My international friends have taught me more than I can express. They have shaped me–my priorities, my ideas, my worldview. If anything I say in my book or on this blog is helpful, it’s because I’ve learned it from them.
As an American married to an international, I’ve been privileged to be part of to “closed-door” conversations in which immigrant friends share their hearts in an unguarded way, struggling to make sense of life here, and sorting through the challenges and emotions that come along the way.
I like to think of myself as a bridge person, taking what I learn in those “closed-door” conversations and processing it into helpful ideas for Americans who want to welcome immigrants. In this post, I want to share these things that have been repeatedly shared with me: 4 things you should never forget about your international friend.
1. She’s not foreign everywhere.
There is a culture she can navigate with her eyes closed, with a language she can speak without thinking about it.
There is (or was) a table where she is at ease, where loved ones can tell stories of when she was a toddler or in middle school, a table where people laugh at her jokes without needing them explained.
There is (or was) a place where things make sense, where she didn’t have to ask nearly so many questions, and where she could guide you in the same way you’re guiding her through your culture now.
No matter how happy she is to live in your country, there is still sometimes a grief that comes for the loss of a feeling of competence, the loss of ease, the loss of not having to think about every little thing. Remember, she’s lost her mother(land).
2. He’s more than a project.
He truly appreciates the things you’ve done and are doing for him to help him figure out life here, but he wants more than that. He doesn’t want to be checked off of your list–he’s not finish-able; what he wants is an ongoing relationship.
Resist the urge to burst into his life on a ministry blitz and then to buzz away as quickly as you came. Stay awhile–stay indefinitely!–and enter into a real friendship strengthened over time by “small touches” and characterized by mutuality.
3. She’s more than a caricature of her culture.
Though she’s proud of her culture, she’s her own person. She wants to be known for who she is, not just as a spokesperson for all ____ people everywhere.
So rather than just asking about her culture, ask about her relationship with it. Example: “What food do you like to cook for New Year?”(this can only be answered by her) rather than “What foods do Ethiopians typically eat at New Year?” (this can be answered by a Google search).
4. He just wants to feel normal.
At the end of the day, most of us just want to belong, to have enough to take care of our families, to be reasonably happy. These are the things that make up the good kind of “normal” that your immigrant friend is looking for. Nothing spectacular or out of the ordinary–just a good normal life.
You can give him the gift of nice normalcy by being a normal level of nice (not treating him like he’s “exotic”), and nonchalantly helping him navigate cultural confusion, among other things. In other words, treat him not as your IMMIGRANT friend, but just as your friend. Your normal friend. This is the best gift you can give him.
Want more encouragement and practical tips for welcomers? Pick up a copy of my book, Loving the Stranger: Welcoming Immigrants in the Name of Jesus, and subscribe to this blog!