I get stared at daily. Stares that I feel most often communicate, “What are you doing here?”
I’m a foreigner, so I get it. The stares make sense. The reality is that it’s likely because I’m white. However, I like to think I stand out because I’m a foot taller than most people and I’m quite hairy. I’m well aware I’m hairy, but this is frequently made aware to me when the kids pet me like an animal. Literally, like a dog. It’s hilarious, but that’s beside the point.
What is the point is that it’s quite obvious that I stand out. Standing out isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, but in the instances in where all you want to do is blend in, it feels like the worst thing in the world. I almost always feel like I’m standing alone.
Therefore, it’s quite easy to feel isolated. Not belonging to anything or anyone.
Then you throw in the added bonus of, “Oh yes you don’t speak English and I somewhat speak your language.” This is where I probably feel like I most stand out. It’s in the simple setting of Bible study on Sunday mornings where I’m amongst people my own age, a setting in which I should feel like I belong. But then the inside jokes and nuances and slang found in Thai come out, and I no longer understand. Before I know it, laughter is present due to jokes being told and multiple people at once are talking over one another. I have to concentrate so hard when just one person is speaking Thai, but trying to translate three people talking at once is something I just can’t do. So yet again, I’m feeling isolated. I have become that awkward white guy sitting in the circle just hoping my face doesn’t communicate that I’m lost. It’s a common occurrence feeling this way, yet God has used this in my life.
All of this has caused me to reflect on two things, especially in light of my pending move back to the States. I’ve come to realize how much time and effort it takes to learn a culture and new language. I freely welcome the challenges of navigating a new culture, but I will admit that it’s hard. I have felt frustrated many times. However it hasn’t always been frustration directed at my lack of ability to effectively communicate in Thai, but also frustration directed at myself. In not being able to speak I have asked myself, “Why was I not more effective when I was among English speakers?” Speaking the same language as someone is a gift. I so often want to dive deeper into conversation with people here, but I can’t because I lack the knowledge. I feel incredibly motivated to use my language (English) more effectively, to ask questions, to get to know my neighbors, and simply to just say hi more often. In some ways I feel my voice here has been silenced, which has lead to a genuine desire to be a voice when I can be. The other thing I have reflected on has to do with this feeling of sticking out. Of course I stick out here, I’m a hairy giant with white skin. But what, I return home and rejoin the crowd? It simply bothers me that I have access to such an easy solution to these feelings of isolation. It bothers me because I have been made aware of how easily I overlooked those who “stick out” when I don’t. I too easily enjoyed my ability to blend in, causing me to really overlook and not pay any attention to those who just don’t have it as easy as us White Americans do. I’ve now had a personal experience where I stick out, I don’t know the language, and I am living in a culture that is not my own and it’s hard. Because of this experience, I feel compelled to think about the minority groups in any place that I might live in some day. To pray for them, to seek to understand what they’re going through, but mostly to get to know them. Thai hospitality is incredible and is a huge reason why sticking out here hasn’t always been hard. So I plan to extend that same hospitality, not only to make it easier for that person but because I believe it’s what Jesus would have done. So my plan is this, use my gift of speaking the same language as much as I can, all the while extending a loving hand to those who don’t and making them feel loved and welcome. Stand out when you can and be an agent of peace and unity in all that you do. That’s what my height, hairiness, and deep voice have taught me in my experience of sticking out. And I think that’s cool. Jesus has humbled me hard-core and I praise Him loudly for that.
Let’s bring God’s kingdom here, but more importantly let’s all do it together.