Foreigners Like Me

They walked up the street with the babies in the stroller, dimly lit by the street lights. Though it was impossible to see their faces from across the road, their silhouettes and posture as they walked was recognizable in the way it only is when you have come to know someone. I raised my voice and hand, saying "Hello!" Mom looked over and returned the greeting with a grin across her face. 

Due to a rather absurdly full season of grant writing, conferences, meetings, budget building, curriculum development, traveling to other cities for our multiplication efforts and more, the chance this evening to stand still and greet my neighbor felt like an extra treasure. As I spent a good deal of the evening alternating between coloring and building lincoln logs with their son, Ahmed, not speaking a lick of Farsi or Pashto (his mother tongue as an Afghani), I pondered anew the journey our friends take to get across the ocean to their new and foreign land... new kinds of houses, new language, new trash system, new transportation system, new ways to access food, new kinds of food, and on and on it goes.

Ahmed was quite content with not trying to understand me; he was just going to keep living his life, observing passively. Meanwhile, little Lisha pulled a book out of the bookcase, and sat on my lap to read it. As the pages turned, she could nearly quote the whole thing to me, making it clear she has spent a whole lot of days in our home with that book. Her little tongue rattled off imaginary stories and creative expressions in the primary tongue of her birthplace, English, differing from the Nepali tongue of her mother. 

Lisha knows the Nepali dishes that usually fill her family table, but she also knows chocolate chip cookies. Ahmed is dressed in the typical fashion forward, sharp manner of his fellow Afghani, Syrian and Iraqi 3-year-old peers, but is overwhelmed and lost in an almost entirely unknown world. Lisha's presence in our living room exudes familiarity. Ahmed's presence in this space exudes this sense of foreignness. 

Ahmed is young, and I know from years of watching little Ahmeds grow up, that in 18 months from now, he will be chattering away in a language he was clueless of today. He will not remember the land of his birth as an active memory, and this nation of the United States will be what he knows as home. His parents speaking Pashto at home, or the colorful hijab his mother continues to wear, will ever remind him he is of a particular people, but he will find himself in the strange gray of being foreign and familiar in his own home and nation of eventual citizenship. 

Ahmed and Lisha will spend all to nearly all of their lives in the borders of this nation that welcomed their families. In their personal identity, they will carry very little of their family being factually "foreigners" at one point. Culturally connected or bicultural, yes absolutely; but foreigner would not be the narrative of their own writing. Yet unless if the story changes, Ahmed and Lisha will spend the rest of their days keenly aware of this part of their heritage. The beautifully dark olive tint of Lisha's skin, and her gorgeous Nepali features, will likely speak before her mouth does to the world she encounters. Ahmed's name and maybe someday his wife in hijab will serve as a preface to his story written by others not himself. Whether Lisha or Ahmed feel or see themselves as foreign, and irregardless if they are no longer foreign as naturalized citizens, they will never really be allowed to forget it. This is the cultural craftsmanship of our "majority" culture..

"Majority" is a fascinating phenomena. It's especially fascinating when one realizes the number of times "majority" is actually perception not fact. When "white" was identified as a category of self-identification, it created a grouping of people that view themselves as the American majority. While we know we are in fact an incredibly broad and mixed group of ethnicities, the subjective tonality of our skin shade often designates us.

As a nearly 100% European decent woman, this is the blood that runs through my veins, and I often perceived my fellow grouping as the "majority." Majority of the national demographic, majority of the power, majority of the resources and so on, resulting in a sense of European-decent people making up a significant portion of the global demographic. No one ever taught me that, it was just this subliminal sense spoken to in the repeated use of "minorities" when we spoke of people of color. 

I'm not sure when I realized just how "minority" my people actually are in the world, and the far smaller portion of our nation we are than I'd thought as well. There is still this fascinating anxiety of sorts that rises up in me when I think things like, "I am ever-increasingly a minority in the world." With European and European-decent births being on decline, and population growth among African, Asian and Latino peoples across the world, the numbers game is pretty clear. Purely/predominately/self-identifying European-decent individuals are no longer the majority even loosely in the United States. 

With the rebalancing of power in our world, our nation's ever mounting financial debt, exasperated and ever-present racial inequities within our borders, profound political divides and more, most of us know the game has changed. We wonder what it looks like if one of the world's most populous and financially powerful nations, China, took the helm as "global leader." Or how the United States would look and be if Latino brothers and sisters made up the majority of our nation that doesn't actually have a national language. Or if our African fathers and mothers found paths to peace, maintained power and maximized their resources, what that huge continent might do to influence the world. 

What if the power dynamic transformed, and "people of color" were not only the numerical majority but the power brokers? What if they bore that responsibility the same way the "white" folks have for the last several hundred years plus? What if my children find themselves living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, unable to disguise or adjust their lighter skin from their peers, having the tone of their skin speak before their mouths do - foreigner, outsider, not us, less power, our option as Congolese on their presence among us, worthy of leftover resources only if there is more than enough for us born and of this nation... 

When I imagine the day when I will be required to learn Mandarin if I wish to have a job that doesn't require me to clean toilets or make widgets, I feel the hopelessness. When I think of placing my children in Sudanese schools where they will never be perceived as one among the rest, no matter how they dress or try, it sounds unsolvable. When people associate my religion with people that molest children, Scripture-wash evil words and justify bullying; when they grow suspicious of me as one who will bring them harm, I grieve.

In my own life, I am very often the only pale girl in a room of beautifully color-full faces. I am regularly in rooms where I do not speak the language everyone is conversing in. I love the chance to sit at the feet of my friends whose cultures mine differs from, and learn the richness of their heritage. I love being surrounded by that and those that differ from me, and I from them, because I experience all they add to my life. I pray I never have to leave this diverse, multicultural, interwoven world. 

But I am equally aware that I get this beautiful seat in the house of the "foreigner" because of the power dynamic we are all living within. I have children chasing me down the streets of JigJiga, Ethiopia ready and wanting to spend the rest of the day with me because they perceive I have something to offer them. I am far too aware that the people staring at us in the grocery store when I am with my Muslim friends or African American children are not doing so because they understand what my friends have to offer them. Being the "foreigner" or "minority" when one holds power makes you elite, special and prized. Being the "foreigner" or "minority" when one is the vulnerable makes you secondary priority, charity and too often unwanted. 

In a truly amazing world that is so creatively and divinely complex, multi-faceted and diverse, how do we impact the narrative, and even more importantly the life experiences, of all? How do we move from a majority/minority, power/vulnerable and resourced/needy positioning to a beautifully and complexly diverse, mutually loving and resource-sharing human family? When do we realize power, or even the false sense of it, does far more to stimulate fear of loss than leverage towards collective best? When does "different" stop connecting to mathematical or economic words like "minority" or "under-resourced?" When do we instead move from comparative and impersonal words to relational and collaborative words?

When do we actually embrace that we are kindred? 

May that be the world Ahmed and Lisha actually grow up into. We have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us to make it so. Let us take a deep breath, then run harder and faster on that road than ever before.

"There's a promise at the heart // Of every good dream
It's a call to action // Not to fantasy
The end of the dream // The start of what's real
Let it be unity, let it be community
For refugees like you and me // A country to receive us
Will you be my sanctuary // RefuJesus" (American Soul. U2)

"The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God." (The Bible, Leviticus 19:34)