“It is not necessarily those lands which are the most fertile or most favored in climate that seem to me the happiest, but those in which a long struggle of adaptation between man and his environment has brought out the best qualities of both.” T.S. Eliot
I’ve been living in a foreign country for ten months, and I haven’t found my new home to provide the most fertile ground for deep, lasting friendship and personal growth. I haven’t found it to be, as Eliot suggests, a favored climate for the fruiting of my best qualities. In fact, many days I feel like moving abroad has brought out my worst traits, unearthing my shiest, most insecure, unwelcoming roots.
Ten months is hardly a long struggle and I’m not nearly as well-adapted as I thought I’d be by now, but I have learned a few things along the way.
For starters, tolerance. Not tolerance meaning anything goes, although some days it does feel like that when cat calls and butt grabs in the streets are shrugged off with a sigh and a “that’s Guatemala for you.” But I mean tolerance in the sense that I’m learning that it really, really in the grand scheme of things doesn’t matter whether the people I associate with wear the trendiest clothes or went to the most prestigious schools or use the right amount of snark and hipster references in their Facebook posts.
I’m learning that everyone has value and something to offer. Enough with the cheese, you’re probably thinking right now. That sounds like something you learn in kindergarten. You’re right, I’m sure I did learn it in kindergarten.
People matter. All kinds of people matter. No matter their age or race or language or cultural or educational background.
I’ve known it all my life, but I’ve really lived it here in Guatemala as I’ve interacted with and I’ve learned from and met people so different from me.
It’s also what’s been hard–feeling out-of-place. These ten months have been a lesson in humility. There are very few moments when I’m out and about that I don’t feel strange or uncomfortable or downright stupid. But I think (I hope) this experience is molding me, shaping me to be more accepting of others, more tolerant of what I used to see as irks and flaws, more open to simply being with people, in the moment, with no judgment and no expectations.
I’ve stumbled into trouble, for sure. I have difficulty discerning, as a guest in this country, when I’m supposed to just go with the flow and when I’m allowed to take a stand and set my own boundaries. When I’m allowed to say no. I’m sure I could write a whole book on how not to live the cross-cultural life, but that’s another discussion.
In this country where I’m daily schooled in grammar and syntax by people with a third grade education and all of my preconceived ideas of male attractiveness have been thrown out the window as tiny men with spiky gelled hair and tight jeans with sequins on the rear end take home all the women, I’m constantly challenged to look past the external. To look past the prejudices I didn’t even know I had.
I’ve also erred on the other extreme, forgetting I have anything to offer. Sometimes I forget my own God-given gifts and talents. I forget I can give and serve and love and encourage, but that’s another discussion, too.
I’ve become so accustomed to butchered, choppy English and my own broken Spanish that I spent a good five minutes indignantly cursing spellcheck when it “mistakenly” told me “liders” was not an equally viable spelling of “leaders” in the English language, and I don’t even hear the syntactical error when someone asks me “You have boyfriend?” or confesses to me “I am hang over.”
I just go with the flow and answer “No” and “You shouldn’t have drank so much last night.”
If there’s any level of understanding or connection, it’s good enough for me.
Isn’t that how it should always be? Shouldn’t understanding always matter more than the exact words used or the dress or education of the person who spoke them?
I think of how I pick apart the words of authors I read or the movies I watch. Or the things my friends and family say. I think of how smug and snarky and downright judgmental I can be of people back home–of their words or their dress or their upbringing. When I’m in my comfort zone. When I, warranted or not, feel like I’m in a position to judge.
I used to constantly size up the people around me. Am I prettier, smarter, more exciting? If I deemed myself to be, then my pride was bolstered and I’d continue on my merry way. If I didn’t measure up, jealousy, envy, and self-loathing would take hold, gripping me in green.
But here in a foreign country, I am learning in a deep and meaningful (and hopefully lasting) way to look for connection before comparison.
Perhaps it’s just my survival skills kicking in, aching for connection at any level.
Perhaps it’s easier because the comparison seems especially futile or comical. No matter what jeans I wear or how skinny I get or what job title I rock with whatever innovative and socially-conscious new company, here, I am still just the gringa, the foreigner, the canchita. All the striving and the exercising and the Pinterest-browsing or even the Spanish learning and cross-cultural immersion won’t change that.
But connection will.
If I have a real conversation with someone, albeit linguistically limited, that is when I become someone more than just a gringa and the someone I am talking to becomes more than just the tortilla lady or salsa instructor or a guy I met at the gym.
On my end, at least.
Where my own dark judgments used to lurk, gratitude is growing. I rejoice at the small bonds of understanding, and for new milestones like exchanging books with new friends, laughing over silly pop songs that get stuck in our heads, and praying together, in Spanish, in English, in Spanglish.
Here, the gift of unlikely friendship springs up when I least expect it. Even in my shiest, my most insecure, my most unwelcoming moments, connections form. And I am learning to cherish these both improbable and probably temporary friendships. I am growing in grace for myself and others. And I am rejoicing as the fruit of kindness sprouts around me and within my own heart as I learn to connect and adapt in this land where I struggle.