I sit facing the door of the conference room. You are on the other side of the table. Lots of words come out of your mouth. Sometimes I don’t think the interpreter understands everything you say. Because you are in an authority role, I will smile and nod…always…even when I am upset or sad. At times I may even laugh. This is not your ha-ha funny Western laugh. In my culture we laugh when we are happy or nervous, even when we are irritated. We save face and we don’t want to make you uncomfortable.
You ask if I have any questions. To question you means you haven’t explained properly and it would bring you shame if I am direct. You have to ask me at least three times. I will find a round-about way to ask my questions and, out of respect, I will usually wait until the end of the meeting to show you that what you have to say is more important.
You represent the government that brought me to freedom. I’m thankful and still so confused. I might not tell you until five or six months into my refugee program that IOM* spelled my name wrong when they tried to find English letters to correspond to the sounds of my language. And about names…Karen people don’t have last names. It’s funny to hear you say the Paw family or the Htoo family. All the syllables of my name are my whole given name. Each syllable in a Karen name is infused with meaning. For example, Paw means ‘flower’ and is often added to a girl’s name. It’s pretty. But we rarely call each other by our given names. Nicknames or status order are more common. My little sister usually calls me older sister. I call older men “uncle”. And you? I will always call you tharamu (teacher) even though you are younger than me. I have so much to learn in this new culture.
Sometimes I see you looking at me and I can see the question in your eyes. I carry the towel to cover my nose when the smell becomes more than I can handle. The nausea crawls up my throat, threatening to launch my rice breakfast. Americans smell like rotten, curdled cheese and…you stink. You wrinkle your nose at our fragrant fish smell. It will take time to adjust to this.
Before I came to the USA, life was just that – life. Even though I lived for years in a camp, it became routine. Now I have high blood pressure. Everyone seems to be a slave of the clock, watch, iPhone. Time is a harsh master and it steals my joy. To rise with the sun and birds is best and to rest in the heat of the day under the bamboo…I remember home. Here I am on and off the bus. You’ve told me I have to join the rat race if I am to survive. I’m already tired and I feel like I just got here.
No, I am not trying to be rude, I promise. It’s a sign of respect to keep my head and eyes lowered. Eye contact would be a sign of a challenge. But now you tell me I must hold my head up and look at you directly. I will try, for I do want to get a job but I will always have that nagging feeling of disrespect.
You’ve told me that you have assessed my skills. From refugees who have been here a few years, I’ve learned that my “skills” are worthless for retail, construction or medicine. Where I am from I can transplant a rice field in record time – it takes precision, patience and planning to earn a healthy harvest. I can feed my nation. I know where the buyer is who will give the best price for the goods I have planted and weaved by hand. In the dry season, I can repair any bamboo hut. I always helped my husband with the new thatched roof before the rains began. And you know what? The jungle is a living pharmacy. If you have an ailment, chances are the trees and plants have provided relief. My grandmother taught me well. But here…I have so much to learn.
Every month I sit in this room with my family and with you. We discuss the necessary things – how are my food stamps, are the kids okay in school, am I learning English, where have I been applying for work, etc, etc. My short quiet responses are typical of me so you don’t notice that my mind is not with you in the meeting. Right now, back home, it’s the beginning of the rainy season. I sign my name on an application you push across the table but my hands are working my fields. I appreciate that you have been to my part of the world. Sometimes I look up, briefly, and I see that you know…you try to understand…if only in part.
★ ★ ★
They sit in our office week after week, month after month and year after year. As a case worker for resettlement, the faces and names change but the culture of the Karen remains the same. Sometimes I honestly try to put myself in the flip-flops sitting across the table. What is going on inside that mind? What questions remain unanswered because they have never been asked? How do they learn to adapt, adjust and acculturate to not only survive in this new place but to thrive.
I think about I Corinthians 13:9 & 10 –“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears” (NIV). I am one of those renegades who are thankful for God’s decision after Babel to mix up language and disperse the peoples. The mystery and challenge of such diversity is stunning; most days I eat it up. But other days crawl by where I can’t wait until He sets it right again. Only part is seen right now. You see from your side of the table and I see from my side. It’s reassuring that the Maker sees both sides.
*International Organization for Migration