FOUR O’CLOCK. THE teacher must be on her way, I thought. Still, to ease my North-American anxiety towards punctuality, I went to find the woman in charge.
“Mabel, is Shirley coming?” I asked.
“No, she couldn’t make it today,” came the reply. “Maria can help you.”
I never found out who Maria was. When I returned to the patio, girls and boys were already forming a semicircle of chairs in preparation for their weekly Bible lesson. Not wanting to lose their attention, I quickly took my seat. The children returned my gaze, eager and ready to listen. That brief moment was so full of potential I didn’t want to speak. I knew that once I opened my mouth, my accent would betray my act of competence.
That is exactly what happened. The more I tried to engage them, stumbling over words and executing ideas as they came, the more restless the children became. The older ones chatted among themselves while the three-year-olds just looked confused. I literally breathed a sigh of relief when five o’clock finally arrived.
Yet I could hardly keep from laughing. Admittedly, my eyes burned a little, but it was too funny to cry. Within minutes I’d gone from being the silent teacher’s aide to being the unprepared sub. I could imagine kids telling their moms about this random lady from los Estados Unidos who tried to get them to sing, speak English, and act out the Nativity of Jesus. Or kids not recalling anything because it’d been so chaotic.
There were numerous moments during that long hour when I could have lost it. I could’ve given into perfectionism, counting every smirk as a mark of failure. I could’ve pretended to be ignorant, letting the kids run wild as an act of surrender. I could’ve chosen anger, blaming under-communication, the teacher, my basic Spanish skills, the children … I could have, because I have chosen these responses in the past.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about surviving in Colombia as a non-Spanish-speaking foreigner, it’s this: laugh at myself.
Because locals are going to laugh at me whether or not they know me.
Because I’m often early, even when I’m running late.
Because meeting times will change and I’ll only find out if I call to confirm the meeting.
Because people always ask, Where are you from and Where are you really from, due to my accent and appearance.
Because my heart still races when I cross the street.
Because if I keep living as I did in the United States, with the same expectations towards social norms, time commitments, race relations, and traffic laws, I would probably become frustrated, resentful and isolated.
I don’t dismiss the challenges of culture shock or the emotions that come with it. I certainly would appreciate hearing fewer jokes or stereotypes about my ethnicity. But I’ve come to see each experience of dissonance as an opportunity – an opportunity to appreciate difference, to examine assumptions, to laugh.
This post originally appeared on NEXT Church, a network of leaders within the Presbyterian Church (USA): http://nextchurch.net/learning-through-discomfort/#.Vmg8sON97PD