Sarah answered, spoke some things in Burmese, and then passed me the phone. After the initial hello and greetings, he asked, “Today DirecTV is coming. In 15 minutes he will be there to set up the cable. Can you help my wife understand the questions since I’m not there?” I told him sure, no problem.
We hung up the phone, and continued on with class. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, the DirecTV van pulled up in the driveway. I greeted the technician at the door, and immediately explained the situation. He seemed somewhat taken aback, but went on to inspect his work.
A few minutes later, he came to explain what would need to be done to make the cable hookup possible. At this point, I had answered as many questions as possible and pointed to every direction in the home. But this time, it involved holes in the wall, a wire in the garage, moving some things around. I told him it would be best to call the husband, just to make sure it was okay.
The technician called and explained the situation, and then passed the phone to Sarah so that she could learn about the situation in her language. While they talked in Burmese, I apologized to the technician.
“I’m sorry I can’t translate for you. I actually don’t speak their language, and I didn’t want to be the final judge for any big decisions,” I told him.
“Eh, it’s no problem,” he hesitated for a minute, and then continued, “So like—what do you do? Is this, like, real? Is this your job? Like what you get paid to do?”
Oh, the number of times I’ve laid this out. I smiled as I explained that I have a degree and certification to do this. I told him, yes, this is my job and yes, I do get paid. I explained that I work with a branch of nonprofits to make English class accessible.
“Oh, so do you teach, like, only Spanish people or what?” he asked more.
Honestly, you’d be surprised at the number of times I’ve answered this question too. I explained that I only teach one Spanish-speaking couple from Cuba. His jaw dropped, and I continued. All the others speak languages many have never heard of. I told him about my Congolese students that speak Swahili, and the Tanzanian students who speak French. I told him about my Iraqi students who speak Kurdish, and my Sudanese students who speak Arabic.
“This family,” I said, motioning to the living room we sat in, “is of a tribe from Myanmar. They speak a specific dialect of that language.”
His eyes filled with amazement. “That’s so cool. But, like, how can you do this?” he said.
“Honestly,” I continued, “I don’t need to know their language to teach them English. It’s actually better that I don’t, because it’s a full immersion experience for them. Language doesn’t translate too well anyway. I use a lot of pictures and hand motions, and use a proven lesson planning technique. But above all, I’m patient and speak slowly. That’s all my students really need: someone willing to have slow conversations with them.”
Sarah came back with the phone at this point, and I was honestly disappointed because I think our conversation could have continued. I left a few minutes later, and the man told me thanks and to have a good one.
I was shocked the first time I had an encounter like this. My mind raced– People really think I only teach Spanish-speakers from Mexico? Are you unaware of the refugee crisis and where they come from? Come on. Have you ever even heard of Myanmar and Tanzania?
Now, I glory in them. I love when they come up. I love getting to tell people about the richness of the world around us, and broaden their understanding. These conversations are always well-received, and I love watching the look of amazement on the faces of those I get to speak with.
Sure, we have a lot more to learn. There’s a lot of things we should burdened by, and as you can probably gather, refugee and immigrant work is that burden for me. But, I don’t get discouraged or saddened by these conversations anymore; instead, I use them to show grace. After all, I had to start learning from somewhere too.
– – –
It’s her party, and she’ll bring an African dish if she wants to.
In honor of two new or expecting mothers in my group class, we had a celebration after class one day. I brought blue and green cupcakes and cookies, and my dear friend Rachel brought a cantaloupe. We set up our humble spread on a table at the front of the room, and realized we didn’t have proper serving utensils. We cleaned and used a toy cooking pot as a serving spoon, placed it in the fruit dish, and invited everyone to fill their plate. It was a scene that only my students would have the grace to accept.
