Sit at My Table: The American Friend Experience
I remember my initial idea of what to anticipate from my mentorship experience: my role was to help a newly arrived refugee family learn about American life and culture. I entered my mentee’s home with IRC’s volunteer coordinator, equipped with a sheet of paper that stated the family’s basics: a Burmese family of eight, all with names I couldn’t pronounce.
The husband greeted me with a very cordial nod. It was immediately evident none of them could speak English. I later learned they had lived in a refugee camp for 17 years in Thailand. Most of the children were born in the camp, and the others were too young to remember life before it. They came from very rural Burma, had never had electricity, carpet, running water, or used a Western toilet or kitchen. Dallas, Texas was quite a change for them, where they lived in a two-bedroom, carpeted apartment with modern amenities they had never seen before, let alone used. And now, there was a strange American girl sitting at their table. They appeared timid and shy.
Faced by the mounting reality of my mentorship assignment, I too suddenly felt timid and shy.
But those feelings didn’t last long. After a few basic attempts at communicating without a common spoken language, walls of self-consciousness between us gradually deteriorated. We began to open up to one another, building one of the most unique, meaningful relationships I’ve ever experienced. There is a level of trust that comes with sharing such extraordinary uncertainty as I’ve experienced with this family, who I now know by name; an honor that came after countless hours of unabashed miming and experimenting with foreign sounds. During my third visit, Myat, the wife of Tin and mother of 6 beautiful children, burst out in laughter after struggling with pronouncing the word ‘left.’ It was the first time I saw her smile, and within moments, the entire family and I joined her in laughter together. From that point forward, our relationship has been one of friendship – I was no longer the unfamiliar American at their table.
In the months that followed, I have seen this family grow, transform and overcome incredible challenges through their steadfast perseverance. Tin had found a job working a catering job he was very proud of, the children were able to communicate basic phrases and words of English, and Myat comfortably fulfilled the daily routines her American neighbors often take for granted.
I entered into this mentoring position thinking I would be providing a service to a family in-need. I have found that, instead, the service they provided me has been so much more. I continue to be humbled and inspired by them.
- Valerie Flynn