Belonging where I thought I’d never be

Today marks a year in Mytown. One whole year. I baked cookies for my landlord this morning and she gawked at me. “One year already?” I’ve always been here, I think. And yet with every past event, why is there that conflicting perception of time? My years in North Africa and Immigrantville have faded into black and white mental photographs unless I pause long enough to remember them. 

Today, I paused over some ISU memories.

When I heard about the study abroad program in Andalusia, Spain, I wasn’t interested. I was heading to the southern border, not overseas. I tilted my college projects, volunteer hours, and self study toward my goal. 

Within my program, there was a clear divide between those who had studied abroad and those who had not, the “in” and “out” groups (as much as students are “in” and “out” at state universities). Those who had studied abroad re-lived their together memories and savored their “thaythayo” (what to the rest of us just sounded like a bad lisp).

Latin America was my first love and always will be. First loves don’t change. But they lose a bit of their potency when you fall in love again. And I have. This time, ironically, with Andalusia.

How did that even happen?

The other night, I met a Peruvian lady in the park. I delighted in her gentle Spanish and warm, generous culture. A year ago, that interaction would have stirred in me a longing for where I was not. But now?

I could spiritualize this. I could say that God has tuned my heart to contentment, even if my life isn’t what I had pictured. But that isn’t true, at least not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

My acceptance of where I am right now is more about familiarity, belonging.

Years ago, I found my place in Latino culture. I never planned to rupture that sense of familiarity, safety, and home. But then I moved to Andalusia where the blend of cultures in this huge immigrant community reinforced my outsider complex; it showed me my “un”– how un-Andalusian and how un-North African I was. How “un” everyone else around me.

But time marched on, as it usually does. I began to taste the many flavors of my community and realized that I simultaneously do and don’t fit in on account of my being different, just like everyone else. 

The blend of us–Spaniards, North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Pakistanis, Russians, Romanians, South Americans, Chinese (to name the most prominent)–can be overwhelming sometimes, but each culture adds a subtle note that the community would miss were it not there.

On Sunday, three of us neighbors stood in a neighbor’s kitchen, chatting about our far away families. I belonged just as much as they did. And this belonging is my new familiarity.

No, my life is not what I had expected, but I can say that it is essentially what I had hoped for.

So today marks one year in Mytown and more than four years in Andalusia. I cradle this fragile bit of geographical belonging in my hands and am grateful. God has given me this earthly gift not to distract me from Him, but to direct me to His heart where I find belonging that will “belong” me no matter where I am in the world.

Day of green

I took a vacation day to get out of town and soak in some green. Most of the immigrants got off the bus at the Mytown stop. An assorted crew of elderly Spaniards remained, talking like they all knew each other. Maybe they did. Then there was me, who probably left them wondering if I had missed my stop.

The weather was gorgeous, but I forgot how long the hike was from the bus stop. I also forgot just how intense the Spanish sun can be when you’re hiking uphill. I was sweaty when I finally parked myself under a tree to revive myself with L.M. Montgomery and roasted almonds.

The park was quiet, only the occasional picnickers and the North African couples who came to do their illicit smooching (who I tried to avoid until I decided that they should be avoiding me).

Winding down the mountain on the bus ride home, I was staring out the window at the departing green when I realized that the bus radio was playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” The refrain (however monotonous) was a fitting closure to a morning that had sent me back to my country girl roots.

Why I don’t understand white

While I was working my way through college, I cleaned a doctor’s mansion that needed this floor cleaned with vinegar and that one cleaned with mopping solution and the other one wiped dry, and well, yes. 

I hated cleaning (and still do), but I did it for the money, considering it a comfort issue rather than a class distinction. Then one day, I overheard the doctor telling her friend that she didn’t really need a cleaning lady but, “They need work.” 

They?

I’ve carried that with me for years as a reminder of the lines that people draw between “us” and “them.” The lines that I draw.

“I think I finally saw a little bit of what you see every day,” I told a Latino co-worker later that weekend. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember he acted embarrassed that I, a white middle-class American, even wanted to discuss discrimination.

