Monthly Archives: July 2013

The still waters of Him: A meditation on home

As I was nearing the end of my three-week language intensive, I started anticipating—rather, salivating over—my rapidly approaching  visit to America.  After constantly struggling in the language and being the  lowest student in the class, the prospect of being in my home culture began to appear like an enticing mirage before me.  Part of this was simply fatigue and the excitement to see friends and family.  The other part came from a sudden desire to feel completely comfortable—to walk into a grocery story and know every product, to know  the unspoken and implicit rules of a culture so that I don’t always have to be trying, thinking, challenging myself, making mistakes, and feeling weak and incompetent.  To feel completely “in” and a part of everything.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy and  even love Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian culture—because I do.  But when fatigue and discouragement inevitability creep in,   the promise of the easy comfort of being in my own culture is like a siren song.

Today when I was driving toward the Roma kids’ club where I am working  the next few days, I had a sudden image of myself walking next to a clear, gently flowing river in the midst of a lush green canyon. The quiet was deep and restorative, broken only by the songs of the birds.

The still waters are not your home culture….

The thought flitted across my brain like a frightened bird, but its wing-tipped touch brushed deep into the recess of my soul.

I have said before that language learning is a spiritual discipline, a constant mental and emotional commitment to be weak, to make mistakes, to rely on the help and instruction of others.  And I’ve also written briefly about the experience of “being a stranger” as another kind of spiritual discipline—one that daily teaches you to be aware of your subtle dissonance with this world as it is.  Although we are born in our respective cultures, and we can enjoy culture as a unique expression of God’s creativity, being a stranger constantly reorients us away from feasting on things that do not satisfy. But how do we  learn how to feast on the right food regardless of where we are on this planet?

I think of Jesus, stepping into the clothing of a Jewish male in a specific time in history, stealing away to refresh himself in the presence of his Father.

“Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delights yourselves in rich food.” Isaiah 55

How many people are living, not by choice, outside of their home culture?  The UN estimates that the current Syrian war has forced 2 million people to flee their country (the fastest growing refugee flow since Rwanda).  This invitation in Isaiah, repeated several times by Jesus when he walked the earth, almost seems to good to be true for such people who have traumatically  lost everything and whose lives are irrevocably changed.

My experience of being a stranger is different, because I have the option of returning to my home culture, because I have a place here in this culture.  And yet, the ongoing dissonance forces my attention to the millions who do not have such options.

But the good news of the gospel speaks to this angst of being a stranger: “So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2).  Paul wrote this to encourage the Gentile believers who were once “strangers to the covenants of promise”  but it offers a timely hope for those who feel on the outside—constantly experiencing  trauma, discomfort, and the loneliness  that come come as a result of  never truly being “home.”

Living cross-culturally is both a gift and a discipline—it is in the dissonance and angst one can begin to see clearly, to differentiate between the mirage and the true oasis.   He is your true home, the feast that truly satisfies, the waters that sustain you.

The still waters are not your home culture.

“He leads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul.”  Psalm 23 

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A Day in the Life of a Language Learner

Yesterday was not my brightest or  boldest  in Croatia.

As I set off for my first day of a three week language intensive, I was feeling fairly confident and assured.  After all, I had done well on the placement test the day before and had made it into a respectable level.

I left 45 minutes before class started—the drive is only 20 minutes but the instructors had told me to be there 10 minutes early so they could assign the classes.   As soon as I hit the outskirts of Zagreb’s center,  I realized that the festivities’ remnants from the night before—Croatia had entered the EU—were still claiming many of the roads.

1.5 hours later,  sweating and irritable in a horrible traffic jam, I was still kilometers away from the university.  Finally, after my car had moved only a few car lengths in 20 minutes, I pulled into a parking lot, paid for parking, and ran to the tram.  After getting off the tram, I jogged the rest of the way to the university in my (slightly uncomfortable) flip flops.

Deciding that embarrassment was for wimps, I burst into two separate classrooms, panting and apologetic, before deciding to go the the language office.  Unfortunately, the administrators couldn’t find my classroom either, and together we wandered all over the halls.  Finally, my teacher picked up her phone and I showed up for the last hour of a 3 hour session.

Much to my chagrin, I realized I had been demoted to a lower class…and in fact it was only the next level up from the one I had passed two years ago.  I inwardly groaned when someone in my class asked for the meaning of the word trčati (to run).  How could they think I belong here? I raged internally.  I threw out some of my best Croatian sentences to try to impress the teacher.

After that session ended, I spoke to her about my concerns and she reluctantly agreed (The next class is quite a jump up) to talk to the other teacher. Apparently, she had neither been impressed or astonished at my speaking abilities in class.

Meanwhile, it was 11:30 a.m. and I had 30 minutes to go back and re-park my car since that particular lot had a time limit.  Running back to the tram, I  hopped on just as it was pulling away from the stop.  I looked at my watch:  11:40.  Am I really going to be late again?  I raced to my car and tried to find the free lot my friend had described.  Instead, I ended up outside an old man’s house.  I jumped out and ran over to him. “Please, sir, can I park here just for an hour?”

“Listen!”  he said forcefully, leaning on his cane. “You cannot!” (Literal Croatian translation).

“Okay, okay,”  I said, glancing at my watch:  11:55.  I raced down the road and pulled into another car lot, but I was still two tram stops away from the school.  No tram in sight, so I took off at a run, my flip-flops barely staying on my feet.  12:05 and I was only rounding the bend to the school’s street.  I finally appeared, gasping and sweating at the door of my classroom: 12:15.  The students stared at me like I was a strange apparition from a chaotic planet.  I can’t say I blamed them—I was making a terrible first impression.

“Melody, you can go and try out the higher class,” the teacher told me.  I meekly thanked her and found the other classroom.   The teacher asked me to introduce myself (actually asked me twice since I was too befuddled to understand the first time).  I stumbled out some simple sentences about what I was doing in Croatia.  Afterward, the students went around the room and briefly told me where they were from and what they were doing.  Rapid Croatian sprang from their lips as if they had been speaking it all their lives and I felt a pit in my stomach—I had moved to a room of formidable Croatian speakers.

The next hour I sat in a daze, hungry and thirsty, and tried to concentrate on what everyone was saying. I was having flashbacks from my Canadian university when I tried to pursue a French minor—all the students had grown up in French immersion schools and were breezily talking about French existential writers as I stared dumbly at my notebook, hoping my professor would not ask for my opinion on Camus.

Afterward, I limped out of the school, a shadow of my morning self, numbly hoping my car had not been towed since I had been unable to purchase the parking pass.  Surely, I thought, tomorrow will be better…

When you live cross-culturally, the hard days are bound to come—when you  feel stupid or misplaced or just long for something to be easy—but the hard days must be lived through in order to get to all the richness and growth that comes from living in another culture. Still…your prayers are appreciated!