I shouldn’t be surprised, but one of the mothers of honor brought a salad and an African dish to her own party. The salad was self-explanatory. The sauce or vinaigrette mixture tasted only of lemon juice and salt, but somehow, it worked. That second dish on the other hand…
I don’t know what it was or how to say it. But, it was sweet and it was so good. If ESL has taught me anything, it’s to try whatever is set before you. All the doubts and worries aside, step into the moments when you don’t have the answers. There’s something so beautiful about that kind of trust and excitement to die to self and self’s desires. She tried to explain the dish to me as I ate, but the only English she really knew to say was “sugar.” And there was definitely more than sugar in that dish.
She kept saying it in Arabic. She wrote it on the board, and spoke it into her translator app over and over. When the app said, “Free Parking,” her smile widened, thinking it had translated the dish perfectly. I simply chuckled and shook my head. It was a classic translation-is-harder-than-you-think moment. Some things just don’t translate—such as humor and African dishes.
I took photos of the dish and of the Arabic word. I promised to take it to the market across the street, and ask them what it is and how to make it. Although I cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the fullness of the culture of my students, I love trying. I love asking questions. I love taking pictures. I will keep failing because what they a have to offer is rich and invaluable. But I will keep trying.
On next week’s agenda: take a trip to the market.
– – –
Difficult, important, good.
My large group class and I have been talking about immigration services lately. We’re learning some of the basic words and process of getting green cards and eventually, U.S. citizenship. Although I worried it would be a dry subject, we’ve made it fun. We’ve asked questions, played games, talked about our memories from the past and our hopes for the future. They’re invested in this subject, and honestly, as a teacher there’s nothing sweeter than teaching your students something they care about knowing.
We started a discussion centered on this idea: is immigration in America difficult?
My students chuckled and looked around. As if they couldn’t believe I would ask such a question. “Yes, of course,” they all murmured in agreement.
“Why?” I smiled, hoping they knew that I believed in them to communicate even pieces of such a complex thought. To simply say yes or no is too easy. As I like to tell them in almost every class: we’re learning good English.
They all had something to say, but one stuck out to me the most. A Sudanese woman spoke up and said, “Citizenship is hard. But it’s good. This is important. Only good people can stay here.”
A humble observation of a messy topic summed in simple sentences by a person seeking refuge in America. It stuck to me because I’ve never been forced to make a home overseas. I’ve never known what it’s like to have innumerable documents that have typed in a box a country of citizenship that has only pushed me out, hated me, hurt me, tore my home away from me. I can’t imagine the longing and the desire to be a part of a place that welcomes and loves me, after I’ve run for so long.
And still, this is the reality of my refugee student, Sarah, and her refugee classmates. And what’s more, they don’t expect it to just be given to them. None of them have landed in Nashville, Tennessee, expecting to be given the elite title of American citizenship. They want it. But they know it’s a process. They know it might not happen for them.
Newsflash: we agree with refugees when it comes to our opinion of immigration matters. This simple statement spoken by my student– who waited nearly 5 years to be given the opportunity to come to America– affirmed that for me. We believe, or should believe, it’s a hard, rigorous process. In fact, refugees are the most vetted travelers to come to America. It’s difficult for them, and I hate that they even have to understand why it’s difficult. But they do.
We agree, or should agree, that it’s important to be thorough in immigration matters. They know how important it is to make sure only authentic, honest people are coming to live in America as immigrants. Even if a large chunk of native-born American citizens are not honest or people of “good moral character” – which is an actual phrase used when discussing Naturalization and Citizenship standards for immigrants— they understand why it’s important for the USCIS to probe and prod into their life and history before making a final decision. They won’t argue that. Even in the midst of all their waiting and hurting, they won’t argue it. What grace.
And finally: we agree, or should agree, that immigration is good. In a land that boasts of freedom and happiness, dreaming and working, helping and being a person of “good moral character,” we should agree that welcoming other cultures into our space is a good thing. Especially when those people have been forced to flee from their homes. They have no choice, and nowhere to go. So yes, it’s a good thing. Let them come.