Wednesday, November 25, 2015

When I Was the Foreigner Who Was Welcomed

Our family called central western China “home” for the last 4 1 /2 years, and we experienced incredible warmth and hospitality there. We were befriended by compassionate, openhearted Muslims who took a risk to welcome us--pale-skinned foreigners of a different culture and religion. Muslim friends who chose to set aside their unflattering stereotypes of Americans to find out who we really were, inside. I'd like to introduce you to Hua, with the hope that a better understanding of our Christian-Muslim friendship might help to tear down the unflattering stereotype of Muslims in our world today. With the desire that our society would not be so divided by Us and Them. Could we work on getting rid of the logs in order to see more clearly?

“May we try to understand them as we in turn would like to be understood...May we see with their eyes, think with their minds, feel with their hearts. Then let us ask ourselves whether we should judge them...” (William Barclay) 

I feel compelled to write this post because I believe that it is a real tragedy when terrorists wave the banner of Islam and perform incomprehensible acts of violence. All of the Muslims I know are just as horrified by recent world events as all of the non-Muslims I know. And probably even more so, because these events have negatively affected the way many non-Muslims view Islam. It has been heartbreaking to see that in the aftermath of these recent tragedies, people have erected fearful walls of self-protection and have focused efforts to keep the refugee victims of ISIS out. I read last week that one of our presidential candidates publicly stated that we should only allow Christian Syrian refugees into our country. It is so difficult for me to understand that kind of rationale.

I met Hua a few months after our move from Tianjin to Lanzhou in 2011. Our family was out on a walk one Sunday and I overheard her urging her 4 year old son Musa (Moses) to walk closer to us so he could practice his English. As I slowed my pace and fell into step beside them, I was encouraged to discover that her Mandarin was more clear than that of anyone I had met so far in our new city. I asked for her phone number before we parted, and we began meeting regularly to go shopping together. She invited me to come to the Arabic school where she worked as a janitor, and then later to the preschool where she worked as a cook. She took me to the basement of the big shopping center in our area to the dried fruit and nut stand where her mother worked and then to the sock stand where her cousin worked, so that I could chat with her relatives while we sipped tea together.

She was excited to get to meet my sister when she visited us in China two summers ago, and asked if she could invite her younger sister over as well. Through translated conversation our two sisters shared about differences and similarities in their jobs as elementary school teachers.


Hua helped me to understand and appreciate the way she practiced Muslim customs. Like how and when she would pray for the souls of deceased loved ones and honor them on the anniversary of their deaths. Like what she prayed in her heart when she gave money to beggars on the street. She was also interested in hearing about how I practiced my American Christian customs. And she told me that I had changed her stereotype of the immoral and immodest American woman that came from watching American movies. She noticed when I started wearing long sleeves (in the summer) and told me approvingly that I had grown more aware of the importance of modesty in their culture.

As we would weave our way along the crowded sidewalks, she would often link her arm in mine. Sometimes she would squeeze my upper arm and tell me that I hadn't been exercising enough. Other times she would tell me that she thought I was too thin. That was her way of showing her love and concern for me. She introduced me to her favorite halal street food (and I was glad that I liked most of it). When we needed to risk our lives and cross the busy street, she would boldly position herself on the side closest to the crazy traffic, otherwise she said we would never get across because I was too afraid to make that first step.

Our conversations included marriage and parenting issues, our dreams for the future, and the difference that faith makes in our lives. Hua told me the story of her arranged marriage when she was 18, and said that because she had complete trust in her father who picked out her husband for her, she wasn't afraid to marry a man she didn't know. Because Hua's husband is the youngest son in his family, according to tradition, his widowed mother is part of their marriage package and has lived with them from day one. Hua's rocky relationship with her mother-in-law has been one of her biggest challenges, and I never visited Hua's home because her mother-in-law didn't allow her to have guests over.

But Hua enjoyed coming to our apartment and often brought her son Musa and daughter Mayan (Miriam) to play games with our kids. She always brought lots of fresh fruit when she came. Unfortunately, we didn't get to spend much time with her husband because he worked the night shift and slept during the day. We were thankful that Hua showed up to help us with our last-minute packing and cleaning on the very hectic day that we moved out in June. She carried our final bags of trash to our garbage chute, and she was our last friend in Lanzhou to wave goodbye to us as we wheeled our luggage toward the bus stop, headed for the train station.

During the four years that I was blessed to know Hua, I was touched by her compassion and her authenticity. And that she always called me her older sister.

I hope to follow her example and welcome foreigners—of a different culture and religion--in the same way that she welcomed me.
 


8 comments:

  1. I'm hearing such a mixture of very opposite ideas on the subject of immigrants, etc. and I appreciate this reminder to think how we would feel, if we wanted to live in their country or be their neighbours and were rejected. Knowing people personally (vs hearing stereotypes on the news) makes such a huge difference! Also, some pretty terrible things have been done in the name of our faith, and we don't want to be associated with those people, just like your friend wouldn't want to be associated with ISIS!

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    1. Julie, Exactly. I was thinking the same thing about horrible acts committed by people who call themselves Christian. In general, it's like throwing mud on a whole group of people. But in the current situation, the consequences are so much greater than just having a "bad name." In a conversation with friends about this topic last night, my oldest son (who has been involved in the Syrian refugee crisis) shared how hard it is to see refugees' lives hanging in the balance right now by politics.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your story and linking to Velvet Ashes, Jodie. I wonder how different the world would be if each person would befriend even one person who is unlike them in a significant way.

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    1. Thanks, Patty. I agree that our world could be such a different place if we all befriended even one person from a completely different background. I really appreciated the challenge in your post about taking brave steps out of our comfort zone.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this story. I feel that as a whole we want to group people as "evil" or not and it doesn't allow us to get to know each other. Thank you for breaking down some fear and opening our hearts to Hua

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    1. Davis Family, Thanks for reading and sharing. It is a real encouragement to me that some fear can be broken down through getting to know Hua. That was my hope!

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  4. What a wonderful post about a beautiful relationship! One of my favorite parts about living overseas is the relationships formed with people that are so similar yet so different from me!

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    1. Thanks so much for your encouragement! Asking God's blessing on you and your friendships with those who are similar-yet-different.

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