How can I really understand white privilege when I’m living it? When I stepped out of my white world and moved to North Africa, I began to have an inkling of the disparity between white and other colors. North Africans love foreigners… Well, they loved me and I was white. Now, in a Spanish province chock-full of immigrants, I’m not blind to how immigration officials relax when they see my blue passport. 

“Are you looking for an apartment for you?” one realtor asked during my apartment hunt. “Because if it’s for an Arab, I have nothing.”

“It’s for me,” I assured him, startled by the blatant discrimination. What would it be like to taste rejection on account of my skin color or my nationality? I honestly had no idea.

The occasional Spaniard lumps me in with the North African crowd, and not in a good way. In those times, my blazing internal response runs along the lines of, “How dare they?! They don’t know me well enough to judge me!” 

True. They don’t. But my subconscious assumption is, “If they only knew who I was, they would treat me better than this.” If they only knew I was white because white deserves special treatment. 

How I hate that I subconsciously believe this! Yet, it’s not hard when it’s all I’ve ever known. 

I’ve been watching other immigrants and I wonder. While I am busy taking offense at any implication of discrimination, I see most Arabs and sub-Saharans accepting it as a matter of course. They’re used to being used and unwanted. 

I’m not. Has the special treatment of whites the world around made me more fragile, more threatened by opposition? I say this because I am weak, I am white, and I wonder.

Welcome to Mytown

Nobody told me “Welcome to Mytown.” I had to interpret their welcome in other ways. 

Most don’t seem to know in which box to put me. So they gawk. Is this some weird North African-Spanish hybrid? Romanian? Russian? In small-town Immigrantville, people knew where I belonged, but in Mytown, a larger city, they don’t.

Sometimes, I enjoy shocking people. Once, I walked into a halal butcher shop and greeted the owner in Arabic. He began a lively exchange, incredulously. Arabs are varied enough that though light complexions are not common, neither are they impossible. Sometimes Arabs just assume I’m a rare breed of themselves. “Syrian? Palestinian?”

But other times, people can be downright rude. While I was waiting at the bus station with an Asian friend, a man sauntered over. He deliberately stopped in front of us but said nothing, just eavesdropped. After my friend left, he and two of his buddies approached me.

“Where are you going?”

“Where are you from?”

“Where is your friend from?”

And then, “What you don’t find in Mytown!” as if I, apparently a freak of geography, weren’t standing right in front of them.

Once, I stopped by the café next door to drop off something for the owner. My unanticipated entrance startled the old men circling tables of dominoes. As I walked out only seconds later, the rowdy conversation had ceased. The only sound was the clink, clink of dominoes.

Although I still don’t know them well, my neighbors have been fabulous (except one), offering to help me with things, greeting me on the streets, holding doors open for me, and so on. One gave me a watermelon when I happened upon him rolling watermelons to the front door. 

“You want watermelon? You have a family? Children? Take some!”

I imagined myself rolling little watermelons through the front door to the elevator like he was doing. “Thank you. Just one.”

“Just put it over there,” he suggested, probably because he didn’t want me squeezing into the elevator with him and the watermelons that wobbled around his feet. “No one will take it,” he assured me. 

I balanced my watermelon on top of the apartment mailboxes, confident that he was right. We were both wrong and I never saw my watermelon again. But that same night, a neighbor asked me to drop by and pick up some sweets she had made me. Those fried balls of dough dripping with honey were sweeter than the watermelon in more ways than one. 

My acclimation to Mytown is taking longer than I had anticipated. When I mentioned this to a woman at the bus station, she peered at me over her glasses and explained that I shouldn’t just be friendly to everyone I meet because there is no reason to trust them. You have to grow your friend base slowly and carefully, she said.

If this is how people think, no wonder they greet my persistent friendliness with suspicious stares!

Then, still watching me over her glasses, the woman said, “I’ve been living in Murcia for 16 years and I still haven’t grown used to it.” Well then, I guess 3 months isn’t so bad.

