“It’s been too long.”
More accusations drum in my head:
“I should’ve gone over weeks – MONTHS – ago. What will we talk about anyway? I’m a horrible human being. And a worse neighbor.”
My insecurity is unrelenting. My neighbor is from Pakistan. English isn’t her first language and I’m a fool when I talk to people who don’t speak much English. [I use lots of little words and I nod and smile and pretend I understand them. And I speak way too loudly, as if “can’t speak English” means “CAN’T HEAR.”]
But, I package up some homemade granola, grab Molly by the hand, and walk to our next-door-neighbor’s front door before I can change my mind.
“Hi, Uzma! Molly & I baked granola today, and we wanted to share some with you.”
“Hello, Amanda! Please, come inside!” She joyfully looks from me, to Molly, and back to me. [Then slight confusion at the granola. Dang it. She has no idea what granola is. Should’ve gone with cookies. Oh well.]
We walk in and sit at the kitchen table. She stands to offer me a cup of tea. I hesitate, not wanting to be an imposition.
[Also thinking, “WHAT ARE WE GOING TO TALK ABOUT?”]
Uzma stands at the stove, tea kettle at the ready, as the lightbulb goes on in my head: “Get over yourself. You are not an imposition. You are invited. Have a cup of tea and visit with her. YOU CAN DO THIS!”
“Yes,” I hear myself say out loud. “Okay. Yes, I can stay for a cup of tea today. Thank you.”
Delighted, she puts the kettle on.
She pulls cups and saucers from the cabinet and I speak up: “Uzma, I’m sorry that I haven’t said hello in such a long time.”
“It is okay! You are very busy. I understand.” Her kind smile spreads wide: “And you are here now!”
I smile, too. “Yes, I’m so happy to be here now.” And I am.
She serves our tea. We sip. We chat. And this time, rather than nod and smile and pretend to understand, I choose to laugh at myself and admit when I don’t understand – and she laughs too. [There is a lot of laughing.]
Then we find a rhythm: she, eventually finding words; I, eventually recognizing them; both of us, laughing at our combined herculean effort. We stumble through stories of children and family, illness and loss, and back around to daily life.
“Uzma, what do you like to do during the day?”
“Oh, I am very boring here.” With a sheepish laugh, “I watch TV.”
“What do you like on TV?” I brace for a struggle to understand something about a show on Pakistani cable, but am completely disarmed when without a moment’s hesitation, she gleefully declares:
I erupt in laughter. “I love Ellen too!”
In an instant, the language barrier crumbles, the culture gap dissolves, and we gasp with laughter as I attempt a high-five which she receives as a handshake/hold, and we giggle like little girls over our lost-in-translation gestures.
I compose myself to I bring up an urgent matter: “Uzma. I bet Ellen would love to hear that you watch her show. Let’s take a selfie. Do you know what a selfie is?”
Uzma shakes her head no, eyes gleaming. [At this point she appears giddy at the chance to partake in what must be an important American tradition. Perhaps I’m overselling it.]
“I will teach you how to take a selfie. Lean in and smile!”
She’s delighted with our selfie, and I promise to text it to her daughter’s cell phone. And also to Ellen on Twitter.
“Uzma, your tea is delicious. Will you make it again the next time I visit?”
Eyes wide and hands clasped in delight, she says, “You come, I make tea. Every time, I make tea. You will come tomorrow?”
“Yes, I’ll come tomorrow!”
And I do. And she makes tea, and her daughter Zainab joins us. We look at family pictures this time. I ask questions about their family traditions, and we work to understand each other.
And we laugh.
For all our differences, our commonality trumps them all: we’re women. And don’t all women struggle to be understood and to understand? And isn’t the victory in admitting this doesn’t always come easy? And isn’t the joy in laughing at ourselves and taking ourselves lightly and embracing the stumbling and fumbling in it all?
Whether she’s from a different country or a different season of life – just because she feels foreign to you doesn’t mean she’s far from reach. Make the first step. Dive into discomfort and embrace the awkwardness.
Whose door will you knock on today?