Our class is the best thing in the whole world.
My higher-level class and I spent a few days studying superlatives. This is when we say words like best, worst, highest, biggest, smallest, etc. Although they already knew the basic form of these words, I wanted to stretch them to use the words more naturally in conversation. Almost any student of English can sit and read out some words. But to be able to use the language orally, without the help of a paper or time to plan out what to say, is the crucial element of making the language useful.
Our method of speaking practice? A couple of dice with a different talking point on each side. For a good chunk of our class, we took our chances of not knowing which question that awaited us or if we’d know how to answer it. We’d hold our breath as the dice stopped on a question about the best song we’ve ever or the most embarrassing moment in our life. The paper somewhat caved into itself, but the blue washi tape held on as we tried again, again, and again.
It was a hard exercise. We had nothing to lean on but the skills we had been practicing and that bold, black and white question staring at us. But, we were there to encourage and cheer, to help our classmates and hope they would succeed.
As we worked, they came up with some great answers. They might seem simple, but we worked hard to craft them and repeat them. And the message communicated within them is beautiful. Here are a few (with my added commentary):
“’Thriller’ is the worst song I’ve ever heard.”
“Home mortgages are the worst thing about living in America.”
Something I’ve only recently learned: the American money system is confusing. My refugee friends don’t come from lands of credit cards, utility bills, and monthly rent. They don’t know about debt that reaches into the thousands of dollars, and the role the bank plays in buying a house. Our system is confusing, full of ridiculous lingo, and oftentimes, unfair.
But some of my students—the ones who have been here for 4, 5 years—have worked hard enough to learn this crazy system. They’ve committed to working overtime just to purchase a home for their family. They’ve taken up that bill, and can now agree with the rest of us: this is a proud, but yet incredibly difficult, moment. And it’s the coolest act of self-sustainability for these once vulnerable people. What a victory that is, to say you bought a home, especially when you were once forced to leave yours.
“’Highway to Hell’ is the worst song I’ve ever heard.”
Considering this is coming from a conservative Christian man from a modest culture that doesn’t have the time to make light of real problems… Probably true.
“Shaming is the worst thing about learning English.”
In Asia, an important part of the culture is the idea of “saving face.” They value social standing and reputation and call it “face.” A big thing you don’t do is embarrass people when they’re wrong, or even call them out for it. You don’t cause a scene or draw attention to yourself or others in public. You don’t laugh at them or make them feel ashamed. And if do—you’ve caused that person to “lose face.”
I’ll be totally transparent: I’ve never thought about how much the American classroom can disrupt that mentality. Obviously, I don’t seek opportunities to embarrass my students, but this does make me wonder how gentle or appropriate I am in my interactions with them—whether it be in usual conversation or in error correcting during class. How often have I caused them to “lose face?” How many times have I furthered the gap between their learning American culture, and being overwhelmed by the huge differences? When learning English across culture, it’s not just a matter of learning the language. It’s a matter of learning an entire culture.
“McDonald’s is the most expensive restaurant I’ve ever been to.”
The next time I’m tempted to believe I deserve more than I’ve earned, the next time I want what I can’t afford, the next time I want to believe that the things of this earth are the best I’ll ever experience—I’ll think back on this moment. And it’ll resonate so loudly: contentment, contentment, contentment.
– – –
Respect Your Elders
At the beginning of summer, I started helping with another branch of ministry at one of my jobs. This ministry specifically reaches out to the elderly refugees in our community. The people whose bodies have been worn from the years and move slowly, the people who are beyond the years for learning language quickly, the people who have gone their entire 60, 70, 80 years of life without ever belonging to a country that wanted them—these are the people the ministry reaches.
So, one morning a week, I pick these elderly Nepali refugees up from their homes and drive them to a class at the ministry’s office. They have a time to meet with others who often can’t leave home or are unable to drive. It’s designed to be a time of community and learning of basic skills for them. Honestly, this ministry is necessary and invaluable. I’m so glad that someone had the awareness to create it and the courage to follow through.
The last few weeks, our elders class has met at a church in the west side of town. This church generously donates art supplies, and opens up the doors for my elderly friends to come in and learn a new craft.
One class offered is painting. On the first day we arrived, the teacher had hoped to teach how to paint sunflowers in a vase, set on a linen-clothed table beside a glass of white wine in the natural window light from the background of the picture. Albeit it was beautiful, but it was not a picture my friends were interested in.
The reality: these people had never held a paintbrush before. Furthermore, most (if not all) are pre-literate. This means they can’t even read or write in their native language. And needless to say, they weren’t particularly interested in painting sunflowers next to wine.
We turned it into a time of free paint. Although we tried to teach them how to mix the paints to create more colors, they didn’t seem interested. And that’s okay. There was a peace in watching them learn how to move the brush in the direction they wanted, stroking color after color on their blank canvas.
I saw friends and mountains, gardens and skies. I watched as images of the farmlands of Nepal and the small homes they left behind were marked in messy brush strokes.
