A smile – the universal language. Today this statement spoke true time and time again. I took Little One with me to meet a new Congolese family who had recently arrived in the United States. They had been informed that someone would be stopping by their house to take them to the grocery store, although that is about all that we knew of one another. So, this afternoon, with Little One in his stroller, we arrived at their front porch. A teenage daughter looked out the window and I smiled and waved; she returned the gesture and went to open the front door. A few words were spoken in their native language and then out poured 2 little boys, 4 teenaged-ish daughters, a mother, a grandmother (I could write an entire post on the beauty and mystery behind this lady’s face. There was so much power in her subtle expressions.) and then a father. As soon as Little One saw all of these new people, he began to wave excitedly. No words. No shared verbal language. No history between the two families. Yet this child’s smile created smiles across everyone’s faces. The children began to giggle and excitedly discussed the baby’s greeting (I think LOL).
The children began to get ready to depart and I noticed one of the boys was only in socks, so I asked, “He come to store?” An older sister who understood some English words replied, “Yes.” To which I simply tried to explain with many visual cues, “Need shoes (points to my sneakers). No shoes. No market.” Words were exchanged and the girl replied, “Okay, Okay.” (By now I know that “okay” rarely means “okay, I understand what you are saying.” More often it tends to mean “Okay, I will try to do whatever you are saying and I am agreeing with you out of respect and some confusion.”) At this point, the daughters were wearing flip flops and the boys were shoeless. The mother, on the other hand, was wearing a nice pair of white sneakers. She held up her foot, pointed, spoke to me in her native language and smiled. I smiled back since I knew she had figured out part of what I was saying and said, “Yes. Shoes. Good.” Meanwhile, the young boy in socks was still standing there. So I tried again, “You. Shoes. (Pointing to my shoes and then pointing into the house.) To which the boy smiled and waved again. Well, I thought, if he wasn’t going to wear shoes on this cold day, at least he was giving a beautiful smile (He actually ended up not coming along, so it worked out just fine.). At this point, the daughters came back outside full of smiles and I notice that they had all put on socks with their flip flops. Apparently my gestures about the boy’s socks and needing shoes somehow was interpreted as, “Put on socks with your flip flops.” I decided we would just leave it be and see what happened next. After about a half hour figuring out who was going to be walking along, where the money was located, and what attire should be worn to the market; we were off on our journey. (Market was a word that they now understood in English, so I stopped calling it a “grocery store” which had only lead to initial confusion when I told them we were “walking to the grocery store.” They looked at me as if I had walked to the wrong house. 🙂 ).
We walked about 20 minutes to the store as I continued to point out the street signs and landmarks that could serve as visual reminders. The family kindly smiled, nodded and repeated my words. Throughout this walk, Little One continued to wave hello and smile to our new friends and each time it tickled them. (I began to question who was saying more, the woman with the short English words, or the baby with just his smile?) At one point, a car stopped and the driver gestured that we could cross the road. I waved “thank you” and we crossed (well, the family often ran across the streets instead of walking). Once we returned to a sidewalk, I paused to explain to the family what had happened, “Car driver say go (showed gesture), so you say “thank you” (and modeled that gesture – a common wave). In return I received the typical, “Okay. Okay.” and smiles. Eventually, we made it to the market.
This part of the day was also full of many interesting aspects (too many to record) that one will encounter when taking someone to the store when they are new to the American systems and concepts. For example, in our location, you do not find tons of whole fish throughout the market (Initially they were in search of 30 whole fish! That resulted in buying six.). The family was perplexed as to where all of the fish were since there was only one type that had the entire body still intact. They asked for “flour,” but thankfully, I had a head’s up that they wanted to purchase corn meal, so we headed to those bags. They inspected the clear packaging to determine which content most resembled that which they were used to cooking with. The children would look through the products, take it to mom for her approval, and if it was accepted, then the father would put it into the cart that he was pushing. (During all of this, Little One is waving to the other customers in the market…continuing his universal language.) I tried to explain about looking at the price tags and showing how you can compare the bananas by the prices to determine which ones you are willing to pay for. I watched as the family quickly grasped this concept, and I was personally reflective as I watched them select products that many Americans would consider “unfit” for consumption simply because they were being very conscious of their limited budget. So after a few rounds in the store, we headed to the cash register. I lead them through the process, modeling how you place the items on the belt, put the bags in the cart and then pay the cashier. We then stopped outside to review the receipt and what the key parts mean. It was very interesting to watch the family make meaning of these concepts and work towards memorizing the most important details.
We then proceeded to walk home. We practiced saying the street names again as I allowed the family to walk in the front this time, ensuring (hopefully) that they have learned the way between home and the market. At one point, we began to approach a house where there was a young girl who knelt down beside her larger dog and held her around the neck (This immediately became a sign to me that things might not go too smoothly). As the one daughter approached, the dog tried to come towards us as it barked loudly. In a quick reaction, the girl leaped across the street (It seemed more like she flew!). I tried to calm her and welcome her back to the sidewalk, while explaining to the young pet owner that I would need for her to walk the dog closer to her house (The rest of the family had retreated backwards to the previous house and appeared to be frozen.). The young girl kindly moved her dog and the family was able to continue walking down the sidewalk. (Being a dog owner, I have found it to be quite interesting to see the reactions of people from various cultures once they have an interaction – typically involving an attempt to fly with no wings – with dogs in America.) Along the walk, another car stopped to let us walk across the street, to which the entire family began excessively waving and saying “thank you, thank you!” Smiles lit across their faces as they looked towards me, beaming with pride that they had mastered that interaction. Success, and of course, followed with a smile. 🙂
Ahmeli… that in our journeys today, we speak the universal language – a smile – to a stranger.
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