Tuesday, April 04, 2006

In the Outstretched Hand of a Kazakh Child

Exotic, spicy aromas drifted through the cut-out door of the cinder block cafeteria as we American teachers waited outside for our pupils, Kazakh students attending English camp in Kazakhstan, to announce our lunch menu and escort us to our seats with their spindly brown arms around our waists.

Mid July in a remote area of a semi-arid developing nation can wreak havoc on a visitor’s digestive system. As much as we teachers wanted to bless the children who were so sweetly welcoming us to their table, many of us fighting numbing jet lag and oppressive, sweltering heat could barely look at the iridescent chunks of fat swirling in our soup.

Learning that sheep fat is a culinary delicacy was only one of dozens of culture shock moments I had encountered during the previous week. Daily I struggled to cope with strange traditions, world views and uneducated beliefs, such as Kazakhs not allowing children (or adults, for that matter) to sit directly on the ground for fear that it will make them sick. Consequently, twenty-some children in my class at camp would hover above the ground in what is known as “the Kazakh squat” unless were up playing games.

“Today . . . is sheep’s fat and noodles,” announced Aygul, the student assigned to me, with a hostess’s complementary smile.

I took the steaming dish from her outstretched arms, noticing the dirt in the creases of her hands and elbows. Her bony fingers remained steady as she handed off the bowl with pride and confidence that comes from much practice. She was nine years old.

She stood less than a foot away. Big brown eyes tracked my spoon from the bowl to my lips.

"It’s good!" I blurted too readily. "Thank you so much!"

There was that smile again, almost too wide for that little round face.

Aygul squared her shoulders, lifted her chin and walked briskly back to the kitchen. I watched the other children and teachers communicate in spite of the language barrier by nodding, smiling and pointing. I noticed that both students and teachers were not too successful at concealing their insecurities. Clearly, both the children and the teachers desperately wanted to be accepted by the other.

During lunch, my emotions bounced around the way the beach ball had during lesson time—one moment I pitied the children with so few advantages and material possessions; the next minute I adored their unspoiled dispositions and eagerness to honor their new American friends; one minute I loved being in this unfamiliar developing nation; the next minute I longed to be home and nuzzle the necks of my own children.

Later, Aygul returned with a small tray of plums, one of the Kazakhstan’s most prolific fruits. She gently bit her lip in concentration as she stepped slowly and deliberately toward me, carefully balancing the platter. Her Asian eyes darted from the plums to my face as she walked nearer.

From four feet away, I spied water droplets on the plums, causing my spirits to rise. They’ve been washed! I thought. How I had been longing for clean, familiar, healthy food! I couldn’t wait to taste one of those glistening gems.

At two feet away, perhaps in response to my overly enthusiastic expression, Aygul lost her balance, and the plums went rolling.

Seized with compassion for her and remorse for the loss of the plums, I jumped to help gather them. After scrambling around on our hands and knees while everyone watched, we composed ourselves and resumed our roles. Aygul stepped back from me and timidly offered a single plum covered in dirt.

My heart sank. Aygul’s heart sank. When I saw her heart sink, my heart broke.

I ate the plum while she watched, ignoring the crunch that didn’t belong in a bite of plum. Juice ran down my chin, and I had no napkin except my sleeve. She laughed, covering her mouth with her coarse little hand.

It was the best plum I have ever eaten.

In my journal that night, I wrote, "What’s the big deal about a little dirt? I’ve eaten what I’m essentially made of. My culture is so sterile and comfortable and wealthy that I have come not just to eschew dirt but actually fear contamination. Why have I been so neurotic about my personal space since I’ve been here? Why am I so aware of offensive odors and behaviors, when my goal was to come here to love people by sharing what I have and what I know? Why do these details distract me? The little bit of dirt on a hand, a plum, and in my mouth today was not a big deal. The dirt I feel on the inside for secretly devaluing a culture so different from mine is much more repulsive and truly contaminating. I can still see the disappointment on her little face as the plums rolled . . . . ”

I closed and laid aside the journal, and then I closed my stinging eyes. My thoughts swirled like the fat in the soup.

I remembered how Jesus revealed the Pharisees’ uncleanness to them, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matt. 23:28, NIV). Now my heart was stinging, too.
Conviction came with his words, "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' " (Mark7:18-23, NIV).

I knew that my remorseful tears couldn’t cleanse me; only Jesus could, so there on my cot in the dark, like the leper I prayed, “Oh Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!”

The Lord is faithful to forgive, and he forgave me. He doesn’t hold our sins against us, but I will not forget the moment when He loved me enough to pull back another layer of the ugly cocoon I have spun throughout my life with silk threads of pride.

The most powerful lessons are sometimes as hard to swallow as a bowl of grease. But some are bittersweet, like a juicy plum in the outstretched hand of a precious child who looks up at you with love.

copyright 2003 by Linda Crow, published in Christian Online Magazine, 2003. Revised 8/24/06

1 comment:

pugwash said...

Sometimes we 'experience' a different side of life and wonder how on earth others cope. I found your 'ethnography' both stimulating and refreshing.

Can you imagine how hurt the indigenous people would have felt if you had not elicited the expected reverence. You mention about 'dirt', which to most Westerners is a civilised way, but we forget that it is only skin deep, and you recognised this. How many people wouldn't have?

For me what I liked most about your account of your travels was the dignity that you seemed able to express. In a world that is neither tolerant nor openly empathic I perceive these qualities as a ray of hope.