Friday, March 20, 2015

Learning together: The "How-tos"

When I first moved to "Little Burma," part of my responsibility was to teach my housemates (newcomer refugees) how to do things in America, like using appliances, sanitation, etc. I must admit that I pretty much failed at this task. I was incredibly nervous and intimidated. These women were older than me, had families of their own, had much more life experience than I did, and had survival skills out the wha-zoo. (Not to mention, I didn't have a great knowledge of appliances beyond a microwave - which they absolutely never used). I had no clue how to teach them without coming across as bossy and superior. And I was confused about what was essential to teach them and what to let go of. I learned a lot during those years - I have Brenda Neuenschwander, Becky Adams, and others like them to thank for the wisdom I am about to share.

You do not need to be bossy. Be humble, patient, and loving. If you are teaching essentials, explain why they are essentials. If you are teaching non-essentials, explain why we prefer to do it this way, and let them know it's optional. Whatever you teach, demonstrate it in real time, at their house or your own. Do it yourself a couple times, and then guide them in doing it while you watch and give feedback. Make sure they feel very comfortable with it - even if it takes a few visits - before you let them do it independently. And make each lesson an opportunity to build mutual trust - bridges in your friendship.

1. Explain things that could get them in legal trouble. There are social services/government protocols in place in America that are not in place in other countries. We had supplied mattresses and beds for each person in the family, but more often than not, the families preferred to put the mattresses on the floor and have everyone sleep close together. We could understand why they would do this, given their background and the hardships they faced. But some families get into a lot of trouble with child protective services because this is seen as a neglect of basic needs. Do some research and be aware of the things social services would consider neglect, abuse or dependency, and explain these things to your friends, to protect them.

2. Explain things that could be physically harmful. Internationals who are used to getting fresh eggs probably need you to tell them that eggs we buy in stores must be refrigerated. Don't overload electrical outlets, don't leave the gas in a gas stove on, and don't mix water and electricity. And there's the all-too-common issue of bed bugs... a good reason to wash clothes regularly and not leave them in a pile on the floor. The bathroom routine - using toilet paper, flushing, and washing hands - should be something you take time to go over, and not assume. When you talk about these things, make sure to explain why so they don't dismiss them as just silly American ways of doing things.

3. Explain things that could make life easier for them. They may be used to washing their clothes by hand, or sweeping the whole house with a broom, or walking for miles to get places. There's nothing wrong with these things, so make sure not to push too hard for them to let go of their familiar ways... but ask if you can show them your way. Demonstrate how to do laundry with a washer and dryer, how to use a vacuum or Swiffer mop, and how to navigate the public transportation systems in your town. You might find that these things amuse, please, and relieve your friends of a lot of extra time and energy.

4. Learn new things together. Don't always be the know-it-all... ask them about things you don't recognize in their kitchen, or how to do things you see them do. I was amazed at the skillful way Burmese mamas sling their babies on their backs! And I'd never seen someone use a pressure cooker before I lived in Little Burma. Make sure that for every new thing you teach, you are learning something new, too.