Yelling on the BusBlog / Produced by The High Calling
I was 19 and in the early stages of pursuing a foreign language. I wanted to be a teacher and chose Spanish as my concentration despite the 11th grade Señora who had been cold and made us take tests where you had to draw a verb blindly from an envelope and conjugate it – in front of the class – in whatever tense it demanded. This was easy if you picked “Hablar in the Present Tense,” but a stem-changing reflexive in the subjunctive mood? ¡Qué terrible!
Anyway, I was 19 and decided to go to Mexico with a local church. We volunteered to spend a week in Reynosa at an orphanage, and that’s where I really learned about cross-cultural communication.
First lesson: Kids like toys.
I worked at McDonald’s in high school and I collected Happy Meal toys. I'm not exactly sure why, but by the time Mexico rolled around, I had an international-sized suitcase full of them. So I took the entire lot with me. I passed out los juguetes along the road, like a volunteer fireman on the Fourth of July. Unusual way to cross cultural lines, but it taught me that kids everywhere are basically the same.
Second lesson: Louder doesn’t help.
A white-haired lady, innocent as any long-standing choir member could be, had joined us. She only knew “Hello,” “Thank You,” and “Jesus Loves You” in Spanish, but wanted desperately to communicate with the locals. I remember a bus pulling up to a stop at the city dump. Ms. B boarded and stood next to the driver and said, “Hola! TO-MOR-ROW NIGHT, WE ARE GO-ING TO HAVE A PUP-PET SHOW HERE. PLEASE BRING YOUR CHIL-DREN. WE WANT TO TELL THEM ABOUT JEEE-SUS. Gracias. Jesús te ama!”
Loud and excruciatingly slow. The passengers stared and then she got off the bus grinning from ear to ear. I’ve never forgotten the conflict I experienced between her love and insult.
Third lesson: With them is better than near them.
The most transforming memory occurred in the cafeteria at the orphanage. The room sat 40 and there were probably 75 of us squeezed inside. Most of my English-only team members huddled together with their tacos, but I sat with the elementary kids who poked fun at my stiff public school Spanish and told me stories about life at the orphanage. One boy showed our table his stomach scars, which he said came from eating the fire-hot peppers over in the corner by the goat pen and having to get them removed. He kept a relatively straight face while the others laughed hysterically, so I don’t know if he was telling the truth.
Then someone leaned heavily on my back from the table behind us. I turned to see Juan, a tall, maybe 15-year-old kid, resting against me with his head on my neck. The pepper boy said, in Spanish, “Just hold still. Juan has seizures and he’ll wake up in a minute. His parents left him in a ditch when he was three and he’s been here ever since.”
I sat there feeling the weight of this unconscious child, gratefully able to know why.
Language comes in many forms. I didn’t expect the toys to be welcomed, but then, these children had so little. Ms. B had the right heart, but just imagine a stranger on your bus here in Every Town, U.S.A., yelling indecipherably. And as for Juan and the pepper boy and all of his abandoned friends? Language brought me into their circle – a sacred traverse – and we talked as if they were my own kids.
Someday we’ll stand together before God “from every nation, tribe, people and language…” (Revelation 7:9). But we have neighbors today, and with projections that between years 2023 and 2050, when white children will be in the minority here in the United States, those neighbors – poor or not – aren’t the subject of teenage mission trips any more. They are our neighbors and we’ll have to do more than study verb charts and yell on the bus.
- What personal challenges do you face when it comes to cross-cultural communication?
- Which of your talents can help you and others traverse cultural barriers?
- How does cross-cultural communication help us grow in our understanding of God?
Ironically, I can’t communicate with you this month if you leave a comment. I’m with students in Peru, trying to help them sit at their own cafeteria tables.