This blog post was originally posted as “I Too Am a Foreigner” on the blog “A Life Overseas.” It is reposted with permission from the author. Ivy Cheeseman and her family have served with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Southeast Asia for the last 10 years. She enjoys hiking, writing, and seeing God’s grace and power shine through the local church.
I’ve been contemplating these thoughts for years, but I’ve been hesitant to share them. Most importantly, I didn’t want to make any unfair comparisons. Unlike some of my foreign friends from other nations, I’ve never fled a house being burned by soldiers. They’ve endured so much trauma, and they can’t return. I, on the other hand, can go back “home” anytime I want.
Neither did I want to be misconstrued as being political. I’m not here to offer political commentary on complex issues such as immigration. As a Christ-follower, I live in this place in order to serve others.
And lastly, I have a wonderful network of local friends who have helped me navigate life in Thailand. By highlighting my inner struggles, I didn’t want to discredit the kindness of my Thai neighbors.
But despite all those things, I still feel a connection to other global nomads who are wandering far away from the country of their birth. Some of us have “figured out” life in our host country; most of us are still working on the lifelong process. When I meet a stranger in Thailand who stares at me with a mixture of confusion and suspicion, these are the things I wish I could tell them.
1. In my country, I was once a competent adult.
I don’t know how many times (especially in my first year here) that I’ve stood in the grocery store attempting to read the tiny Thai script on the back of a product. I want desperately to explain to the person next to me that I’m really not stupid. I once understood chemistry and calculus. But right now I need help telling the difference between a bag of flour and powdered sugar. My breakfast of pancakes with maple-flavored syrup (which Thais think reeks of urine) depends on it.
2. My odd habits are shared by millions of unseen others.
I’ve tried to adopt Thai customs that do not conflict with my own religious or personal convictions. But it’s hard to kick the bizarre American within. My Thai friends may never understand why I have a little round machine on my kitchen ceiling whose sole purpose seems to be alerting the neighbors that I burned another batch of popcorn. Once, my husband went outside to explain the beeping sound to a concerned neighbor. He used the wrong tone/verb when explaining the pot of burnt beans, and essentially explained that the reason smoke was billowing out of the kitchen was that he had just lost his virginity. Which leads me to the next point.
3. I’m trying harder than you think to learn your language and culture.
But “picking up” a language as an adult is not as intuitive as I once thought. When I make mistakes and sound like a child, please know I’m trying my best. If you speak clearly and simply, I can probably figure it out. When I revert to hanging out with my English-speaking friends, it’s not because I don’t love your culture. It’s just nice to occasionally have a conversation where I understand 100% of the words. Or to have a listener understand what I mean when I talk about a “Thanksgiving dinner” or “living on a farm” or . . . “a pot of burnt beans.”
4. Not all foreigners are alike.
Southeast Asia attracts many backpackers and long-term residents. Some are lovely. Others get drunk and do extremely offensive and illegal things like taking selfies on top of ancient, sacred structures. I’m terribly sorry for the way foreigners have mistreated this culture and its people. I know I will make many of my own mistakes, but please give me a chance to learn through relationship. I am extremely grateful for my many Thai friends and neighbors who have taken that risk.
Perhaps some of the residents where you live can relate to these sentiments. Foreigners around the globe, regardless of why they live in a land not their own, are real people. When you meet a struggling immigrant face-to-face in Walmart, I see only one Biblical way to respond—with love. If you’re not sure what that looks like, a smile is a good place to start.
So the next time you see a foreigner grappling with your language or culture, think of me and have compassion for them. With smelly foods, weird customs, and a thick accent to boot, I, too, am a foreigner.
For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. . . . I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.Matthew 25:35-36, 40
Editor’s note- This blog has another post on this passage from Matthew 25, entitled “The least of these“.