Tuesday, June 5, 2012

If You're Staying in a Hotel This Summer...

We don't like to think of ourselves as racists, as people with deep-seated prejudices that color our relationships with others.  I'm no different.  I like to think of myself as someone who has a heart equally open to all people no matter their gender, skin color, or socioeconomic status.

But then, I get on the phone with a woman from Mumbai who speaks broken English.  As the second hand twirls circles over a dozen numbers, I hear that condescending tone creep into my voice as hot blood rushes to my cheeks.

With each misunderstanding caused by a language barrier, I grow increasingly annoyed with yet another customer service representative reading from a basic script.  She doesn't know how to deviate from her limited vocabulary.  I try to "dumb down" my explanation, speaking as I would to a child, but still, she can't address my problem.

It's not her fault but the company who hired her.  And yet, sitting now rigid at my desk, hands clenched, I want to throw something.

In that moment, I mentally label her with adjectives like dumb, idiot, and stupid, all because she doesn't know my language.  I may never speak such words aloud, but I think them, and my tone screams them to anyone within earshot.

Sadly, it's not a prejudice I realized on the phone that day or many other days...or many other years.

Perhaps that is why God sent me earlier this year to teach English as a second language to a group of men, women, and children from around the globe--Burma, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mexico...

He had to first make me fall in love with a people I watched struggle each week to learn a language they needed to literally survive.  In this way, God peeled back the nice facade I've been trying to present to myself and revealed the prejudices that had been in my heart, invisible to me.

In the ESL class, my "men" sat along the right wall, their eyes bright with intelligence even though they could barely communicate with me.  The tall, slender one with the broad smile was more attentive than any student I had ever had.  As we worked on learning essential vocabulary, he would phonetically write out each word, would then write the same word beside it in his own language, and then would sound it out over and over.  Every time I glanced his way, his lips were constantly moving even when I could hear no sound. 

In his former country, he built busses.  Now?  He was looking for a job.  Any job.

Like many permanent refugees in America, he had difficulty finding employment.  In a country that prides itself on equality, there is still a deep-seated prejudice when it comes to language.

To not speak English is to be unintelligent.

Two of my students spoke both Spanish and French quite fluently; yet, their English was broken.  Another of my students said that English was his fourth language--and yet his lack of fluency in English was what he would be judged upon, not his great intelligence in knowing the other three.

Slowly throughout the eight week course, the new refugees began getting jobs that no one else wanted, jobs that they traveled to each day by bicycling several miles through big city traffic:

A cleaning lady at a local school.
Workers at a local car wash who clean a thousand cars a day.
A cook and dishwasher at a higher-end chain restaurant.
Housekeepers at a downtown skyscraper hotel.

As I have hugged, laughed with, and loved each of these people, God has stripped me of that prejudice.

I will never be able to look at these invisible people the same way again.

I will never be able to pass by the cleaning lady in a hotel without at least a kind hello.

I will never be able to struggle to communicate with someone who doesn't speak my language and think, "What's wrong with you!  This is America!  Can't you just learn to speak English!?"

As Christians, it's a prejudice we just can't afford.  Every tongue, tribe, and nation is coming to our doorstep, and our call is to show them the love of Christ....

Even if they never learn to speak our language.

Photo: "Language Barrier."  Flicker via an interesting photographer BenRobins' photostream.


  1. Jennifer, it's interesting -- I've been that customer service rep trying to assist a customer in a language that is not my first. And sometimes I could sense gratitude from the caller that I'd even try, others that same frustration and indignation that rises up in us when we are on the other end with a non-native English speaker.

    One thing I often reminded my colleagues in that call center who grew agitated (and started the mental, if not verbal, judgement) with a non-native speaker was that odds were great that the caller was actually better educated and better positioned socially within their own culture than most of us would be. How many on my call center floor could speak a second language, even if not fluently? How many had dared risk leaving their homeland for another? Who among us had made ourselves the alien?

    You've hit so much right on the head, here.

  2. Yes, Lyla. When we just put ourselves in their shoes, the world seems a whole lot less certain. Being unable to communicate one's intelligence is a prison of sorts in a culture that demeans you based on your ability to wield the English language.

  3. Like Lyla said, you hit so much right on the head. Rich post, here.

    While in Haiti, it occurred to me how God had given these Haitian women such great minds. One of them was able to speak three languages fairly well, along with a little bit of English. But if she were here in America, she would be labeled because she didn't yet know English. (BUT.SHE.KNOWS.THREE.LANGUAGES!)

    It was an eye-opening experience for me, and your post hits on so much of what I felt this spring in Haiti.

  4. I so appreciate your honesty. I've wanted to hurl the phone across the room many times. I do feel sometimes it's more about the fact that they were hired to do a job they will struggle with doing and therefore, the customers will end up frustrated.

    But I'll tell you--now that I'm going to Ecuador this summer I have sitting atop my desk four CDs with basic Spanish. I'm nervous, apprehensive. I know I need to soak them up. And I wonder--if I go unprepared or even if I listen and soak up these CDs will it be enough to help communicate? Will the people in Ecuador be frustrated with me much like I am over the endless phone calls from India?

    Ouch. Painful truth.

  5. Rena--love for Jesus and kindness can shine through any language barrier. My experience with other countries is that they appreciate the effort when others try to speak their language--the exact opposite of America!