Set a Larger Table
by guest blogger Laurie Meberg
I had never felt more isolated in my life. My family had just moved to a town where we knew only one family. This was my first opportunity to live in a foreign town where I did not have a local community on which to rely. To make matters more isolating, I was a stay at home mom to two girls under the age of three while my husband set up his office in the town center. My shortcomings in the local language limited me further. Finally, I was used to blending into the chaos of an international city and had found myself in a small town where I stuck out more than I had in the city. While I saw the same people every time I went out of the house, they did not seem to recognize me.
My neighbors did not know what to make of this blonde-haired, fair-skinned family who had just moved into their building. They had heard through the grapevine that my husband would be teaching English lessons to take the place of our dear friends in the local language institute. While most of the neighbors and people in our community avoided us as they passed us by – watching us only out of the corners of their eyes – one family in particular took us in. My next-door neighbors and their five teenage daughters were life to me in that season.
Within a week of our arrival, Muzyen and her family greeted us and welcomed us. When I came home from errands, they eagerly kept the kids while I shuttled groceries up the three flights of stairs. Muzyen understood my younger daughter’s nervous cries and stood singing to her in the hallway as they watched me work. When her daughters were home, one of the daughters would keep my girls entertained while I cleaned the house or cooked dinner – teaching them songs, hand-games, and stories. When my family returned from outings and clomped and chattered our way up the stairs, Muzyen’s family would open the door to talk with us and visit with our little kids. Occasionally, on long afternoons, Muzyen would break up the monotony of my day by inviting me for tea. She offered sweet pastries and savory dishes as we fumbled through small-talk and conversation.
I learned through our visits that Muzyen’s husband had recently retired from a career in mining. In their early years of marriage, the couple lived far from their families while Muzyen’s husband worked long shifts in the mines. She spent those years home with little children having to find her own friends and support system but the early years had been very hard. She encouraged me by empathizing with my isolation and welcoming me into her life.
Holidays were the hardest days for me as a foreigner in a strange land. Surprisingly, our own holidays were not so hard. Rather than wallow in self-pity about missing our family, I would find creative ways to make traditional foods, decorate with what we could find, and teach the children about our holidays. While I missed celebrating with our extended family, I would visit with friends in other cities. I found that – rather than our own holidays – the local holidays were harder for me.
As a local holiday drew near, I noticed the community brimming with excitement as everyone prepared for a big event. The neighbors would clean their homes top to bottom – so thoroughly that they would even hang their carpets over the balconies to dry after hand-washing them. The community scoured the local markets and stores for specialty foods they would use for traditional meals, toys to give their children, and outfits to wear for the festivities. Furthermore, people stocked up their kitchens as shops would be closed for a few days.
While some ex-pats might take this as an opportunity to relax and stay home, I could not. Despite my introversion, I longed to be part of the festivities. I too wanted a reason to cook, clean, shop, and visit – anticipation that transformed the routine.
Muzyen knew what it was to be an outsider. Because of that, she invited us to join her family’s festivities. One of the more intimate components of their celebrations was a breakfast to break their fast. Muzyen had already graciously included our family at a few of their iftar dinner meals. The breakfast marked the beginning of a three-day celebration. This was more of a family affair. Normally new friends or neighbors might visit on the third day, but in my observation not typically the first breakfast.
Muzyen taught me a lesson that day. She modeled for me how to be a neighbor and how to be a friend. There were not elaborate schemes or agendas hidden in her invitation – rather a simple invitation from one woman who had experienced isolation to another woman who was in the midst of it. She had no idea that some of her traditional foods were similar to those of my grandparents and she had no idea how honored I was to be included. She expanded her table, added four plates, and welcomed us in – not as strangers but as if we belonged.
I have applied this lesson many times in the past ten years. How hard is it for me to welcome a newcomer to our celebrations? Being a newcomer is lonely. But to welcome a newcomer in speaks volumes.
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English Learner Portal January 2018