I went grocery shopping the other day and I noticed the ladies right after I entered the store. It was a small group of women and I watched them as they were pushing two carts, they were shopping together. They talked with each other in a language that I couldn’t understand. They were refugees from Africa. I don’t know where exactly from.
They talked to each other, but at the same time they seemed to watch the other customers. Not being in our way, seemed to be very important to them. To blend in somehow, even though they really don’t.
I could see colorful, long skirts underneath their coats. They were pretty women, as far as I could see; their faces were hidden by a hijab – a veil that covers part of their face and neck – all I could see were their beautiful eyes. They were pointing at products and they seemed to discus some of it. They ladies knew each other very well, they laughed and talked a lot.
I smiled inside, and I remembered how I felt when I came here 30+ years ago. Shopping can be a challenge when there is a language barrier. I bought a few “mystery products” back then, because I couldn’t really figure out some of the stuff. Yellow cornmeal does look a lot like like cake mix, but unfortunately doesn’t taste like it. I learned that the hard way.
I was lucky, times were different then when I migrated to the U.S., people were friendlier, more helpful. I remember the old butcher who read my shopping list with me and who looked up words in my dictionary, because he wanted to help me. The American measurements were confusing at first. I was used to grams and kilograms, ounces and pounds didn’t mean anything to me. The butcher was one of my heroes, he made my life easier and he showed interested in me as a person. He wanted to know where I was from and he and his wife talked to me as often as they could. They took there time and helped me out, when I was hopelessly lost.
Everywhere I went there were people who were eager to help me. They stopped what they were doing to help a stranger like me, who wasn’t fluent in their language. Bus stops, gas stations or parks, they treated me in an unbelievable gentle way. Nobody made fun of me. I had moved to the United States of America, the country that was founded by immigrants and the people here welcomed me.
I was well educated and I always had a way with words, that changed after we got married and I arrived here. I could talk to my husband at home – because he understood my native language – but outside our home I felt like an idiot. The words and sentences in my mind were translated into an unknown language, it put me back into a child like state and much of what I said then, must have sounded like gibberish. Three and four-word-sentences was all I could say and it made me feel caged. I felt like my mind and my speech was caged up. It’s terrible not to understand, but it’s worse when you feel that you can’t communicate anymore.
But as I said, people around me were helpful. I remember the old Asian lady who owned that little corner store, she always giggled when she saw me me. She was a foreigner herself, she understood how I felt. We had small, childlike conversations with each other. She knew exactly what cigarettes and gum I would buy, but she made me say my order, she didn’t accept finger pointing. She made me talk about the weather and my husband; she was one of them who broke down the language barrier.
Somebody told me once that I was lucky, because I am white and I came from an European country that was respected. I dressed the same -OK almost the same- and I didn’t stand out as long as I kept my mouth shut.
People weren’t just friendly because I seemed to fit in. That is not true. I wasn’t the only migrant then. I met others like me and all of us had wonderful experiences, I know that because we talked about it, we laughed about our mistakes and mishaps, we learned together. Many of us were white -that is true- but many of us had dark skin as well.
I was lucky. People laughed with me back then when I was young, they also laughed about me.
I checked my list one more time, while I pushed my card toward the shortest check out line.
That’s when I saw them again, the ladies from Africa. They stood in front of the checkout, like they were unsure what they wanted to to do. The ladies looked at me and pulled their carts back, then they pointed in front of them. They wanted me to cut into the line, so it seemed.
I shook my head looked into their eyes and I saw something that made me sad. I saw fear. I have seen fear before, I know how it looks like.
These beautiful women were afraid of me and the way I could react I suppose. Not of me as a person – I know that – but afraid of me as a human being, a citizen.
I know that many of them know what is going on in this country right now. They might not speak English -yet- but I am sure that they are aware of our newest Trump-Hate-Movement. I can just imagine how much fear they must feel.
I felt anger and frustration inside me, and all I wanted at that moment was to make sure, that the ladies knew I wasn’t one of the haters. I wished so much that I would have been able to communicate with them.
I pointed in front of me and gave them the brightest smile I could manage. It’s hard to smile when you feel sad inside. The ladies understood and they slowly moved into the checkout line. One woman turned around and smiled back, I could see it in her eyes.
I hope I will meet them again, maybe I can figure out where they are from and help them shopping.
I don’t like what’s going on in this country, I don’t like at all. I hate the idea that people who had to flee their country might live now here and fear us. What a terrible thought that is.
I don’t want to be feared, that’s not what kind of person I want to be.