July 31, 2014

Friendship Beyond Language

I have been doing something recently that I had not done in a ridiculously long time. I am making friends without the help of a fluent common language. Given that I live in one of the most immigrant-dominated cities in the world, it's really nothing short of embarrassing. But some combination of laziness, sin, and over-reliance on my fluency in LA's two most-spoken languages had convinced me that without easy language, there was no point in trying.

I once knew the skills and rewards of friendship beyond language. Some of the most important people in my adolescence were students at the ESL school for refugees where my mother taught and I volunteered. As a shy teenager unsure of my place in the world, I found welcome and understanding in relationship with newly-arrived beginning English speakers from Laos, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Viet Nam.

As a kid, I learned that shared food and shared laughter and small gifts could make up for many deficits in communication. I learned that speaking a little slowly and very clearly (but not extra LOUDLY) is a big help. I learned that distilling complicated thoughts and feelings into very simple words is possible, even powerful. I learned that beginnings are awkward, but that the very act of hanging in there together forges trust, and eventually mutual comfort.

Dusting off my rusty skills has been an unexpected joy. I am learning things I never would have learned any other way. I am reminded of the delight of welcoming and being welcomed. I laugh more and pay better attention. My friends’ efforts with English (a horribly difficult language to learn) remind me to try hard things, even things I may never truly master.

Our world is full of people who are convinced we can’t -- and will never be able to -- talk to each other. We invent a thousand reasons why new people might not “fit in” at our churches or in our communities, and we often expect others to do all the work in bridging gaps in communication. We have little or no patience for awkward beginnings. We forget to laugh at ourselves.

I am thankful for the chance to learn all over again that the effort is worth it.