The outdoor market looked both inviting and intimidating. I had dropped my kids off at their new school and my next goal was to buy breakfast for myself.
I closed my eyes and pictured myself just two months earlier, pushing my cart along the brightly lit aisles of my local grocery store in Rockville, Maryland. I could find everything I needed, even in the produce department. Rip a bag off of the little stand and fill it with apples, oranges, potatoes or green beans, even strawberries in the winter.
I opened my eyes and I stood in a chilly open air market in a foreign country more than 4000 miles from Rockville. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know the process for this kind of market shopping. I didn’t have my own shopping bag. And I didn’t have the kids with me as a buffer to hide my lonely ineptitude for procuring produce in the Czech Republic.
Our little family was not just passing through on a holiday. This country was to be our home for the next few years. I was the Mom, the one who sustained our existence while the Dad was helping the businesses of this former Communist country figure out Capitalism. I needed to get it together before our air shipment of mac and cheese, tuna, pop tarts and fruit rollups ran out.
I picked up a small orange, and like a toddler just learning to speak, I directed a couple of strange sounding words that I had practiced toward the man who appeared to be the vendor.
He shook his head, said something unintelligible and went back to unloading the produce.
Nervous, homesick and trying not to cry, I persisted, asking once more how much for this small orange that didn’t even look that good.
He glared, repeated the (to me) gibberish and kept unloading. On the third try, I held up a coin along with the orange.
Thinking perhaps that I had escaped from some nearby asylum, he grabbed the coin and gestured for me to be on my way.
I took my orange and left. Shame, fear, anxiety and embarrassment flooded through my still jet-lagged body as I realized too late that he was telling me the market was not yet open. I wanted more than anything to find my way back home.
I can hear the fruit guy now, complaining to his wife when he got home that evening. “If she’s going to live here, she needs to learn the language!”
And I can hear those words here. “We need to make English the official language of the United States! If people are living here they better speak English! We shouldn’t have to print instructions in different languages. Tough shit if they can’t figure out how to get a driver’s license! Build a wall! Keep them out!”
Our fear and distrust of those that are different from us seems to be running high these days, at least from some factions here in the U.S. It’s no wonder that Americans bear the label “Ugly American” when they travel outside of their own border. Even away from home we expect people to understand our language. We also expect ice in our drinks and free refills.
What are we so afraid of? I am more afraid of those who fear and despise diversity and anything foreign than those who are different from us. Don’t they know how unattractive their anger, hatred and intolerance makes them? Don’t they get bored hanging around those that are just like them?
I have worn the shoes of a young woman living in a country where she doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know how to navigate the bureaucracy, where she doesn’t know how to sign her kids up for sports and doesn’t know how to find a doctor who will understand her.
Those shoes are damn uncomfortable.
They don’t have to remain uncomfortable. Those shoes can be broken in over time with care, compassion and bridges of connection, not walls of separation.