I’m a talker. Give me two minutes to make an announcement at church, and I’ll stretch it to three. Plan for a one-hour coffee date, but be prepared to return home two hours later. I know my gift of gab has brought moments of exasperation to my family, but I’ve also noticed times that it’s been appreciated. Sometimes, it’s a personal story I share with a friend to encourage him through a tough time. Sometimes, it’s a hysterical account I retell–the kind that improves with each re-enactment–that leaves my aunties in stitches. Other times, it’s a recitation of all my personal opinions and beliefs and values,that is surprisingly welcomed by a new acquaintance.
I am also a complimenter. I think it comes with the territory of being a talker. I like to tell the cook at camp, “That was a great meal. It’s one of my favourites.”, or stop a colleague at work to say, “You always work so hard. You’re such a diligent person.” And I make a point of telling my students, “You are doing a really good job, and I’m proud of you.” But while I do put thought and effort into my very purposeful compliments, I must admit that this mode of communication comes very easily to me. Communication’s my beat, and language my rhythm.
Imagine my dilemma upon finding myself in a foreign, non-English-speaking country, with two of my greatest assets–the spoken and written word–stripped from me. Adopting a sink-or-swim mentality, I found no choice but to doggy-paddle through the new language. I mean, a girl’s got to eat and to shop, right? Initially, one can get by with about ten or fifteen phrases. Start with: “I like”, “I don’t like”, “I want”, “I don’t want”, “How much?”, “So cheap”, “Too expensive”, and “Thank you”. These suffice for most market trips, but they are awfully short phrases, and I fear a little curt. Consider how difficult it is to say, “Yes, I realize your product is great quality, and therefore is more expensive, but I’m looking for something cheaper.” It’s easier to say, “I don’t want” or “I don’t like”. My words here are bare bones. And that frustrates me!
Several years ago I was introduced to the theory of the Five Love Languages, as taught in Gary Chapman’s book of the same name. While I never read the book myself (I enjoy talking more than reading), I’ve heard allusions to this theory many times. I embraced it from the start. The idea is that humans feel and express love in different ways. The challenge is to learn to express love in the way your targeted loved one will accept it most readily. Better yet, learn to express love in multiple ways! Adopting this principle, I wrote fewer letters to my mother and washed more dishes for her instead. Trust me, there is something to the Five Love Languages!
Living abroad, with a limited vocabulary, I’m learning to exercise different methods of showing love and kindness to the people around me. And without the use of a spoken language, I have to be more purposeful in my actions. At the bus stop, it’s an admiring look I give the baby bouncing on Grandma’s knee. At the restaurant, it’s finishing my bowl of noodles with gusto. It’s stopping to talk with the bottle-picker, amid the awkward astonishment of the locals, and it’s dropping by the same street vendors each Sunday on the way to and from church. It’s buying vegetables in the wet market, and walking past pig snout and chicken feet like it’s the most normal thing in the world. It’s letting someone stand close to my face while they talk, resisting my cultural instinct to step away.
A few weeks ago, during lunch, a co-worker asked me if I liked the meals the cook prepares for us. I said I did, but that I didn’t know how to properly express that to the cook. She taught me how to say it in their language, but then quickly added, “But it’s enough that you eat her cooking.” Curious, I asked if there were other foreigners who wouldn’t eat her cooking. My co-worker gave me a knowing look.
Chances are good that for each purposeful act of love I demonstrate, there are at least one or two taboo or culturally-insensitive actions I make. I am acutely aware of how poorly I blend in here. I’m sure I receive more grace than I give. But one thing I know: God is love, and where love goes, God goes. His love bypasses cultural divides and doesn’t stall for want of language. If I do nothing else, but spread His love in the best way I can, I will have done it all. “For love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” and “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (1 John 4:7; John 13:35 NIV).