Upon reentering our Central Asian country we had to sign that we would self-quarantine for fourteen days. In spite of much ambiguity about whether this is actually required, we are trying to honor this request as much as possible. However, there were a few tasks that needed to be done in our immediate neighborhood in order to be able to stay at home for these two weeks, such as replacing a burned-up component of our electricity box. The lack of constant electricity is such a common grievance here that the government would definitely count replacing this piece as a permissible exception. “Give us independence! … or if not… we’ll settle for 24 hour electricity.” is the joke refrain among some of the demographics here.
On our first or second day back I was sneaking out of our courtyard in order to put something in our vehicle. As I hurried down the street, masked, I saw a 50-year-old-looking man approaching me in the native dress of a different people group, the outfit of the historic enemies of our majority neighbors here. He stopped me and began to ask me something, but in the other major language here that I haven’t been able to learn, focused as we’ve been on our people group’s tongue. There is a swathe of shared vocabulary between these languages, however, and I was able to discern the word for “neighbor.” This man seemed to be asking about my neighbors. I apologized and told him that I didn’t speak his language and moved on to my vehicle. But I pointed to another neighbor’s 20-something son who is fluent in this language and indicated that he could help him.
When I was walking back to my house, there he was again. The young man then began translating for us. “He’s your new neighbor!” he said. “He wants to let you know that he is honored to meet you and that he is at your service.”
I began kicking myself inwardly. I had done it again, rushed out to be about my business without moving slowly enough to make room for respectful greetings and interactions with others. Yes, I had the quarantine to consider, but here was my first interaction with my immediate neighbor, and I had essentially brushed him off. Depending on his personality, he could take offense at this. I quickly recomposed myself and used the few respectful phrases I know in this other language, holding my hand over my heart and hoping that my eyes would show my smile beneath the face mask. We proceeded to have a brief and respectful interaction, mediated by our translator, who as a member of the younger generation began rolling his eyes a bit at all these pleasantries. My neighbor seemed to overlook my mistake gracefully.
Living between Western culture and Central Asian culture presents this daily difficulty: how to be productive and time-oriented with my coworkers and Western partners while still leaving enough margin in my day for honorable interactions with Central Asians. If I’m not careful, I slip right back into productivity mode. I step outside my gate expecting to be able to immediately get in my car so that I can make it to that meeting on time. Yet often there is another neighbor just then driving up or standing in the street, eager for the kind of friendly and respectful interaction that makes for good neighbors here and a good reputation.
To love and respect Central Asians I need to communicate to them that I have time for them and that their relationship is more important to me than my to-do list. And yet I tend to be a man at war within myself. I’m either knocking out the emails, projects, and meetings and blowing by my Central Asian neighbors, or I’m taking the time necessary to build those relationships and resigning myself to my ballooning inbox and to-do list. My current strategy is to make mornings my protected productivity time while leaving the rest of the day open for the unpredictable, time-consuming, and ever so valuable task of relationship-building.
A couple days after we met, my new neighbor caught me again peeking outside my gate, trying to figure out why we had lost electricity. He eagerly engaged me, even though he knew that I didn’t understand his language. But this time he managed to share two new pieces of information with me. First, he is actually from a minority here, what we call an unengaged people group. This means there is no established church among this people group and there is no one that we know of currently strategizing to reach them. The second thing that he shared with me was that I am now his brother.
Remarkable. Even after years of working with Central Asians, I continue to be amazed by their overflowing hospitality and respect. There is a regional proverb that says, “The first day we are friends, the second day we are brothers.” This neighbor had moved in while we were away, so technically he is the newcomer. I should be welcoming him. Yet I had possibly acted dishonorably in our first interaction. I haven’t learned his languages nor done anything yet to serve him. Yet he proclaims me his brother.
I have come to understand that these over-the-top statements are not always meant to be taken literally. It is an honor-shame culture, after all. Yet they are said genuinely by enough of the population that I still find myself perplexed at how anyone can have so much energy for respectful hospitality. Perhaps another local proverb has had a deep effect on them, “Guests are God’s guests.” At any rate, I still have a long way to go in learning from my local friends how to live slowly enough and energetically enough to be an honorable man in this culture. How that is supposed to mesh with the Western side of my life, I really can’t say. I suppose it is a tension that will always be there.
I’m grateful for my new neighbor, my new self-proclaimed brother. No foreigner that we know of has ever learned his language. He’s probably never heard the gospel before. Perhaps God will use his cultural honor, grace, and hospitality as a means by which we can eventually show him supernatural honor, grace, and hospitality through the gospel. Oh for the chance to share the gospel in a way he will understand. Are we supposed to learn his language? Are we supposed to recruit others to do this? There are at least five unengaged language groups like his in our country where no missionary has ever learned to speak their mother tongue. These are things to commit to serious prayer.
For now, I am grateful for the common grace of good neighbors. Rather than ignoring us as the strange foreigners, they have instead proclaimed us to be family. May we indeed become true family, co-members of the household of God.