Recommended books for you

Merry Christmas everyone! A day late and a euro short, perhaps, but who wanted to sit down and read my blog yesterday anyway?

As 2019 closes, I decided to give you a few recommendations from my 2019 reading list. This is just a list; if you want to know more about a particular book, check out the link provided. 

Spiritual Enrichment

No God But One: Allah or Jesus? by Nabeel Qureshi. I have always appreciated Qureshi’s gentle but uncompromising approach to rift between Islam and Christianity.

The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken. This book is full of stories of God at work in the hardest places on earth. I also recommend The Insanity of Obedience

Every Bitter Thing is Sweet by Sara Hagerty is a true journey woven with story and reflection. This book helped me on my journey, realizing that God, in His love and sovereignty, wants to make the bitter times sweet times as we cling to Him.

Memoir / Non-Fiction

Behind the Veils of Yemen by Audra Grace Shelby. A peek into one woman’s life as she struggles to maintain her faith in Christ in the midst of conservative Islam. The author’s honesty about her struggles makes this book a gem, especially if you’ve worked in a similar setting.

My Name is Mahtob by Mahtob Mahmoody. Mahtob’s version of what happened in Not Without My Daughter. This fascinating book begins with a child’s perspective as she grapples with love, fear, anger, and forgiveness. 

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield is a woman’s journey to faith in Jesus.  Interesting and challenging. Although I didn’t read it this year, I also recommend her book on hospitality, The Gospel Comes with a House Key.

Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber is a fantastic memoir. I don’t think I can explain why exactly. Although the author and I don’t have similar stories, this memoir hit many warm and familiar spots for me. Check it out for yourself.

Fiction

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. A story of a Muslim immigrant family in America. Although the work is fiction, the story is real. Today, many immigrant families deal with the shifting worldview between generations of immigrants, Islam mingling with the forbidden, honor and shame, etc. A teammate bought me this book and I’m glad she did!

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. This is a free Kindle book that is worth much more than you’ll pay for it. It’s cute. It’s fun. It’s fiction. If you like it, note that the sequel, Dear Enemy, is also worth downloading. 

That’s all until next year! Lord willing, tomorrow at this time, I should be suspended somewhere between Madrid and Chicago. I can’t wait. You probably won’t be hearing from me for a few weeks. 🙂 

Lost in the system- Part 2

Continued from Part 1

F-7. That was my number. There again in the place I would love to bid goodbye forever.

We were all scanned in, checked in, and trapped. Waiting for that computerized voice to say “H-65” or “F-7.” Not that we heard the voice against the background of a hundred other voices; it was just a reminder to check the screen.

The room was heavy with anxiety and stale cigarette smoke on winter clothes. We were different colors. Different nationalities. But all in the dilemma of surviving the system.

An hour passed. Another hour buried in a legal system. This time to get permission to leave and re-enter the country while Spain ate up months processing my application. My paperwork, started in October, was now complete until they mailed me a list of more documents to wring out of someone somewhere. But if I left the country without special permission, I would have trouble re-entering.

“You need to fill out a form, give me copies of your card, your passport, and this other form, and pay a tax.”
“Is this completely necessary?”
“Where are you going?”
“Africa.”
“Absolutely.”
“And I can’t get this done today?”
She looked at her clock. “Not today. Come back tomorrow!”

I couldn’t decide if I wanted to reach across the desk and grab her by the neck or simply burst into tears. Lost in indecision, I did neither until I was dismissed.

Out on the street, I fumed, determined to leave Spain forever. I was tired of these daily trips to immigration offices. Tired of being an immigrant! Eventually, I calmed down and rearranged my schedule to fit in two more trips to the immigration office, gritting my teeth as I crossed off the rest of life to make room.

But something happened when I stopped fighting for my schedule and opened my heart to joy. Something happened when I stopped wishing I could be somewhere other than where I was and embraced the present, bumps and all.

The world began to brighten. Not much. But a shade enough to make a difference.

