You just got your fast food after a fair amount of difficulty understanding the person who took your order. The young man behind the counter had a limited command of the English language with a heavy accent indicating the part of the world from which he likely has recently moved. You had to ask him to repeat himself numerous times just to get a burger and fries. As you walk to your car with carryout bag in hand, what are you thinking about the encounter you have just experienced? What are you feeling toward the young man who waited on you? What things might you be mumbling under your breath or expressly verbalizing to your passenger who has been patiently sitting in the car while you waited for your order?
There are other similar scenarios. Perhaps the situation is reversed and you are behind the counter waiting on the recent immigrant struggling to express herself in English. Maybe it is on a phone call to a customer service hotline you’ve called relative to a product you just purchased. When these encounters occur, what do they reveal about our attitudes toward those who are “other?”
A few years ago, I traveled to a developing Islamic nation. My immediate experience in the country was one of “otherness.” The arrivals area of the airport felt terribly unfamiliar. Most all of the signs were in Arabic, (One of the exceptions was the English at the currency exchange counter.), as was most of the language I heard around me. It was obvious that many of the people were noting the Westerner as they looked me over. I stood out and felt it profoundly.
During the week I spent in a culture very different than my own, I encountered the sense of otherness frequently. The nature of my travel didn’t contain me to the relative safety net of modern hotels and tourist areas that are generally accomodating to English speaking Westerners. It was challenging at times to communicate. Yet everywhere I went people were friendly and patient with my limited capacity in their culture.
One of the many lasting impacts of this trip was a greater sensitivity to those who are experiencing “otherness” within a particular context. My own experience of being “the other” has helped me better identify with what it must be like for someone to emigrate to the United States. They come to a culture not their own and are immersed into a language of which they may have little grasp. They also do not have the benefit I experienced–people most everywhere who speak at least a little bit of their language to help them get by.
Obviously there are practical realities that make it impossible to speak a little bit of all the languages we may encounter in American culture. But the questions that concern me are not about learning basic phrases in another language. Rather, it is the attitudes and motivations of our hearts, including my own, toward those who are different than us in some way. The opening scenario ends all too often with arrogant, condescending responses (sometimes immediately in the situations, but more likely in the story we later tell our friends or family about the situation). These responses may reveal more than frustration with language barriers.