Being an immigrant is a peculiar way of living. Well, at least for me it is. As an immigrant, my life has its own unique challenges, but one of the simplest to overcome has been the language barrier. Yet no matter how much I speak and write in English, there are still details of the language tied to the culture itself, an innate sense you develop as you grow up soaking in English. And sometimes I can’t catch those details you take for granted. So words with multiple connotations may blind me or fly by me. Missing those details can create some confusion but also some humorous moments.
I remember when I first read an article about the population of Hawaii. My English at the time was not as good as it is now. The article gave some statistical details about Caucasians living in Hawaii, and my first thought was how so many people from Caucasus ended up in Hawaii? Since I actually grew up in Caucasus, I wondered why I had never heard about this large diaspora in this far away state. My curiosity about people from my region living in Hawaii ended cold when a friend explained that in the US Caucasian is another way of saying — what? — white person?
But the language challenge is only the tip of the iceberg. Just diving a few feet deep, I ran into another challenge: cultural norms and assumptions. For example, I learned that when people in America give you a present, they expect you to open it in their presence and say thank you or acknowledge what they did. I was reluctant to open gifts because in the society I grew up in, it was a no-no. I was used to opening the presents after the giver had left. Here in America, it’s exactly the opposite. That took some time getting used to.
Diving more into the culture, you run into challenges that you can’t even recognize at first. Like people smiling even though it really doesn’t mean anything. Or people saying, “How do you do?” but not expecting you to actually tell them how you are doing in life.
I guess because the immigrant experience teaches you certain deep truths about life, God laid down this pattern of immigration into the Bible.
God called on Abraham to be an immigrant. He left Haran and ended up in Canaan, a land away from his parents. His children were second-generation immigrants. I wonder what Abraham learned living among people whose culture was different from his own. Trust in God? Hope for the future? Value of all cultures? Sin infesting all humans without regard to their culture? Imago Dei hidden in every one? A variety of perspectives yet our blind privileging of our own?
His children became immigrants in Egypt. Let’s call them “resident aliens,” shall we? Even when these “resident aliens” returned to the land where Abraham had lived, they were immigrants. What did they learn? Was there a mutual blessing between them and the locals? Or wars?
The apostle Paul was born and lived in an immigrant family. He was a Jew from Tarsus, the Greek city. Because he kept to the law, spoke Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic, the language of his parents, we can assume that he retained elements of his culture as many second- or third-generation immigrants do. What did living an immigrant life give to Paul? Read his letters, and you will find some insights from his immigrant life.
All this is to say that being an immigrant can be a blessing. It is a blessing not because people settle down, make a living, and find their paths in the new country although all those things matter as part of their blessings. Primarily, it is a blessing because being an immigrant brings forth many perspectives, a new layer of knowledge, and experiences that non-immigrants lack. It puts a new spin on our relationship with God.
This blessing is not just for immigrants. It is a shared blessing because the accepting country that receives the privilege from God to be a new home receives a blessing too. Don’t you think God could have chosen to take Abraham, say, to Mount Ararat?
Before coming to America, I never wrestled with questions of culture and faith or the presence of God in other faiths and to other people. I never understood the immigrants in my own nation who were struggling with challenges only they could understand. Now I can identify with people from other nations much more easily. I have received many blessings in this nation.
I hope I have been a blessing to my American and non-American friends too.
But being an immigrant can also be a challenge. It is a double-edged sword: if you wield it wrong, it may hurt you or others or the nation where you live. Being an immigrant for some people is like living in a prison from which they can’t escape. For various reasons, many immigrants can experience alienation and have a difficult time to fit in.
The Bible speaks about times when immigration turned out to be a curse for a certain group. The very same people who left Canaan for Egypt lived a miserable immigrant life after Joseph’s death until God saved them.
Being an immigrant can be a punishment by God. The scripture tells us how God sent the ancient Hebrews into exile because of their unfaithfulness. In Babylon and Assyria, they had to carry their own cross. The Book of Lamentations is a living witness to their life in exile.
Simply put, we can’t characterize immigration and immigrants with simple, sweeping, and generic words. As Christians, it is our job to be hospitable, loving, and sharing. We are called to leave the rest in God’s hands. It is God who decides why he brings one person into a blessed life in a new country and another into a life full of challenges. We can speculate about each case, but I would prefer to follow the scripture’s clearer and sharper patterns when it comes to immigrants: love, be hospitable, and be just. Leave the rest to God’s mystery. Beyond that is a word game.
So what should you do the next time you have a chance to talk to an immigrant? Below are three easy tips to enrich your interaction and make it memorable.
1.Be open: learn from her experiences, and help her learn from you.
All immigrants experience some kind of tension with the local culture. No matter how long they have lived in the receiving nation, there are certain things about the language, the culture, and the people that may still cause confusion and stress. Just imagine a person who grew up in a country free of racism who now experiences subtle forms of it in the US.
But you can also learn from an immigrant’s experience. The angle and the fresh approach you may find in her experiences can energize your day.
2.Share with her any blessings you have, and receive any blessings she may give.
A little but real smile or a simple “hello” can be a blessing. To share a coffee and cheer up a fragile spirit can be blessing. The challenge of it is to resist the temptation of patronizing the person.
I think people can overcome the temptation by remembering that as they bless, they can also receive blessings from an immigrant. Whether it is an insight or a time spent together, they more often than not will have something with which to bless you.
3.Find traces of Imago Dei in an immigrant.
This is something I’m keen about. Practice finding traces of Imago Dei in immigrants. I’m saying “traces” not because you are fully an image of God, and they are not. I say “traces” because in a fallen world, all of us without regard to our status have only traces of God’s image. We lost it a long time ago in our disobedience to Creator who gave us the gift.
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But you can find traces. These traces can be unusual habits that can inspire you — such as really taking an interest in someone’s life and asking how she, her family, and her parents are. Or it can be a challenging insight that propels you to do good.