February 14, 2013

Culture Shock

Worlds Apart

My world is relatively calm, predictable, and safe.  For the most part, I know what to expect from day to day; I never miss a meal unless it is by choice; and I sleep peacefully at night, knowing that the door to my upper middle class home with its well-manicured lawn is locked and secure.  Life is good.

His life is turbulent, unstable, and dangerous.  He never knows from day to day if his mamacita is going to come home, and if she does, if there will be a man with her.  There may or may not be enough food to eat, so when there is, he hovers over it like an animal, shoveling each spoonful into his mouth as fast as he can, snarling if anyone accidentally gets too close.  The door to his apartment in the government-housing “projects” may be locked, but it doesn’t keep out the sounds of screaming neighbors, gunshots, and sirens.  Life is uncertain.

He has spent his eight brief years learning how to navigate the urban jungle, having long ago accepted the “every man out for himself” mentality and adopted a machismo attitude in order to survive.  He has learned how to lie, steal, manipulate, and threaten.  And most of all, he has learned to never, ever trust anyone.  It may not be a perfect world, but it is all he has ever known.

Culture Shock

He lands in my suburban world one day, a mini hoodlum disguised as an 8-year old foster child.  You would think that after so many years of experience with a variety of behaviors and personalities that I would know what to expect.  But nothing - no parenting classes, no child-rearing books, no amount of experience - could have prepared me for this niño.

Suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, his world is upended, and he finds himself taking a journey that he had no idea he would ever be taking.  He is transported to a strange place where nothing is familiar.  How can this be the same country, when it doesn’t even look like the same planet?!  The homes are as big as apartment buildings, but only one familia lives in each one.  Each casa has its own park in the backyard, complete with trees, a sandbox and slide, and some even with a trampoline.  ¿Where is the graffiti, or the bars on the windows, or the liquor stores on the corner?  It was so disorienting!

He has absolutely no idea how to navigate this strange new place.  It’s as if he reached into his suitcase and found that he had packed the wrong map.  That he had brought along a pocketknife and matches, when what he really needs are flashlights and a first aid kit.  The tools that he had always relied upon simply didn’t work in this new environment.


The first hint that this is not going to be an easy transition is when he walks into the front door, well, “struts” would be more accurate, and immediately starts opening doors, rummaging through the cupboards, and grabbing food from the refrigerator.  Whoa, whoa, whoa!  Of course I want him to feel at home, but clearly we will need to establish some ground rules and basic manners.  Knock before opening a closed door.  Don’t touch things that do not belong to you.  Ask before taking food.

Someone had told him, perhaps his mamacita, or maybe the social worker, that he was going to live with a rich familia.  That his new parents would be able to afford whatever he wanted.  So he is muy disappointed when the señora at this place shows him to his new bedroom, one that he would apparently be sharing.  ¿Where is the x-box?  The new cell phone?  The Nike Air Jordans?  Man, this is not at all what he had expected.

It doesn’t take me long to realize that I am really in over my head.  He is like a caged lion exploring every corner of his new territory, and I can’t help but stay just one step behind him, offering a running commentary on his every move.  “Please don’t touch my computer,” and “No, no, the cat doesn’t like to be held upside down,” and “Why are you throwing things at the light fixture?”  If he was a toddler, I could have put him in a playpen or contained him behind a safety gate.  But what do you do with an 8-year old who doesn’t understand boundaries?

By the end of the first week, I am pretty frazzled.  Without really thinking through the possible consequences, I suggest to him one afternoon, along with my other kids, “Why don’t you guys go play outside while I fix dinner?”  Right.  He has no idea how to behave inside the house, why would I think that he knows how to act outside?  Within moments, my daughter comes running back inside yelling frantically, “Mama, the new boy has our ax from the garage and he’s chasing the neighbor kids with it!”  Oh great!  He just confirmed what my neighbors secretly suspected all these years: that I harbor potential ax murderers in my home.  (Note to self: don’t allow him out of sight any time soon!)

He isn’t too sure about all the new rules, constant corrections and reminders, and restrictions in his new home and family.  After being independent and allowed to roam freely for his whole life, it is muy dificile being told what to do and what not to do all the time.  And unfortunately, his language skills aren’t quite equal to his strong opinions, so his most frequent response to anything I say is, “I don’e liiiike.”  Or the ever-popular:  “No comprendo.”  How can a child be born and spend time in school right here in America without learning English?  Ironically, although his vocabulary is rather limited, somewhere along the line he has learned how to curse.  Loudly.  In two languages!

