On Being Foreign

Yesterday I went to reapply for my temporary residence permit (like a visa, sort of). I don't think I breathed for about 17 hours before my visit to the immigration police. Last year I made 3 trips to that office before I got everything right.

This time, I was prepared.

I found the embassy website, which is in Romanian. Tell me, what Romanian-speaker needs information about applying for a visa or temporary residence? Well, come to think of it, this one. So when I got to the police, I had everything I needed. Don't get me wrong, I was still praying and sweating for the hour I spent waiting in line. For one thing, it was hot. But there were also the people ahead of me who got turned away because they were missing papers, or had to go first to that miserable Department of Health and Insurance. I wanted to cry for them, because I've been there. I wanted to let them know it's ok to try more than once, and maybe to give them walking directions to the bank where they had to pay the immigration tax. Strangely enough, I was thinking of myself as "us," and all the foreign people in line as "them."As if I weren't a foreigner.

And then these two German girls started speaking English with me, and it hit me: I'm not Romanian.

I know, you're probably laughing because it seems obvious. Why else would I be at the immigration police? But I'll be honest, sometimes it's easy to forget. I speak the language well enough, I work here, I have friends here, and for the last 14 months this has been my "home." But even with all of that, I'm not one of them. I'm no more Romanian than those German travel agents or the Arab guys in line behind me. I could still get turned away because I have papers missing.

I'm not sure you can ever spend enough time in another country to stop being foreign. You can get pretty comfortable, but there will still be jokes you just don't understand. There'll be days when you want something that takes 2 months to ship from America. You'll have trouble explaining (don't even try translating) the concept of a "pecan picker-upper." Your best bet is to look yourself in the mirror, say "I'm not one of them and never will be," and then go on living your life. You have to come to grips with feeling out of place, or else be miserable and make everyone around you miserable, too.

You see, there are some frustrating Americans who go to other countries and expect people to make them feel comfortable. They want everyone there (thousands of people!) to act like Americans so that they (a few people!) won't feel like misfits. Where's the logic in that? There is none!

All of this gets me thinking... Don't we as Christians do the same thing? Yeah, we want to follow Jesus, but it's pretty uncomfortable when you have to dwell among all these un-holy folks. We start feeling a little different because we are, or should be. And that's ok. I've been studying the book of Leviticus, and last night I got to this verse where God explains that all the rules about which animals to eat are meant "to make a distinction between the clean and the unclean," and so also to set apart the Israelites as God's holy people. So tell me, did the Israelites expect the rest of the world to observe their dietary laws so they didn't feel bad about not being able to eat crickets? I don't think so.

Let's face it, people. We are temporary residents on this earth, and as long as we are becoming more and more like Jesus, we will not fit in anywhere except with our own people. We can't expect everyone to clean up their mouths so we don't feel out of place in a room full of dirty jokes. Our best bet is to tell ourselves, "I'm not one of them and never will be." Should we involve ourselves in showing the lost what redemption means? Absolutely! But we need to do that while expecting some awkward moments when it's clear that we're not like the rest of the world, and to be ready to support each other as we learn to deal with and embrace that distinction.

We can also show a little understanding toward our international residents in the U.S. And maybe stop being annoying abroad.

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