In the last week, I’ve done something I never imagined myself doing: I’ve hosted two teachers from China while they studied our school system and took copious notes about our strengths and weaknesses. Did I mention that I let two strangers with a limited understanding of English stay at my house?
I showed them to their rooms, but they chose to stay together in one. Too much space, too much distance between rooms, and they felt more comfortable being in close proximity. They marveled at the number of bathrooms in our house, the amount of love we have for our dog, and the high activity level we maintain from day to day. During rides to school or over dinner, we stuttered through conversations, constantly searching for common words and understandings. My favorite verbal mishap was when I mentioned I had to stop at the doctor’s office for a shot. Their eyes widened with alarm until I found the right word, the one they knew, inoculation, which made them feel infinitely better. That’s when I realized how many idioms we Americans use and how confusing our vocabulary must be to the international visitor struggling to understand us.
But this blog isn’t about language barriers. It’s about how Americans convey what kind of people we are without using any words at all. In the last week, I’ve been proud to be an American, and all the cynics and news programs in the world won’t sway me from that pride.
My first foray beyond the house was taking Lucy and Apple to my church. I nearly cried when everyone in the vicinity – including “Mama,” who struggles with Altzheimers and always sits in front of us; the young girl with Downs Syndrome and the sweetest smile this side of Texas; black, white, and people of all backgrounds – extended their hands and warmly welcomed my guests to our church and to our country. They spoke slowly, considerately, putting our visitors at ease. Then Lucy looked up and noticed the orchestra. With an intake of breath, she listened intently to the violins’ mournful strains, and I’m sure it didn’t escape her notice that many of the orchestra members had faces like her own. I looked around my church – really looked, for maybe the first time – and noticed the colors, the mixed heritages, the age differences, the variety of dress and style. I remembered, gratefully, that I belong to a church that welcomes strangers and makes them feel at home because we ourselves were once strangers looking for a home.
At sermon time, I found the proper chapter and verse and handed the Bible to Lucy. Intrigued when she pulled out her cell phone, I watched as she typed unfamiliar English words, found the Chinese translation, re-read the passage, and then nodded her head as understanding blossomed. She worked 10 times harder than anyone in that sanctuary that day, all to understand what the rest of us take for granted. We have the freedom to read whatever religious text we like, to make our own choices about what we believe and what god we worship. We can freely hand a Bible to someone who has journeyed thousands of miles to learn about us, with no fear of punishment or even judgment. Lucy and Apple cannot say the same.
Later that week, I took my guests to visit some other schools so they could see the variety of educational options we enjoy in the U.S. Say what you will about the state of schools in America; I, for one, see some wonderful things going on, and I am proud that my Chinese guests got to witness them. In each school, the principal took time to introduce him or herself, to set up a personal tour, and even to offer a Chinese interpreter. My guests walked from classroom to classroom where they heard their own language being spoken, where they saw their own flag hanging with 50 others, all representing the cultures within the school. And everyone they met extended kindness. I don’t teach at these schools, but I beamed with pride over the facilities, the diversity of the population, the choices offered to students, the engaged learning taking place, and the respect afforded these strangers from a faraway place. At my own school, students and teachers welcomed our visitors into their homes, carted them around Houston, and invited them to teach Mandarin and speak to the Chinese Club. We made the trip possible, and because we did, Lucy and Apple came to an important realization: No one had to bend over backward for them, but they did, because that’s what Americans do.
When I asked my new friends for their thoughts on Americans, they didn’t hesitate. They said we are the most warm-hearted people they’ve ever met. They said we work harder than they ever imagined, that we are nothing like the stereotype of Americans they see in films. They loved that we offer our kids choices, give them voices, and respect them enough to value their opinions. They were flabbergasted by our loyalty to our pets, our love of hugs and open affection, and our happiness. They found us to be courteous drivers (who knew?) , patient, and polite. In short, they were clearly surprised and impressed by us. Listening to our music, seeing our kids display impressive talent in the arts, and noting our entrepreneurial spirit, they suggested that maybe our freedom has brought about a high level of creativity and ingenuity that they lack in their own country.
Lucy and Apple have only been with me a week, but I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve teared up watching my fellow Americans interact with my Chinese visitors. Despite what our media and nightly news would have us believe, we really are a kind, open-hearted country that embraces people from all walks of life. I’ve seen it firsthand, and I’ve never been more proud to be an American.