I live in Edgewater, NJ. This community is unusually integrated with people coming here from all over the world (including New Jersey). For example, in my son’s first grade class, 20 of the 25 students speak a language other than English at home. A few speak Korean, a couple speak Japanese, and the others speak either Turkish, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Italian, Polish, Hindi, or Albanian. No one really feels out of place, except maybe for my son, who wonders why he can only speak English. There is no core “majority” and the students don’t perceive racial and cultural differences as impediments to friendship.
As a result, the kids think they can and should play with each other after school. I agree, of course, but not without a little trepidation. For, as well as the kids can communicate with each other, the mothers cannot. The logistics of setting up a play date are easy enough, especially as I have learned, with the help of Google translate and an iPhone. But how to figure out if the moms are comfortable with a “drop off” play date? How to figure what to do if the moms are not comfortable with a “drop off” play date? What do we all talk about at a non “drop off” play date if none of us speaks each other’s language?
Well, it is hard to explain.
But in the case of two mothers (one from Korea and the other from Japan) and me–we all became friends. I can’t say that our conversations have a lot of words. Generally there is a lot of head nodding, a lot of hopeful looking toward each other, and a fair amount of silence. But somehow a closeness and a trust have developed, despite the limits of our shared vocabulary.
Surprisingly, I was relieved by the inability to explain myself. I couldn’t apologize for a messy apartment. I couldn’t compare notes on how our sons were “doing” academically. I couldn’t act insecure in any way. In short, I had to be a different, more confident version of myself, who said a lot less and with a lot more sincerity.
When, recently, each of these women gave birth I did something that surprised me: I bought them each a baby gift. Then I did something else that surprised me more: I wrapped each of these presents in fancy paper.
I am embarrassed to admit it but I have hardly ever given anyone else a baby gift.
Usually, I am intimidated by the prospect. I don’t see myself as a good shopper and I have always doubted my ability to select something “good” that someone else would want. So out of fear of offending or looking stupid, I give nothing, which if I were looking to offend or look stupid would be the most effective course of action.
In the case of my non-English speaking friends, however, I confidently bought them some of my favorite children’s books. The books were cute, educational, small enough to not take much apartment space, and low enough in price that the gift wouldn’t create any awkwardness.
Whereas I would assume that my English speaking friends already had the books or would think that the gift was not special enough, I felt comfortable here. To the extent that the gift was not the “perfect thing,” I figured this could be attributed to my being American or to the different way Americans do things. In other words, the perceived (or imagined) defect would not be a direct result of me being “me.” (I felt protected by the differences between us.)
As for wrapping the gifts in fancy paper? This is a convention I seldom adhere to mostly because I am the world’s worst wrapper. Seriously, unless I really concentrate, my gifts end up looking crumpled and slightly damp. So I often don’t put forth the effort and feel smug about it, patting myself on the back for saving 3 dollars and a tree, when in reality I am just doing what is easier for me.
In the case of these baby gifts, however, I knew I couldn’t offer a jokey explanation as to why I couldn’t or didn’t wrap them or, alternatively, why they looked like they had been wrapped by the family pet. I had no choice but to try sincerely to make the gifts look pretty, as gifts should.
So I made a special trip to Michael’s to buy wrapping materials (along with a number of other items I only “needed” until the second I walked out of the store). I selected silver gift bags and colorful tissue paper. Much to my surprise, the presents looked great! They looked like they were being given by a real adult person who wanted to congratulate a friend who had just had a baby.
The wrapping paper, though not necessary and arguably wasteful, did serve an important communicative purpose, especially among friends who don’t speak the same language.
As I was wrapping the gifts up so nicely, I thought of my mother-in-law. She is often remarking on “How gorgeous!” certain wrapping paper is or “How gorgeous!” a place setting/floral arrangement/napkin set might be. (She once responded very unenthusiastically to packages wrapped in newspaper).
Previously, and perhaps unfairly, I have judged her for this. I took her exclamations of gorgeousness as a critique of my own un-gorgeous ways and as a reflection of her tendency to focus on the appearance of things.
Without getting into details, let me say that my mother-in-law and I have had our ups and downs. We have a close, but not easy, relationship. While we agree on most things relating to politics, movies, books, and food, we are often at loggerheads when it comes to child rearing issues (and topics related to cut flowers and wrapping paper).
Given how close we can be in certain ways, I have always been troubled by the situations where my mother-in-law and I do not understand each other. In contrast to how I feel when I am with my non-English speaking friends with whom I can let many misunderstandings go unexplained, I seldom resist the urge to try to explain myself (in vain) when I am with my mother-in-law. Often it is this ineffective explaining, rather than the difference of opinion itself, that gets us into a problem.
In truth, I can’t know what my mother-in-law really means when she exclaims, “How Gorgeous!” or when she makes a nervous statement about the welfare of her grandchildren. Just like she can’t understand why I don’t try to correct certain “odd” behaviors in my children.
I now understand that even though my mother-in-law and I both grew up speaking English, we come from very different places and often do not speak the same language.
I see now that just as I do not resent my non-English speaking friends for failing to speak my language better, I should be more accepting of the limits of communication between my mother-in-law and me. Just as I do with my non-English speaking friends, my mother-in-law and I should focus more on what we can communicate about. When we get to an impasse? A sympathetic nod or other wordless expression might do more to get us through it than my usual efforts to justify and explain.
In the end, it is possible to be real friends with a “foreigner.” People who come from very different backgrounds can form a very nice relationship, so long as they share the right set of expectations. The occasional well-wrapped present can help, too.