Teresa Williams: How to connect with foreign visitors

08/29/2014 5:29 PM

08/29/2014 5:57 PM

Wei and I first met in September last year. As a 40-something Asian woman, she had come to study at a Kansas City university.

Her husband would manage their company back home, so she would spend the year apart from him and her 5-year-old son. She knew little English.

The international student ministry leader at my church, the Red Bridge Church of Christ in south Kansas City, asked me to help Wei with her language skills and the logistics of living in the American culture. I had no training for this and didn’t know how to begin.

Creating a cross-cultural relationship can be intimidating. Maybe you know someone who recently arrived in America: a new employee at work, a new family in your neighborhood, a new face in your child’s classroom. What can you do to show hospitality? Here is one footpath forward.

Talk. For nearly every week this past year, Wei and I have met for two or three hours to talk. We stumbled and stuttered through those first conversations, pausing often for her smartphone’s word translation.

Talking was just what Wei needed. Pronunciation and vocabulary improve with regular conversations with English speakers. We could have stuck to simpler topics. Instead, we waded right into government policies, economic health, and Eastern versus Western medicine.

We traded childbirth stories and discussed how to raise our sons, understand our husbands, age with grace — wife, mother, woman stuff. When you push past mundane pleasantries, you discover the richness of each other’s culture.

Take field trips. Choose experiences that allow America to speak for itself. We visited the Jackson County Circuit Court and observed a trial in progress. In Wei’s country, there are no public trials, no juries and no women professionals in legal roles.

Answer questions. Wei has had many: Why is America first in the world? Can anyone come to this church? Are American families happy? Why are there three houses for sale on this street? Why would they move? Why do Americans drive such big cars? Why is that woman’s cart so full of food? Maybe she has a big family?

Expect difficult questions. “Why are there drunkards at your library?” Wei asked at our first meeting. I had only a bucketful of English words to use. Lamely, I tried to explain homelessness in America and the safe haven a public library represents to people with nowhere else to be. Some answers satisfy neither of us.

Be vulnerable. During this last year with Wei, my own personal life has been difficult. Eventually, I let her see some of my confusion and fear. I asked: How could she be so brave as to come to America, alone and in midlife, to face a new language and culture?

She has more to give the world, Wei explained. What she learns about herself in America will help her do so. She is not afraid. Past difficulties have made her stronger.

I have borrowed from Wei’s courage and accepted her wisdom. After a season of uncomfortable growth, perhaps I also will have more to give.

Maybe you do, too. If your faith community reaches out to international students or newly immigrated groups, join that effort. Or contact one of Kansas City’s universities and colleges and ask how you can connect with newcomers.

Wei is part of my life’s story now, and I am part of hers. Who will you let into yours?

Teresa Williams of Kansas City is a freelance writer and home-schooler. To reach her, send email to oped@kcstar.com.

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