As you may recall, a couple of months ago I became involved with a multi-church effort to resettle a large refugee family. These Congolese people had spent many years (in some cases their entire lives) in a camp in Tanzania and came to the USA at the end of August bringing with them little more than the clothing on their backs.
They've learned so much in the two months they've been here and they have so much more to learn. In fact, I've been asked to head up a team to identify and teach life skills across a wide spectrum: from which foods need to be refrigerated to how to take public transportation. A big issue this week was how to adjust the thermostat. Initially my team was to be called "American Life Skills," but I thought later "This American Life" might be better. Then it occurred to me that the real name for the team should be "First World Problems."
They're learning, and as their English improves ("I am fine. How are you?"), it becomes easier for them to learn practical things.
We're learning about them, too. For instance, they are appreciative. They never fail to say "thank you" when we take them things or give them a ride to English class. They are easy laughers. Some kids are prone to tantrums, no matter what their culture.The children and the adults alike are spontaneously affectionate; hugs abound with every encounter.
And a big, still unanswered question has come to my mind.
In anticipation of the change in the weather, Cherie and I went to their home a couple of weeks ago to assess their warm clothing needs. We'd been told that the agency we work with had given them coats and hats and gloves, but we felt the need to check and be sure that everyone would be okay on that first day of a big drop in temperature.
We told the family we were there to talk about coats and asked to see the ones they had. They told us they had no coats. None. We looked in the big downstairs closet. No coats. None. We asked permission to check upstairs, and permission was readily granted. There we found coats, a few more than one coat per person. So we decided to focus on scarves, gloves, and hats, and are nearly there.
But the questions were raised and have stayed with me. Why did they say they had no coats? Did they not understand what we were asking? We had noticed that the family had all kinds of things that they did not need, especially clothing of sizes that wouldn't fit anyone in the household. Someone speculated that in the refugee camp there was some sort of a barter system where they could trade things they didn't need for things that they did; it turned out that this was accurate. But still. They knew they had coats. And told us otherwise. There's a chance that they didn't really understand the question. Or perhaps they simply wanted to increase their stash of trade-ables. Or some other explanation that I can't fathom. It doesn't really matter. I'm certainly not condemning; rather, trying to understand.
The big question, though, that I don't know how to answer is this one: Is truth a universally understood concept? Is truth telling an ethic across cultures? Or do people from some cultures -- much like our own little ones -- need to be taught the difference between truth and untruth? This