Life in Community

The Odd One Out

December 3, 2020 by

The Bruderhof has been multicultural and multilingual since its second decade. In fact, seventeen years after its founding in Germany, its English branch included residents of ten different European nationalities, speaking about as many languages.[1] Day-to-day life was run in German, children were taught in it, and all worship services were translated into English phrase by phrase. When the refugee group fled to Paraguay during World War II, fragments of Spanish and Guaraní joined the lexicon. During the 1950s an influx of new American members slowly shifted the center of gravity to an English-speaking majority, and school, worship services, and finally the common language gradually followed suit. (Interested readers may enjoy this timeline of Bruderhof history and other historical resources.)

But when I was a child in the late eighties and early nineties, it was still normal to hear German on the Bruderhof. Some of the first members were still alive, and several had never learned English. When I was three, my daycare teacher was a spry sister of Dutch and German extraction who could communicate perfectly in English, but preferred to run the class in German. We learned a lot: I distinctly remember my dad re-teaching me that “milk please” is how to request more of said beverage in English. And when it came to my native tongue, my input was laced with British, German, and a variety of American accents – bestowing on me and my peers an idiosyncratic mix that still serves as a handy conversation starter. What’s more, since members of the Bruderhof love to connect with seekers of all stripes, by the time I finished high school I had met people from dozens of countries and most US states.

So I grew up in a multilingual environment, but my experience was neither truly bilingual nor abnormal within my social context. Then things changed. At twenty I found myself in a language school in Cuernavaca, Mexico with several other Bruderhof members. It was fun, of course, but also a humbling life-changer to know little of the ambient language and next to nothing of the culture, which swirled on around me, dancing to its particular norms, cues and conventions. A decade later, I attended a university in Uruguay where three years of study allowed me to absorb and integrate a good chunk of that new environment. But I couldn’t quite shake the sensation that many people were unintentionally treating me like a child, especially in my first months there. (Read my friend Shannon’s observations in this vein.) My friends and I had a small taste of the immigrant journey of starting from absolute zero and never quite arriving, albeit only in our social life; unlike the true migrant, we lived comfortably as first-world students on full scholarships.

MCEmbed1My thirtieth birthday, in Uruguay, learning the celebratory thrill of bottle sparklers in lieu of skinny little birthday candles

Being the outsider suspended between languages and cultures made me reflect on how I’d interacted with people who were not native English speakers. I’d always loved meeting new folks and compared to many friends at my public high school, had had broad multicultural exposure early in life. But now, looking back, I recognize a fair dose of exoticism and paternalism in my responses to non-native speakers: fruit of pure ignorance. Perhaps it was the “single story” phenomenon so beautifully explained by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie in her popular 2009 TED talk; somehow I was not truly seeing others as the amazing people they were, considering them better than myself (Phil. 2:3).

Now back stateside but – as often happens – not quite able to return to the place I left behind, I’m determined to keep learning. There’s no better way to do that than to ask others for advice, so I asked my friend HeeEun Kim, a teacher at The Mount Academy, what has helped her make an even larger cultural and linguistic leap than mine:

My family moved from South Korea to New York when I was ten. The only English I knew was the alphabet, so I remember surviving with sign language for those first few months. I hated going to school because I couldn’t do anything except for math. I sat through English, history, and science classes not understanding a thing. How was I supposed to make friends when I couldn’t talk? Being shy and self-conscious also didn’t help me; I was scared of saying something grammatically incorrect. It took me three long years to get to the point of participating in every class and communicating with my peers.
All through middle and high school I was the only Korean in my class. Some days I just cried my eyes out, asking God why I had to go through this, why I had to be the “different” one, why I couldn’t have parents who spoke fluent English. I lived in two different worlds: the English world at school and the Korean world at home. Whenever my mom asked me how school was, I told her it was fine because I didn’t want my parents to think that they were responsible for what I was experiencing.

MCEmbed2HeeEun, an accomplished pianist, at the Mount Academy organ during her high school years

The person who saved me during my high school years was my guidance counselor, Tabea Johnson. One afternoon, I was playing the organ when she came and sat by me and asked how I was doing. I told her my problem of not being able to fit in and being “different” than the rest of my class. She responded by saying that everyone is actually the same in God’s eyes and that I should respect and look up to my parents for sacrificing their culture and family to follow Jesus’ calling, to live in this communal life of love and forgiveness. She also told me that Jesus does not give us burdens that we cannot bear, and that I am very special to be chosen to be here; he is leading me every step of the way. Tabea was always there for me. She comforted me with reassuring words of love, the love of Jesus that breaks through every barrier you encounter in life. I’ll always remember her radiant smile that meant the world to me.
I can connect with people who are not popular because I know what it feels like to be alone and different. Looking back, I see that the hardships were actually a gift, because now I can relate to people who face challenges in life and feel compassion towards those who are not easily accepted by others. I believe it is so important to listen to each other, to share our stories, to really get to know the people around us. As my mom always says, “Love will break through every language barrier.”

[1] Ian Randall, A Christian Peace Experiment (Wipf & Stock, 2018) p. 104.

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Coretta Thomson

Coretta Thomson is a contributing editor for Plough Publishing.

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