I was waiting for an X-ray at the hospital in Bijeli Brijeg when the technician finally poked his head out the door.
“Um, Jonathan? Do you… um, speak…?”
“Yes, I speak your language,” I said.
“Alright! Wow! That’s great. I’ve never met a foreigner who speaks our language! Come on in.” Said the technician.
I rolled my eyes and followed him into the room. I felt particularly self-conscious and annoyed at this man’s statement. I took some comfort in the fact that no one else was in the waiting room, but I felt annoyed nonetheless.
I have lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina for a total of eight years. I know it is a small country, and relatively few western foreigners come here to live in general. But to me, speaking the language is an afterthought. I’m not a tourist. I’m not visiting relatives. I live here. I work here. My kids are in school.
Please… Stop. I no longer have any use for the wow-you’re-a-foreigner conversation. I know how things work. I have health insurance. Just do my X-ray so I can go home like everyone else.
The moment opened my eyes unexpectedly. My mind was brought to a time when I did the same thing to people in my country, and because of my reaction, I know that they likely were also annoyed that I called attention to them, and the assumptions that I had implied.
“Oh, your English is really great.” I thought I was making a simple compliment. Instead I was calling attention to the person and implying that though they were different from me, because they happen to speak my language well I will acknowledge them in a special way. I won’t give them the same acknowledgment I give to people who “belong” here, mind you — people who are born here — but will express an affinity for them because I deem that their language proficiency (in a language that their parents did not teach them) has made them, in some way, more worthy of my time, appreciation, or approval.
I’m implying that my language is somehow superior, simply because I speak it. I’m implying that they are intelligent or noteworthy simply because they speak my language. I’m implying that I wouldn’t expect someone like them to be able to speak my language. And I’m implying that, were it not for their proficiency in my language, they wouldn’t really belong here, like I do.
Because I chose to be born in my country.
Never mind that by merely speaking my language, they’ve shown that they speak more languages than I. Never mind that I speak only one language … Just like all the people from their country that don’t speak my language.
Instead of giving my affirmation that they belong here, I have really just revealed the opposite — that I don’t belong with them.
Isn’t that a bit harsh? I was merely giving a compliment.
I understand — most of us don’t have an ounce of actual arrogance in our hearts when we say such things. We are honestly trying to give a compliment. But I want to be understood here — I don’t believe we are exhonerated simply because we did not understand, or could not understand, how our comments would be perceived.
We do not immediately excuse people when they unwittingly offend people in other situations. A lack of knowledge does not automatically absolve one for creating an uncomfortable situation. Often, if I was really open and honest, I’d have to admit that my ignorance was itself the result of my attitudes and preconceptions — things that I am completely able to change, but have chosen not to.
So, in an incredibly roundabout way, over a course of many years, God has brought me to see how I may have offended someone, in a way that I did not understand, could not understand, at the time.
Whoever you are, I want to tell you that you belong. Because I belong, because of someone who long ago gave up everything to ensure my belonging, I want to say that you belong next to me.