We had a recent discussion in the Loving the Stranger Advisory Council (join us on Patreon to join the group!) about the #1 mistake goodwilled people make when trying to welcome immigrants.
Mekdes Abebe Haddis, my new friend who blogs at The Redeemed Intersectionalist, chimed in saying that well-meaning Americans have focused on asking her questions about her country without asking about her own story and experiences.
In her words, “I’m not Google!” And that is so true. I’ve recently written a post about how Google and other websites can help us tremendously to have some basic knowledge about our friend’s country/culture!
This overfocus on her country, to the neglect of her as a person, had the effect making Mekdes feel like only a representative of her country, not an individual with a name and a story. I resonated with this when Mekdes shared, because I often felt the same way in Ethiopia.
When Ethiopians tried to talk to me based on me being “the American,” it was always awkward. They would ask stock questions about America, and I would answer the best I could, knowing they were trying to be friendly, but then they would drift away when their curiosity was satisfied. It left me feeling like an exotic exhibit which loses people’s interest after a few minutes of staring.
Now, Mekdes has good American friends and I have good Ethiopian friends. Don’t hear us wrong! But these good friends did something different than what is described above—they focused on getting to know us as us, not just as a representative of our nationalities.
What does this look like practically? When making small talk with immigrants, don’t fall into the temptation to JUST quiz them on encyclopedia-type information about their nation of origin with no personalization, i.e., “What kind of food is traditional in Brazil? What’s the biggest city? What are the main exports? How many people are there? How big is Japan? Etc., etc., etc…and then trail off when you can’t think of any more surface-level questions.
Instead, here’s an easy switch: ask a question (you CAN ask these questions as a jumping off point—they’re not off-limits!), and then personalize it, asking follow-up questions which ask for your friend to share their story, not just demographic information.
Key word = personalize!
Let’s take the first two demographic questions and use them as springboards to a deeper, getting-to-know-YOU (not just your country) conversation:
“What kind of food is traditional in Brazil? Have you been able to find the things you need to make your favorite foods here? Have you heard of ____ international food market? No? Well, our ESOL class makes a field trip down there occasionally and the market has a lot of imported foods. I’ll invite you next time we go. Do you like to cook? I’d love to learn to make some Brazilian dishes. I could teach you some American dishes too if you’d like. Who taught you to cook? Oh, your mom, that makes sense. Do you get to talk to her much now that you’re here? How is she doing? Etc…”
“What’s the biggest city in Brazil? Did you live in a big city? So, what do you think of this small university town? I’m sure you miss city life sometimes. We sometimes go to the bigger city about an hour away from here—we’d love to take you along sometime and show you around. What do you like about your home city—what do you miss the most? I can try to help you find similar things around here so that you don’t feel as homesick. There’s also fun small-town things to do—do you like hiking? We’re going next week…
^^^By the way, notice the focus on family and belonging in these conversations. Those are themes that will come up again and again–asking about family and helping create a sense of belonging–such simple but powerful ways to make a newcomer feel at home!
So, to sum up, when talking with an immigrant friend, ask yourself, “Am I just satsifying my curiosity by asking these questions, or am I seeking connection?”
Thanks, Mekdes, for being honest and helping us understand how to love immigrants well. Make sure to check out Mekdes’ blog, The Redeemed Intersectionalist.
Also, consider partnering with Loving the Stranger Blog on Patreon to get in on some awesome behind-the-scenes discussion in the Loving the Stranger Blog Advisory Council! We’d love you to join the conversation on discussion questions like the one this blog post is built around!
Want more encouragement and practical tips for welcomers? Subscribe here! I look forward to keeping in touch!