When you visit a country where the people don’t speak your language, there are several important phrases you should know how to say: things such as “Hello” and “Goodbye,” “How much is this?” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Can I have ice with my water?” But when you move to that country, the stakes become higher. The important words and phrases become deeper and more necessary and more . . . important. They’re usually not covered in the first five chapters of your language book, and you may not end up learning them until you come face to face with the need for them. At least, that’s the way it was for me.
Are You OK?
The streets in Taiwan give new meaning to the phrase flow of traffic. Outnumbering automobiles two to one, scooters zip in and out to fill in the narrow gaps between cars, and when they all come to a red light, they pile up at the intersection, waiting to spill forward again when the light turns green. Watch that whitewater river for long, and you’ll see quite a few accidents.
One morning while I was walking to language school in Taipei, I came up to one of the city’s crowded intersections and waited to cross. As several lanes slowed for the light, a lady on a scooter was unable to stop and broke through the pack, sliding several feet on her side. She wasn’t hit by anyone, but she was slow getting up. My first thought was to run over to her and see how she was. I didn’t make it, though. First of all, by the time I could cross the street, she was back on her way, though pushing, not riding, her scooter now. And second, I didn’t know what to say.
Yes, I knew the greeting “How are you?” but that’s not the right question for someone who might be hurt. I knew how to say several other things, too, but none of them seemed appropriate. I could imagine the woman’s horror having me, a foreigner, rush up to her in her time of need, letting loose with my vocabulary of “Hello. How are you? I’m an American. What part of Taipei are you from? What’s you’re favorite food? I like pizza.”
It’s one thing to be able to say the equivalent of How are you? Howdy, or What’s up? It’s another to go beyond trite formality, to ask caring questions and expect heartfelt responses.
G. K. Chesterton writes, “The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” If I could add to Chesterton’s observation, I’d say, “The resident sees what can’t be seen.” Or that’s what should happen. There are many things hidden from the outsider, tucked deep in the souls of the people. And the best way to see behind the curtain is to ask. One of the simplest yet most profound questions we can voice is “Are you OK?” It shows caring. It shows that we know all may not be well, and yet we ask anyway. It shows that we are truly willing to step in and be a part of the community around us.
The second phrase isn’t a phrase at all. It’s just one word, but what a word it is. It’s a word that became the focus of my thoughts one day because of a leaky air conditioner.
At one point, we lived on the third floor of an apartment building, with a barber shop below that had a fiberglass awning over its entrance. Under normal circumstances, the condensation from our AC unit would travel down a plastic tube to the street. But of course, circumstances rarely seemed normal, and the water from our AC did not drain into the tube. Instead it drip . . . drip . . . dripped . . . and dripped . . . and dripped onto the awning. We knew this because the barber told us. I set out quickly to fix the problem—which involved climbing out on a window ledge and stretching as far as I could to reach the air conditioner. I did this when my wife wasn’t at home, mostly because I didn’t want her to talk me out of it. But as I had to step closer to the edge, clinging to the bricks with one hand and trying to grab the AC with the other, I thought, “What if I slip and end up hanging over the alley by three fingers? How do you yell ‘Help!’ in Chinese?” It simply hadn’t come up in my language class during the unit on common food items at the grocery store.
It’s not that I hadn’t asked for help before: “Excuse me, could you tell me if I’m on the right train?” “Can you help us take our photo?” “Do you have these shoes in a larger size?” But I’d never thought about shouting “Help!” because I’d never before thought about needing to be saved.
It’s an odd thing for a missionary to think about his own need for salvation. Isn’t that what we came to offer? But spiritual salvation wasn’t what I had in mind. I was thinking about the kind of saving you need when you’re deeply afraid, when your child is struck by a car in the crosswalk, when you face a mugger in a dark alley, when flood waters are rising, or when loneliness grabs ahold of you and won’t let go.
Knowing how to call for help, though, is not the same as admitting that we need real, meaningful help from those around us. And it’s not just the security guard or the policeman or the nurse who can answer our pleas. It might be the student next door or the businessman hurrying to work or the homeless lady sorting through the trash, whoever is close by as you dangle from the ledge.
Those of us who go to other countries to help must be able to receive help, too. We need to be willing to rely on those around us, to learn, to take advice, and to share our needs—even our emotional and (gasp) spiritual needs. This, too, shows that we want to be part of the community.
People of the Cloth
We talk about the “social fabric,” and it’s an apt metaphor when it comes to needing and being needed. They’re the warp and woof of community. For many, it’s easier to ask “Are you OK?” than to cry out “Help!” but we must be vulnerable enough to say both, to be able to allow someone to voice what’s wrong before we offer a solution and to be able to acknowledge our reliance on those around us.
Take a look at the tapestry that surrounds you. Do you see yourself as a seamstress or tailor, mending the neighborhood according to a pattern of your own making? Or are you, yourself, a part of the fabric, a thread woven in by the skilled hand of the one who knits hearts together and makes all things new?
It may just be that we need to expand our vocabulary.