In 2018, our family of six moved to Puerto Rico to attend and teach at a small, local bilingual elementary school for the year. While I knew it would be challenging for my children to adjust, I had thought my own cultural transition would be fairly smooth. I had visited the island several times, and for the last 10 years, our best friends in our community in Chicago had been from that culture.
It wasn’t quite that simple.
I felt like I was confused for the first three months straight. Spanish on the island is fast. My fledgling language knowledge couldn’t keep up, but I had at least somewhat anticipated that difficulty. The greater challenges were the nuances of human interactions. Anything that went unsaid, I missed entirely. Without knowing the rhythm of life, I was constantly walking into situations I never saw coming. People were constantly telling me, “Tranquila.” (I’m still not 100 percent sure that’s the right ending to that verb.) Relax. Don’t worry. Apparently, my stress was just slightly visible.
The feelings of my first months in Puerto Rico have returned to me often as I walk these first months with our IVEPer from Mozambique, Luis. While many around us in Chicago speak Spanish, almost nobody speaks Portuguese, the language of Mozambique. Despite our multicultural community and team, we’re short cultural translators for his particular transition.
So, we use what tools we have. As Luis’ supervisor, I try to make sure to communicate things multiple ways: writing, speaking, repeating. To carry my share of the translation work, I often run my written communication through Google Translate myself, sending my e-mail in both my own English and Google’s bad Portuguese. Luis has joined me in doing the same, except in reverse. I also make sure to talk through specific assignments one-on-one, rather than relying on the jumble of a staff meeting conversation. Multiple team members do the same, partnering up with Luis to work in pairs. Others invite him to fellowship gatherings or events on weekends, sharing their worlds with him. He has joined it all with enthusiasm.
With my limited international experience, I also worked hard to look for clues from Luis. I listen to what he says – what is going well, what is hard – and watch what makes his eyes light up. Luis is a genius for working with his hands; laboring in his chosen field of construction brings him joy. He’s exceptional at art and makes my youngest son squeal with glee anytime he sees him.
I also began to see how overly language-heavy our field of youth work is. Fast-paced staff meetings, snarky teenagers’ lingo, high-energy children all talking at once: words are the core of our daily interactions, and none of these are entry-level. Taking this into account, we readjusted Luis’ schedule, maximizing construction work and opportunities for one-on-one interactions, especially those where Luis was likely to be alongside other church members with similar international experiences. When Luis approached me with an idea for a project – a fountain in our new next-door courtyard – we bought the materials with a resounding Yes!
In all this, knowing that extreme flexibility can lead to increased confusion, we also kept our IVEP training plan in mind. Because the end goal involves Luis leading lessons within our youth programs, we kept him in those environments, challenging as they may be. My hope is that the right mix of activities will bring both the comfort of confident contribution and the growth of learning.
I am also practicing telling myself, “Tranquila.” Relax. Don’t worry. As Luis’ words remind me, the goal is not a perfect year. “I am here for the experience,” he says often, by which he means all of it. The discomfort of misunderstanding, the joy of discovery, the challenge of processing an entirely different worldview. I remind myself that I too am here in this experience, and what we are learning from each other is a gift.