Even more discouraging than being lost in the immigration system was being lost in the system of discouragement. After all, when we reject the gift of joy, we reject the strength we need for daily life. Check out Nehemiah 8:10 if you doubt it.

On the way home from my final trip to the immigration office, I met up with an acquaintance. I squeezed her little girl close as we bounced home together on the bus, letting uninhibited, contagious giggles complete the joy of the present.

Lost in the system- Part 1

I have been lost in a system I can never hope to understand. Once, an immigration official told me, “Immigration is the part of government that changes the most.”

No kidding.

The letter in the mail. The journey to the immigration office in Almería to request information.

“You need a new invitation to work.”
“And a new empadronamiento?”
“No, you don’t need that unless you’ve moved. But you have to turn your paperwork in to Immigrantville, not here in Almería.”
“Where in Immigrantville?”
He gave a vague answer that told me he had no idea.

So I put in a request for a new invitation to work and waited and waited. Weeks later, it came. We signed and sent it off. The same papers came a second time, requesting signatures again.

“What happened?”
“I don’t know. My guess is some little old lady working in the office lost your papers.”

So we started again. And waited again.

I wasn’t sure where this elusive Immigrantville immigration office was, but one morning I started out across town with a vague notion, a handful of papers, and a trembling aloneness.

“You need an appointment.”
I stood, almost panting after my 45 minute walk. “When?”
“Right now we’re scheduling in December…”
“My card expires in November.”
“Oh, well you should have come sooner.”

But she squeezed me in just after the weekend. Another 1½ hour round trip on Monday. This time I was at least 50% sure I was in the right place. If I wasn’t, I would have to start all over somewhere else.

I waited an hour with a cluster of Senegalese men, listening to Wolof and crocheting. Round after round of crochet as my hope dwindled.

“Could I borrow a scissors?”
The receptionist gawked at my amateur square of yarn. “Of course.”

Finally, I was across the desk from a lady who was late for her lunch break. But she was the one who actually knew something.

“You need a new empadronamiento.”
“But the man in Almería told me…”
“It expires after 3 months.”
“I know. But the man told me…”
She shook her head. “Sorry. You need a new one.”

She offered to keep my paperwork until I made my next trip.

In the morning, I was the first client at town hall, one half hour before opening. Within 2 minutes, I had a new empadronamiento. Within 20 minutes, I was presenting it at the immigration office.

A friend stopped by and sat with me while I waited for the process to be finalized: another 45 minutes for that tiny stamp in the corner of my form that said I was still a legal immigrant.

“Lost in the system” to be continued in part 2…

Birth certificates and cookie crumbs

It took 45 minutes to walk to town hall. Naima had told me she would meet me there. She was so slow in coming that I almost gave up. But it was a pleasant morning. There was shade and a nice breeze.

Suddenly she appeared, three children in tow. Only Curly Top, the littlest, was her own; the older two belonged to a neighbor. The younger neighbor girl gave me a grin so big that it took up the bottom half of her face.

Naima had tried to call me to change the meeting place, but I hadn’t answered, she said. We left it at that and walked together to a little building on the end of town.

“What do you need here?” I was the designated interpreter. But that could only happen if I understood what I was supposed to interpret. Naima tried to type the unknown Arabic word into my translator, but didn’t know how to spell it.

We entered the building, just large enough for a few offices that didn’t look strikingly official.  A sign said to ask for a number, so I snagged a wandering employee. “A number please?” By the time he found a number and brought it to me, it was my turn.

But I still didn’t know what Naima needed.

I sat across from a gruff man at a desk. “What do you need?” His voice matched his expression.

“I don’t know.” I handed him my friend’s family book and he paged through it.

“What do you need?” he asked again.

“My friend needs two of something for her daughter, but I don’t know the word in Arabic, so I don’t know what to say in Spanish. She is trying to call her husband now.”

The gruff features twisted. “A birth certificate?”

“Is that what you have here?”

“Yes, and that’s all we have for her daughter.”