You could have looked at it and easily dismissed the crafts as mistakes or a mess. But I saw something more: I saw a people who have fought to survive their whole lives get the chance to do something that uses their imagination. I watched them get permission to dream and create. I witnessed the realization that they are allowed to do something for fun and pure joy, and not out of necessity. I got to encourage them that it’s okay to rest now.
And if that’s not a picture of the joy for life and rest in our weariness that the Gospel offers, then I’ve never seen it. If that’s not an image of the messes of our life that God calls beautiful, then this blog is in vain.
The next week, we joined our friends at the church once more for another day of crafts. This time, I chose to take a break from painting. Instead, I headed over to the basket weaving station. I pulled the wet reed from the water bucket and pulled up a chair to the work table.
I had watched a few of the other men work on these baskets for a few weeks. They crafted beautiful, flawless baskets in record time. Their dark-skinned, aged hands worked intentionally. They made it look so easy, but when I gave it a try, I was in for a lesson of humility.
At the beginning, my goal was a small basket to hold some flowers on my porch. And then it turned into an American-girl sized mini basket for my sister. And then it became an even smaller ring dish for my husband. As hard as I tried to braid and weave, I couldn’t get the reed to bend like I wanted. My braids were failed, and after nearly two hours of furrowing my brow and collecting reed chips on my fingers, all I had was a mess that fit in the palm of my hand.
The elders across the table kept glancing at me and smiling. They knew the secret, what I didn’t know: this craft requires skill and careful attention. It’s difficult and can’t be done without practice and patience. And since we’re friends here, I’ll admit that this is lesson that the Lord is repeating to me over and over again this summer. I’ll never joke about basket-weaving again.
Honestly, I picked this up for fun. The craft was offered to these people for fun. But the truth is, these people have known what it means to weave baskets for survival. Before they came here, this skill was necessary for gathering their food, storing it, carrying items across a long distance. I know because one of the larger baskets had a handle on it that I hadn’t noticed before. One of the women said, “In Nepal,” and modeled carrying the funny-handled shaped basket behind her head. I had never seen a basket like that before. But then again, I’ve never had to carry crops and necessities down long trails and valleys.
I get the feeling there isn’t a Walmart in the mountains they farmed. They had to make what they needed. As it turns out, offering a basket-weaving “class” for these folks allowed them to pick up a familiar skill. One that they have spent countless hours of their life working on, and probably haven’t touched since they arrived in the land of buy-what-you-need-right-now some time ago.
I showed one of the women my “basket” after I tried. Translation: I showed her my pile of splintered sticks. She smiled, held it in her hand. “Good. Next time good,” she said in broken, but oh so kind, English. We chuckled, and I believed she was telling me to keep at it. To try again. And again. I believe there was a sense of pride of recognizing this “normal” skill is so difficult for others.
But, she encouraged me to keep going. She knows that at the end of this practice and intentional effort is a basket useful for helping carry the load. I have no doubt that she understands the power of persistence and waiting more than most. I believe her.
– – –
Back in the spring, I told you a lot about some of my middle school students in the after-school program. Jumping into the world of youth refugee work was everything, yet nothing, I expected and has been a necessary learning curve. The compassion and understanding I have for the families I work with has only been magnified.
What I didn’t know when I started with the youth program was that this summer, I would be given the choice to work with middle school students or elementary students. And ultimately, I would be asked to work with the elementary students.
And just like that, I work with middle-aged adults one-on-one most mornings and then serve a class of 14 Congolese students from Kindergarten to 4th grade in the afternoons. Now that, my friends, is a learning curve.
There are so many stories that I cannot wait to share with you about these students. But for today, I’ll start at the beginning: when I picked them up for the first time.
I pulled into the apartment complex, and a few dozen children waited under the shade of the trees off to the side. As soon as they saw our caravan of two white mini buses and that 12-passenger van, they sprinted toward us flooding the pathway. We crept along the road slowly, as the kids surrounded our vehicles.
Glancing in my mirrors constantly to make sure no one was in the line of my tires, I noticed that several of the kids had placed their hands on the side of the bus and were walking alongside us. As soon as the bus was in park, they were pushing and shoving to get on at the door. And as soon as I pulled the level to open the door, the flood gates were open. They came rushing in.
I assumed this would only happen the first few days. I was wrong. This is our daily routine, and I love how excited they are to see us every single day. Although part of me wants to believe they enjoy hanging out with their teachers, I think an even greater part of me believes they are just happy for a chance to get away from their apartment. For many of them, their families don’t have cars and most likely can’t afford a greater than a field trip than a walk to the Kroger in front of the complex.
No joke, one of the boys just asked me yesterday, “Ms. Brianna, can we go to Kroger?”
It’s a good reminder to show up and serve with a joyful heart. If they’re so eager to come with us just to practice their reading and English skills, how much more eager should I be to give it to them? And if they can show up to put in some hard work on their summer “vacation” and still be excited about it—I am too.