It is easy to be friends with people who are like us. At one time, I realized I could have traded clothes with three of my best friends—we were all runners and had similar body types, ate the same things, went to the same church, believed essentially the same things and shared a common worldview. Friendship on these terms was easy.
But my most transformational friendships have come at the cost of my comfort.
The best and worst part about living in China was visiting my students in their homes in rural areas of northwest China. They had a different way of showing hospitality to guests. Unlike the west, with our “make yourself at home” mentality, their goal was to make their visitors feel like special guests.
“Go have a rest in the living room,” they’d say, leaving me alone in a cold room on a hard couch next to the coffee table (“tea table” in China). I’d pick at oranges, dried dates and sunflower seeds as I waited. I longed to be with them in the kitchen, where laughter and delighted chatter floated from the doorway.
They would eventually emerge with plates of stir-fried spicy cabbage and lamb and steaming potatoes or with at least a hundred hand-made dumplings filled with beef and carrots. I’d eat until I was stuffed and they’d look offended when I stopped.
As a guest, I was expected to eat until I was sick. More than once, as it was nearly time for bed, my student’s mother would enter the living room with even more food and never allowed me the satisfaction of an empty bowl. I wanted to cry.
These experiences visiting small villages in China birthed many stories. But they also transported me out of the zone of my comfort into the reality of my students’ lives away from school.
Those trips obliterated my assumptions and granted me the gift of forced proximity to poverty and another way of life. I ate their food, played their card games, froze by their coal stoves, slept in their beds, met their grannies, held their nieces and nephews and borrowed their clothes.
It may sound adventurous, but I often felt so uncomfortable that I was counting the minutes until we boarded our train or bus home. I longed for my own bed, my heated apartment and the time when I could curl up under my plush throw blanket and binge-watch Alias.
But it wasn’t just physical discomfort that toppled my walls of pride and wrong assumptions. It was the discomfort of cultural confusion. I didn’t belong and constantly questioned whether or not I was acting the right way.
Operating in another culture is like having all the rules of a familiar game suddenly change, then being scolded when you make a wrong move. And yet I sensed God nudging me to choose to look stupid for the sake of relationship.
Each visit to another student’s home shattered another brick in my too-pristine wall of self-preservation and pride. It forced me to be dependent on another human being who looked, spoke, dressed and ate differently than I did.
The discipline of discomfort allows us to deeply know and be known by the “other.”
It is only as we are willing to deconstruct our walls and enter into the world of someone else that we will ever find friends who are different from us. And it is only then that we can begin to break down the barriers of racism, prejudice and oppression.
When we have slept in someone’s bed, we cannot accuse them of being a terrorist. When we have eaten someone’s homemade food, held their babies and joked with their grandpas, we cannot assume the worst of them.
It was easy to exercise the discipline of discomfort in China. But here in the U.S.? As we go from home to garage to car to work, grocery store, day care, school or library, then back home again, we flirt with the idea of diversity without ever entering the messy work of relationship.
Why would we choose to be uncomfortable with an unknown (and risk looking like an idiot) when we can be comfortable with someone just like us?
Check back tomorrow for part 2 on friendships.
New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).
During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.