When I was a foreigner living in East Africa, the people who helped me most were locals who treated me like a person who happened to be American, not as an *AMERICAN* (person). In other words, seeing me as a person first, and as an American second (along with all the other secondary traits I have, such as female, coffee lover, writer, etc.).
For example, my in-laws accepted me as a daughter/sister who happened to be American. They were always easing my way through the confusing world of a new culture, but doing it so nonchalantly that I hardly noticed. They tried hard to make me not feel like a weird outsider, but as part of the family (who was just a LITTLE loveably quirky). They acted normal. They were nice.
Alex, the taxi driver whose home base was right outside our apartment, treated me as a person who happened to be American. He spoke in clear, deliberate Amharic, so I could understand, patiently repeating confusing phrases several times without making me feel stupid. We talked about what we had in common—our families, our holiday plans, the weather, the traffic. It was so blessedly normal, when many other times and with so many other people, I felt like a foreign freak. He acted nicely normal.
Hanna, the owner of the fruit shop I frequented, was the same way. Even if my short walk had involved stares and pointing and other unpleasantness, I knew when I walked into her shadowy shop that I could breathe a sigh of relief and just be treated like any other customer—that is, normally. She and her employees viewed my banana preferences (very underripe, according to most locals) and my customer satisfaction as more important than my nationality and foreign-ness. They acted nicely normal.
Tizita, Ruhama, and other coworkers and ministry friends invited me to have coffee because they wanted to get to know me as a person, not primarily as an American. We talked about cultural stuff, sure, but we talked even more about our commonalities—our families, our work challenges and joys, our faith, our annoyance with power outages, etc. They acted nicely normal.
What I’m trying to convey with all these examples is simple: if you want to really bless an international friend, do this simple thing: act nicely normal. How do you accomplish this? Here’s a few tips:
1.) Don’t OVER-focus on cultural differences. I’m not saying don’t talk about culture at all, but try to get to know the person as a person, not JUST as a representative of their culture.
What do you have in common? Your love of sports, your profession, your flair for cooking, your parenthood, your hatred of cold weather, your interest in spiritual things, your birth order, your enjoyment of a certain TV show…? Spending time talking about what makes you similar will make your immigrant friend feel as if he/she fits in, if only for a moment!
2.) If you want to know more about the person’s background, ask questions about them personally instead of inquiring about the entire culture. Again, don’t hear me wrong, I’m not saying you should never say, “What are the staple foods of Estonia?” Instead, I’m saying that you should sometimes ask things like, “What foods do YOU miss from back home?” or “How does YOUR family usually celebrate New Year?”
For more info about asking cultural questions in a way that will bless your immigrant friend rather than burden them, read “Satisfying Curiosity or Seeking Connection?: How to Talk to Immigrants.”
3. Keep an eye out for them in social situations, but try to be cool about it.
I so appreciated when a local would quietly say to me, “Now we’re going to do this, or that,” at a wedding celebration or funeral or other kind of get together. Or they’d just invite me to sit by them or follow them so I wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb not knowing what I was doing.
This was such a nicely normal way of helping me without making it obvious that they were helping the hapless foreigner who was obviously clueless. I maintained my dignity because of the discreet assistance of locals who noticed me and quietly helped me fit in.
You can do this for your international friends too at social events. Keep an eye on them, maybe ask them to sit or go with you, give them cues when appropriate, but just don’t make a big deal about it. They will be silently thanking you for helping them feel (or at least look) normal!
4. Be a *normal* level of nice.
Sometimes, well-meaning locals can fawn over foreigners by showing over-the-top interest in them and treating them like an exotic animal—a novelty to be shown to friends and exclaimed over. (Remember, normalcy trumps novelty in everyday life.) This attempt to show love actually feels alienating to a foreigner, because it makes them feel like an animal in the zoo rather than a member of the pack.
Remember, what everyone (regardless of culture) really wants is to belong. Emphasizing their exoticness does not feel good to internationals—it actually prohibits friendship rather than promoting it. The way to help an immigrant feel at home is to treat them as part of the group, only unique to the same degree that everyone is somewhat unique (for example, most groups have people from different professions, different hometowns, different genders, different lifestages, etc.).
I cannot overemphasize the amazing gift it is when locals simply act nicely normal towards a foreigner!
It’s so simple, yet goes so far in making an international feel at home.
How might you give this gift of nice normalcy to an international friend in 2018?