Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Parlez-vous français ?

We're mentoring a refugee family of nine from Chad this year.  I took the kids over to their house this morning for our first meeting- which thankfully, included our friend Amy, who works with refugee families with LSS (and who, btw, lived in Zambia for a year and we now share a common Zam-love) and there was also an interpreter from LSS, who was funny.  I liked him.

My kids know some things about Africa, so that helped.  Funny story- this morning I was doing Patie's hair and she's all, "We've met people with dark skin before.  Remember...." And she proceeded to tell me about a family we met in 2008.  Man- I feel like we see all kinds of skin colors in our city (of course MOST people are white, but...).  So no, she was right.  The last time we were actually friends with someone who has dark skin was in....2008.  Good point, Patie.  Good point. 

Other than that, they knew the basic circumstances around why a refugee family comes here, and especially because I just got back from Africa, we talked a lot about how hard that would be, how far away South Dakota is from Chad, how very different it is here, how cold it is here, and how lonely it would be to be in a strange place and not yet speak the language- and have to find a job there anyway. 

So, OK.  We get there.  I hadn't realized how much of a dive into culture shock this would be for my kids (I just hadn't even thought about it).  But that's good, right?  Just dive right in.  They were a little bit petrified....but in good spirits.  They're troopers.  And, as a plus, they looked super obedient, sitting so still and quiet on the couch, slightly terrified to move. 100% culture shocked into motionlessness.

So, things I expected but that totally surprised my kids-  they had been cooking a big pot of fish.  I could tell Grace was like, "Whoa dog that stinks!" but she held it in.  I confess, four hours later, I can still smell the fish... 

But man this family- they are super warm and inviting and I loved them instantly.

And then we started talking- the scene still busts me up inside. 

Amy and I spoke English.  The father speaks Arabic (in addition to French, Fula and Nigerian).  So the interpreter was there to translate English into Arabic/Arabic to English.  But his wife speaks an indigenous Arabic dialect called Fulfulde that is different enough from common Arabic to necessitate the father to translate the translated Arabic into her dialect (probably similar to an American chatting with an Aussie).  So, this is how it went.  Amy or I said something in English.  Funny witty interpreter guy translates into Arabic, the Dad translates into the dialect, then we all smile and agree with each other in a happy triangle of cultures.  I'm pretty sure my kids' heads were spinning, but again, they sat so nicely and quietly on the couch, looking like it was no big deal.

We chatted a bit, and got a little tour of their home and kitchen.  Just getting back from Zambia, I felt really, really well prepared to meet them.  As we talked, many details of their life in Africa were easy for me to imagine.  The woman wears chitenges- though I am sure they call it something else, and they eat a staple food of....I can't remember what they called it.  They tried and tried to explain it to no success, then showed us what it's made of in the kitchen.  I saw a ginormous bag of white corn meal (like, it's the size of two Hudsons) and we said "OH, like Nshima???"  The wife was relieved we finally got it right.  They also had a fridge full of Pepsi (ah, soft drinks, the great global mediator), some babybel cheese, and injera.  And lots of fruit.  I'm so glad LSS works so hard to give families as smooth a transition into the US as possible-  with a safe, warm home, and simple furniture as well.

We talked more about food, and the wife and I are both VERY excited to cook for one another's families, and to learn language from one another- and especially for our children to do the same.  Their children are 18, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6 and 3- 15 of us in all when we're together- so there's going to be a lot of talking and learning with a group that large.  The father made sure we knew they didn't eat pork twice (they're Moslem), so I made sure that didn't seem like a big deal to me, and also mentioned that we have a lot of neighbors that don't eat pork.  That made him happy, like, "Hey, the American woman doesn't think it's weird that we don't eat pork."  This is fun.

And guess what- no one in the family has had pizza yet- the Nshima of the US, if you will.  So Friday night we're bringing over enough cheese pizza for us all, and some Pepsi too now that I know they're into that, and it's going to be hilarious and fun- especially because we'll be totally on our own

We will have nothing but Jim's rusty high school French as a language lifeline as we navigate getting to know one another.  We will probably help them with their English lessons whenever we meet, and we'll be learning French and Arabic from them as we go.  Also, Amy, who is our friend and goes to The Ransom, happens to be coming to our house every Tuesday night while we're at Life Group- so she promised to teach some French to our kids. 

I just absolutely love this family, and have an overwhelming feeling of, "Let's DO this thing!  Almost no common language to start from?  BRING IT ON!"

We said our goodbyes, and I got lots of warm, long African handshakes and to be honest, it made me feel at home.

Afterwards, I had mercy on my culture shocked children and took them out for the most American lunch possible- McDonalds with a Play Place and fries, not apples.  They were thrilled.  As we ate, Patie looked at me and said, "Mom, I'm glad we're doing this.  They need friends and I'm glad we get to be their friends."  And then we had a great conversation- and I can see that, crazy as that translating triangle was, they "get" it, and that makes me glad.

1 comment:

~B said...

For 6 months, I had the honor of taking care of an older Haitian woman who spoke no English, but only spoke Creole and French.

She would walk over numerous times a day, just to sit on our couch and have me iron on patterns onto towels for her to embroider.

While I helped her, she helped me. And it was incredible.

We would communicate with hand-motions a lot. And sometimes we even frustrated each other. I had a book with pictures, but that didn't always help. When we were really desperate, we would go on the translate page on Yahoo and I would type in the phrase that I was trying to get her to understand, and then once she would get it, we would laugh our heads off....

Oh, and I had her watch "Pride and Predujice" in French--afterwards, she kept on holding her hand to her heart and saying "Darcy" for Mr. Darcy... it was awesome.

Enjoy these new friends! You will be so blessed by them--I know that we were blessed with Julia so much!

Oh, and we took her to a Narnia movie at the theater--she loved it, even though she didn't know what was going on....But she had a huge smile the whole time.