At 7am this morning, my cell phone rang. It was Si Hai, a Karen friend who lives in Tennessee. I had tutored her two oldest boys the summer of 2008, when Stephen & I lived in Smyrna, Tennessee, and worked with the Karen community there.
She asked if I was still in Mae Sot, because she was coming for a visit. I said, yes. And she said she’d be visiting on 11.
“The 11th of January?” I asked.
“No, 11 o’clock. I am inBangkok now.”
“Oh! Are you flying or taking the bus?”
“Flying. My flight arrives at 10:50.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll be there!”
And thus, our Sunday didn’t play out as we originally thought. Instead, we were able to pick Si Hai up at the airpot and enjoy a couple hours chatting with her, take her to the market, and then see her off to visit her family outside of Mae Sot.
As we talked, it was so interesting to see the pieces of America she has absorbed in the last eight years. She talked about her job in the county school system, medical insurance and how she drove her boys all around for sports and school activities. She mentioned how they were trying to find ways to make sure family came first, cutting back at work or different activities, so she could be with her boys, who needed her.
It just sounded so American. Even the very concept of family coming first–that’s an American idea. Perhaps for language barriers, but the Karen & Burmese families we know don’t talk about their family priorities–they talk about the community: what the community needs, what their people need. Family doesn’t really come first.
Just to state the obvious, neither is right or wrong–it’s just cultural differences; cultural differences that we’ve now swapped! I wondered as she looked around my house–what were the obvious ways we’ve kept our American culture? I think the Christmas tree might be the most obvious, but probably our matching set of plates and glasses would have made the list. Maybe our shelf of books? In what ways have we adapted, where she could pinpoint the Burmese culture seeping into our lives here?
As we swapped stories, I was struck by the similarity of our lives. In short, we do the same work–only I do it here, where she’s from; and she does it there, where I’m from. We both do our share of medical assistance–filling out forms and arranging appointments on her end; bandaging up wounds and rushing off to clinics that don’t offer appointments on my end. We both help with education–she works for the county school system to help with cross-cultural situations as the Karen students adjust to American life; I am the local bus stop, English teacher, and after-school daycare system. We both have little businesses–she & her husband own an Asian grocery store, and my husband & I help sell Western-style bread all around town.
Our stories were shockingly similar. The cultural challenges we faced were so much the same: she was working to adjust these Karen & Burmese families into American ways, while I am trying to help these Karen & Burmese families despite my American ways! Both of us have gotten caught between the two cultures, with one leg in each, trying to help.
As I dropped her at the public transit station, I left with a smile. I had no idea she would come across my path this Sunday in January, and I had no reason to expect to see her any time soon. However, she was a gift to my day, which apparently God is willing to send from the furthest places.