If you’re going to live in another country, it’s guaranteed that you are going to feel like an idiot at some point. We have all been there. (Some of us are there so often that we have annual passes.)
Often, it’s what we say that makes us sound like idiots. We tell the clerk at the furniture store that we’d like to buy a two-person boat instead of a bed. We try to express sympathy to our grieving friend, and end up saying something like, “Oops! Sorry your grandma died. My bad.” We launch insults and foul language at people when we’re actually attempting to be kind and polite.
For whatever reason, I find it easy to laugh at myself in these situations. It’s inevitable that I will occasionally end up misspeaking, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. Locals are very forgiving, too. They know I’m a foreigner and are generally amazed that I can speak their language at all, never expecting me to speak it perfectly. I may feel like an idiot, but no one actually thinks I am one. Everyone, including myself, has grace for me. I end up being a “good idiot,” if there is such a thing.
However, there are times when it’s much harder to be a good idiot.
Once, I bought a pair of curtains at IKEA during a visit to Hong Kong. It was so much cheaper than getting them made in our town, which was my only other option. Upon returning to our town, where no one had heard of IKEA or premade curtains, I went to the seamstress to have them shortened so they would fit our windows. Another customer started berating me. “What kind of moron buys the wrong size curtains? Why would you do that? Why didn’t you buy the right size to start with? Wasting money, that’s what you’re doing.”
She was perfectly clear in her pronouncement: I was an idiot.
In that moment, it was hard for me to laugh things off, or even to keep my cool. In fact, I felt a surge of anger. My natural reaction was to retaliate, to defend, to shout right back in anger, “You’re the idiot! You really think you’re an expert on curtains from foreign countries? You, who have never even set foot outside this county, let alone this country?”
Why is it harder to let things like this go? What is it that ruffled my feathers so much?
In the earlier examples, everyone knows that I’m making an innocent mistake, and no one thinks badly of me for it. But with the curtain lady, I felt unfairly judged. By the rules that govern her world, I was behaving like a stupid person, and yet I knew I was doing something pretty wise. It hurt my pride and it felt unjust. And, let’s face it, when someone insults you, the normal gut reaction is to throw an insult right back. Couple all that with the difficulties of living in a foreign country, and you get an expat who wants to be anything but a good idiot.
You get me, standing there, ready to say something really nasty.
But yelling at her would accomplish nothing. Or rather, it would accomplish this: the woman would conclude that not only is the foreigner a moron, she also has a bad temper. She is not a good idiot, she is a total jerk. And that is really not the impression I want to leave with people around here.
It is very hard to find grace in the heat of a moment like that one, but thankfully, sometimes grace is supplied for me. For one thing, it’s a saving grace that it’s harder for me to speak Chinese when I’m upset. It’s a blessing that I’m not able to put together a sentence I will soon regret.
Grace also shows up in other forms. In the curtain situation, the seamstress started speaking calmly to the other customer in the local language, which I couldn’t follow. I don’t know if she was defending me, or just trying to get the lady to stop being rude, but her quiet words did the trick. The other customer keep eyeing me and my curtains, and muttered a few things under her breath, but the insults stopped. I was grateful to the seamstress. It gave me the space to cool down, and to remember that in the grand scheme of things, it’s okay for me to look like an idiot in the eyes of the other lady. A good idiot.
As we walk (or stumble) along on our journey in our host countries, it’s inevitable that we’ll face misunderstandings, miscommunication, and other times where we look and feel like complete idiots. May we always have the grace, or accept the grace, to be good idiots.
(And who knows, maybe someday that lady will see the prices in IKEA and finally understand that I was not so stupid after all.)
How are you daily facing your idiocy? Have you found grace in the mysteries place? Share your stories!