Although I am a believer in active planning to carve out the life we choose, I am also willing, from time to time, to leave my door open to serendipity.
Three weeks ago J and I got an email from the coordinators of our local AFS organization, an international student exchange program. They needed a temporary host family for a 15 year old girl from Pakistan who still had not been placed with a host family for the 2012-13 school year. After a brief discussion, we decided to take the leap. We said yes.
Since there is a Q in her name, I will call her "Q." Q arrived at the Bangor airport on August 17th. Previous to her three-day orientation in Washington, DC, she had never been out of Pakistan, never left her family before. Every cultural exchange student faces difficult adjustments when they come for their year in the US, but we have never hosted a student from a culture quite as different as this one.
Q is Muslim, may not eat meat (unless it is "Halal" meat, which is not much available in Bangor, Maine), must always have her legs and shoulders covered, and is supposed to pray five times a day (though she admits, in a universally familiar teen way, that she does not always meet every prayer requirement). The weekend that she arrived happened to fall during Eid, the big annual celebration at the end of Ramadan. Though she wears western clothes most of the time while here, she wore her traditional clothing and head scarf all that weekend. She cooked us delicious spiced rice and and sweet dessert and privately said her dawn prayers in her room. She comes from a culture where men and women are quite strictly segregated in many areas of life, physical contact with men is heavily restricted, and dogs are generally seen as unclean, frightening guard animals that bite.
That covers only a few of the cultural hurdles that Q has had to negotiate during her introductory weeks in the US. This is an exceptionally courageous young woman.
Q arrived here with a clear and powerful sense of purpose. She is one of scores of students from predominantly Muslim countries who are here under a government-sponsored scholarship program called "Youth Exchange and Study" (YES) that began in 2002. While she is here, she will be required to take part in various community service projects, give presentations about her culture and her country, and learn about US culture and customs. When I asked about her decision to come, she said that many people in her country have ideas about what Americans are like, "and they are so wrong." With enormous support from her parents, whose leap of faith may be the greatest of all in sending their young daughter off to a faraway country for a year, she wants to dispel the myths amongst her countrymen.
Those myths go equally in the opposite direction. Within her first few days in town, an adult asked Q about terrorism in Pakistan. She said, "There are good people and bad people everywhere, but most of the people in Pakistan are good."
If only we had a global recognition of this reality - a reality that is true for every country on the planet!
It's hard to conceive of the inner resources that Q must be calling upon to face this year-long challenge, not least of which is simply missing her family. There have certainly been tears, but they are always coupled with strength, with a gentle apology, with excitement for new experiences, and with determination to cope. In one week she went from abject terror of our three dogs to tentative pats on their heads and offers to feed them dinner. She dives into social situations with a bright face of anticipation and readiness to both listen to others and share her experiences.
But this cross-cultural world is filled with tough maneuvers. After a couple of weeks of mind-boggling assimilation on her part, Q hit a wall of woe in the last day or two. She couldn't stop the tears one evening, and her solution moved me deeply. She needed to reconnect to her own culture; she needed to say her prayers.
Last night, Q asked me to remind her which way is east is from our house. She wrote a schedule of the five prayer times (interesting and lovely explanation at this link) for our particular geographical location (based on the sun). The first prayer comes before dawn, so she set her clock for 4am.
Prayers are brief, but their importance is to connect believers throughout the day to God and to the deeper meaning in our lives.
Is that so far from what we all seek to do? Not for me. In fact, Q's decision to get back on track with her connection to the deeper meaning in life inspired me to do the same. In a very real way my sunrise walks, which are so easy to cast aside when I am in my comfortable bed, serve as a kind of spiritual practice for me. I need to remember to take the time to be still, to center myself, to take a deep breath and reflect upon the deeper meaning in life.
It can never be anything but a positive exercise to reconnect ourselves to God, or nature, or the spirit of life, or our own deepest essence -- whatever feels most deeply real and important to each of us. It makes us more complete.
J and I opened our doors to serendipity by saying yes to hosting a YES student from Pakistan. Serendipity brought us an amazing gift that, perhaps, has only just begun to reward us with revelations.
After Q turned east this morning to say her pre-dawn prayers, I walked outside and turned east to greet the sun, the new day, the quiet time of reflection before the bustle of the day begins. We have so much more in common than we realize.