Sunday, February 21, 2010


So we've been here about half a year, we should be feeling relatively competent, right? Maybe.
I've heard some great comparisons between entering a new culture and restarting childhood. As the months have passed we've tottered through and "grown up" a bit. I can decide where I want to go and how I'll get there. I know my Bolivian ID number. I can take myself to the doctor. I can take responsibility for the work I do and bring new ideas to the table. Of course, culture is like an iceburg and there's a lot that I have yet to realize is there, let alone adapt to, but over all I finally feel more likea "big girl" in Bolivia...except for one big glaring obnoxious hole: the language.

Yes, I know, I teach in Spanish, translate letters between girls and their sponsors, translate documents and emails, make small talk with strangers on busses...I'm not exactly incompetent. But every once in awhile, I get slammed with a situation that makes me feel incredibly child-like. The other day I was at a meeting with the sisters and they read a letter from the rector-major that I understood perfectly. After they finished the director of the community asked me a question about it and I just sat there for a good thirty seconds, completely oblivious that a question had even been posed to me, let alone what it was. Why was everyone looking at me? What just happened? Finally I stammered out an irrelevant and vague answer and tried not to stare to helplessly at Hermana Ellie sitting next to me who had clued me in by whispering "you're turn, Niki. Talk!" Of course, my image of competence was totally blown at that point when it appeared that I did not even understand the letter we had been reading pieces from for three days in a row. Damn.

The superior of formation of the entire order is visiting from El Salvador in place of the Mother Superior and she and I have had some passing small talk during her visit. Knowing that my language still isn't the best I can't help but feel a little intimidated when we talk, which certianly doesn't help me understand her any better. The other day she came up to me at a party and asked if I had been thinking about what she had told me. Um...what? Sure...of course...every day? Great then. For how long? The year or longer? In Bolivia or El Salvador? How did my family feel about it? And don't worry, we can arrange it with the mother superior. WHAT!? What did I just do!? Damn my mono-lingual ears! The next day in mass, she came to my pew after communion. Oh my gosh, please God don't let her be here to talk to me! So I did the best thing I could think of...I ran away while she was praying. That's right. I'm a coward and hid from a nun because I didn't feel like speaking Spanish...or being invited to move to El Salvador again.

I used to be a competent, articulate, confident person. Last week I ran away from a nun. There seems to be a bit of a contrast here. Cross cultural work is tough, friends. You have to give up a lot of your abilities and power. I'm not bold in Spanish. I'm not tactful or intelligent either and I'm definitely not witty. Maybe I wasn't overwhelmingly any of those things in English either, but I at least had a shot. That's okay though. There's a parable in Matthew about a merchant who discovers a pearl of great value and sells everything he has to buy it. It seems silly. Why would you give up your security, your status, the things you've worked hard for, for a pearl? Because it's that good, and you know it's that good. Why would you give up your confidence, your competence, your image of composure to come to Bolivia and stammer and stumble through your day like a confused little kid? Because God's call is a treasure of infinite value. It's that good, and despite the frustration and embarrasment and fatigue, I know it's that good. Praise God for the things in our lives that are worth sacrificing (even our language) for.

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