Cross-Cultural Interaction

A call to let your heart expand

We’ve had three Colombian exchange students staying with us for the better part of the summer. As their time with us is drawing to a close, I find myself becoming more and more nostalgic.

I remember when they first arrived in our apartment. The first few mornings, I offered to drive them to work, just until they’d gotten their bearings.

Those drives were so quiet.

“These girls must be painfully shy,” I thought to myself. It was like pulling teeth to get them to say anything. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realized just how NOT shy they really were.

They dance around our apartment. They make jokes and tease us. They bring home food for us and play games with us and meet our friends. They have made my life this summer so much richer.

They are most decidedly not shy.

Why did I have that impression, then, when they first arrived?

I thought back to the first few days of my arrival in Costa Rica as a scared 18-year-old with only a rudimentary command of the Spanish language. I was petrified. Scared of misunderstanding what was said to me, scared of making a mistake, I chose to retreat into myself and say as little as possible.

It wasn’t until some kind Costa Ricans befriended me that I began to come out of my shell. When they chose to have patience with my broken Spanish, when they took me on excursions with them and shared their world with me.

I think the same thing happened with our guests. In fact, I would venture to say that behind every well-adjusted foreigner is a group of friendly locals, people who have taken the time to pour into someone so frightened and far from home.

It’s easy to look at this as an act of charity, something magnanimous we can do to help someone else.

What we forget is how much they can help us, too. How investing in someone from such a different background can open us up to vulnerability, connection, and relationship in a way that few other things can.

It’s been nearly a decade since I returned from that first trip abroad to Costa Rica. My life has never been the same, and I still often look back with fondness at that summer. The friends I made during that time made an enormous impact on me. Yet until now, I’ve never really thought about the impact I might have also had on them.

Now that I’ve been on the other side of the equation, I’ve got lots more to think about. I hope I gave my Costa Rican friends the same joy that my Colombian guests have given me. I hope they learned and grew as much as I did.

Mostly, though, I hope that others will be inspired to do the same – to love on someone who needs it, allow them to love you back, and be amazed by how much your heart expands.

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