Tuesday, June 5, 2012
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.
at 12:06 PM