An appreciation of diversity was learned at our kitchen table. A first generation American of Dutch decent, Dad found employment at a local printing company and later was promoted to a supervisory position. The 1960’s brought so much social change including the term ‘race relations’, women’s rights and the Viet Nam war. Certainly, these were confounding times.
As there was pressure to employ entry level positions with diverse candidates, Dad hired many. He hosted Webster’s version of the “International House of Pancakes’ and welcomed these foreign-born workers to breakfast every Saturday morning to fill up on pancakes and share life stories. Dad enjoyed learning their exotic phrases and often learned just enough to poke fun or to help correct a work issue.
Fast forward thirty years, as an educator in a local college, one half of my classroom was attended by English speakers of other languages, two of which were from Viet Nam. Enlightened though our Saturday pancake breakfasts, I still struggled with these two pupils. As I reflected, I understood why. No Asians attended Dad’s breakfasts, but the TV newsreels of our soldiers being maimed and killed in Viet Nam attended dinner daily. I became acutely aware of the impact of these images.
I decided to do what Dad modeled. Although rather reluctantly at first, I befriended the Vietnamese culture. Stories and photos were shared and an understanding had been reached. In essence, the war had not left their families or their country unscathed either.
Both successfully completed the program and I successfully overcame my own discrimination. As a token of my graduate’s gratitude, I received a package that contained a painting from Viet Nam of a rice farmer working in a field. Prominently displayed in my home, it is a reminder that like sowing rice, peace is sown through creating prime connections with people groups, one person at a time.
As I learned by my father’s example, making prime connections with those who are culturally diverse takes time and effort. Not all of our neighbors in our small town were as enlightened as Dad. Overcoming fear of miscommunication and being misunderstood is risky and takes practice. It also takes diligence and determination, but the outcomes can be life-changing for all!
A symposium of Indonesian visitors were our guests this week at Rochester Women’s Network. The purpose of their visit was to gather information to improve their own business practices through dialog with American citizens and business organizations.
Not all spoke English. Two ‘prime-connectors’ served as interpreters. Each translator took turns at various intervals throughout the meeting. One interpreter took notes in an attempt to translate verbatim. She would stop to clarify and then relay the communication. The other, did not. The female interpreter asked one English speaker to ‘please slow down’ so she could be more effective. It was her partner’s turn to translate when a slang American term was referenced. The male interpreter kept on speaking into his machine, without hesitation. Apparently, our guests understood because laughter prevailed. When I asked the translator, how he decoded the funny phrase, the woman answered. Perhaps the male interpreter was more skilled or perhaps the woman was able to read his mind. Maybe she was a quicker responder. Maybe I had asked a very common question. Nevertheless, the woman said, “We work around slang”. But my question was, ‘How did you interpret that phrase?” I wanted to know verbatim. Another question was asked elsewhere, and so, we moved on. I never received the exact wording.
We all have times in our lives when we need an interpreter. I call these experiences ‘culture crossings’. ‘Culture crossings’ occur during those times when advice is needed outside of our own wheelhouse or we are facing a new challenge. We look for a ‘prime-connector’ who will interpret for us-to bridge the gap in our own understanding. Depending on our own experience, the skill-set of that interpreter is critical to our well-being, especially if we need details or an extensive plan. At times, we prefer to allow someone to read our minds and respond from their own experience.
Take a few mental notes as to how you receive information and how you interpret the steady stream of incoming messages. Who are your ‘prime-connectors’? How are both you and your ‘prime-connectors’ supplying feed-back? Become more aware of who is speaking for you. What they are saying and what is being interpreted?
The challenge is choosing the proper ‘prime-connector’ at critical junctions and also choosing to become the ‘prime-connector’ for others by slowing down the conversation and asking clarifying questions. Revisit conversations to correct areas of misunderstanding. Don’t move on until appropriate and sufficient understanding is reached.