So while he printed the documents, he asked if I was evangelical and then launched into a one-sided discussion about Mormons. Mormons?

BANG! went the rubber stamp. BANG! BANG! BANG! He signed the documents with such scribbled flourish that it may have looked more natural had he been using a crayon on a coloring page.

“Where are you from?”

“The United States.”

“Trump. A lot of people angry that he doesn’t like immigrants.”

I sighed. Yes, but didn’t every country have its problems and weren’t there any problems in Spain?

Another one-sided discussion ensued that gave me a vague sensation of having made my point. He walked me to the door, still talking, and watched our little gang leave the odd little office.

Naima invited me up to her flat where I tried to translate a medical questionnaire that dizzied my brain. Naima sat on the arm of the couch and swatted away the little girls when they reached for the papers in my lap.

“Is it normal for your child to have high fevers?”

“No. She only has fevers when she’s teething. Have lunch with us.” Naima got up to start lunch preparations.

I couldn’t, but thank you. Another time, Lord willing.

“In my culture, when a guest comes to my house it’s shameful not to give them any food.” Naima packed up a container of olives she had brought back from her country.

I joined her in the kitchen area and watched her carefully wrap the container of olives in a plastic bag.

Curly Top was walking around the floor on her knees, sprinkling bread and cookie crumbs wherever she went, like a miniature Hansel and Gretel. Big Smile was claiming ownership of everything that wasn’t hers—my bag, Curly Top’s toys, a plate of cookies. I watched as she carefully stuck her foot into a pair of Curly Top’s pants, only about 3 years too small.

Naima took me to the elevator, leaving the flat door wide open and crumby children sprinkled along the hallway. I hit “0” and the elevator door closed.

When a day starts, I never know what to expect. But I kinda like that.

Spanish with the nuns

Buried in my neighborhood is a tiny green door that leads to a tiled courtyard full of vibrant plants. Charming little rooms surround the tiled courtyard, completing the charming little haven.

In one room, there is a set of five sewing machines. Four treadle. One electric.

In another room, there is a plastic table with accompanying plastic chairs and a rough blackboard.

This is a sewing and Spanish school for immigrants. It is managed by nuns. A friend brought me along to class one day to see if I could enroll.

The first time I met the nuns, I had to bend over at the waist to greet them with kisses on their dainty little faces. Only one seemed more than five feet tall. And not one of them was under seventy. Maybe eighty.

I was captivated. “Is it possible to sign up for Spanish class?” I gripped my friend’s elbow as I awaited the nuns’ answer.

It was possible. After Semana Santa, I officially enrolled for the final trimester of the school year. (And by officially enrolling, I mean that I jotted my information on a scrap of notebook paper.)

On the first day of class—a lesson of body parts vocabulary—the teacher chalked a stick figure on the board with a rectangular trunk. For good measure, she placed a few wild curls on the faceless head to classify the figure as “female.”

During class, the figure was blessed with a chalky esophagus. No other organ required equal visual explanation, so the figure proudly sported her solitary organ until the end of class. And as the teacher erased both the figure and her esophagus, we students trickled out of the shadowy room and into the blast of sunlight that spread across the courtyard.

Since then, class has brought me in close contact with other immigrants as we reveal tidbits of our lives in choppy Spanish and laugh about our language woes. We share struggle and community. We even share goods: sometimes we carry home peppers, cucumbers, handcrafted sewing class projects, or even potted plants.

As the final trimester enters the final month, attendance has dwindled as most of the women fast for Ramadan.

The first and second hour classes combined and I suddenly found myself in a class of women who struggle with pronouns and simple verbs. But the energy and fun we have together is rewarding enough for me.

Yesterday, while practicing the structure “I like,” a classmate smiled and said, “I like Trish’s face.”

“Yes, yes,” agreed the teacher. “Trish has a nice face.”

The other students murmured their agreement and admired my reddening cheeks. Until, for lack of a Spanish equivalent, I burst out the Arabic expression, “God be blessed!”