Although I am embarrassed to be seen with him in public, I simply can’t keep him isolated indefinitely in the protection and privacy of our home while we work on retraining his appalling behavior.  It is inevitable that we will be seen:  at church, in stores, around the neighborhood.  Which means that our struggling, dysfunctional family frequently has an audience.  People watching me have “hold-the-door-so-it-doesn’t-slam-on-the-person-behind-you” practice.  Witnesses to him screaming, “You’re such a b----!” at the top of his voice when I don’t allow him to put chips in the grocery cart.  I’m sure that the people who observe our interactions must think that I am either insane or the worst mother in the world.  Or possibly both.  It’s truly a miracle that store managers never intervene, neighbors don’t call the police, and the parishioners sitting next to us at church still allow us to attend.  (Note to self:  Young mothers with newborn babies aren’t the only ones who need to ask for help with meals and errands when a child joins a family!)


In spite of the chaotic, stressful days that require my incessant vigilance and relentless training, he slowly begins to worm his way into my heart.  And as the weeks turn into months, without either of us being aware of it, he begins to adjust to his new home and family.  Surprisingly, he seems to accept that my boundaries are not going to change, and realizes that life is more predictable and peaceful when there is consistent structure and dependable expectations.  The angry outbursts gradually diminish.  He relaxes and even makes jokes sometimes.  It’s as if having strong, loving adults in his life enables him to replace his anxiety of survival with the joy of simply being a kid.

I hear his footsteps approaching one morning, and I notice with a start that I don’t cringe at the thought of interacting with him.  Hmm.  I must be getting used to him being in my home.  He struts (yes, he still struts) into the kitchen, and asks casually, “How’ya doing, Mama?”  I am momentarily stunned, not only because he called me Mama, but also because he is actually considering someone else besides himself.  And even more startling of all is the realization that his accent is no longer annoying to me; I actually find it rather endearing.  Hmm.  I guess we have both changed.


What does a foster child take when he prepares to leave?  After months, or even years, what is “his” and what is “ours?”  His favorite Spider Man shirt?  Of course.  The jeans that fit him properly instead of hanging low around his hips?  Oh, yes.  The second-hand bicycle that he has enjoyed riding in our neighborhood?  Well, how would he store it in his mother’s already-crowded apartment?  Where would he ride it in his inner-city neighborhood? Actually, it would probably get stolen within 24 hours.  Better leave the bike here.

What about the all the pictures that we have taken while he lived with us?  Would he want to remember his first family camping trip, the days spent at the park, opening presents with us on Christmas morning?  Or would he and his birth family not want to be reminded of the time they had been separated?  I will put them into a photo album for him to take, and hope that he remembers this part of his journey with fondness instead of bitterness.

“Mama?”  His voice interrupts the difficult task of packing his suitcase, the time when I drive myself crazy second-guessing every decision.  “Can I take dees Bible that you gave me?  I think mi familia weel like eet.”  Wow!  Really?  He doesn’t ask about the Legos or the DVD’s or the soccer ball he plays with daily.  “Why?” I ask.  “What do you think they will like about it?”

During the time he had lived with us, we had attended a community Bible study together, and he had memorized verses from the book of Genesis.  He especially connected with the verse in Genesis 4:7 that said, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."  In fact, Papa had reminded him of that verse many times when he was in trouble!  Now, he explains, he wants his mamacita to know that he has been doing what is right, that he is learning how to master his sin.  Oh, yes, this is definitely a “souvenir” I wanted him to keep!  (Note to self:  It's possible to be a missionary without even leaving home!)


I have my home back, my quiet, peaceful home that now feels cavernous without his large personality to fill it.  But I am not the same person I was before he came.  My world has expanded to include people who are different from me.  And my perspective has changed: I no longer think that my world is “normal” and their world is not, that my way of doing things is right while their way is wrong.  (Well, not the illegal stuff, of course.)  They’re just different, that’s all.  And I’m okay with that.

He’s the brave one.  I will most likely never go to the inner city community with its broken windows and broken families.  But he came to mine.  He left his familiar world for a brief time, and took a journey to a place that was, to him, strange and terrifying.  There, he learned about the love of God and what it means to live in a family.  He saw for the first time how a godly man can impact his family.  

He took his Bible with him when he left, and I hope that he is continuing to share God’s love with his familia, with the people in the urban world he calls home.  Perhaps, with God's help, he will grow up to be a faithful husband and loving father, ending the generational cycle of absent men, poverty, illiteracy, and crime that currently permeate his city.  I pray that God will use his unique experience to give him a new perspective, a vision to make a difference in his world.  I truly believe that the Lord who “began a good work” in him “will be faithful to complete it.”

And some day, at the end of this temporary journey, we may meet again in our forever Home, that Country where language barriers and culture shock do not exist.  Where Jesus will look at us standing side by side and will say to us both, “¡Muy bien!”

1 comment:

  1. So well written and Thank You for sharing Belinda. No doubt, he was truly blessed by your family.