Suresh the Tamil Taxi Driver
Tonight I was treated to a lovely dinner at a local Korean restaurant by a Korean friend of mine. Our dinner party also included three Filipinos, a Japanese, and one Canadian. We are together in Singapore. Such a gathering of the scattered in today’s borderless world is becoming less and less novel.
We split up and took a cab home. I sat in front next to the driver, Suresh.
I said, "Good evening, how are you?"
He said, "I am good, sir, and you?"
I said, looking at his driver ID, "I am good. Is your name Suresh?"
He said, "Yes," with a smile.
I said, "Oh, your name means 'God is good'," a fact I had learned from my Nepali neighbors in Chicago. He smiled wider because he hadn't ever known the proper meaning and had only heard that it was a name associated with a Hindu deity.
I asked, "What kind of last name do you have?" And I tried to pronounce "Arokiam" correctly.
He said, "Tamil."
We then spoke about his life, children, parents, and how he was a third-generation Singaporean who had never actually been to India. We talked of cricket and Hindu peoples in Chicago, and that my favorite Tamil breakfast was idli and podi.
Suresh said, "You need to find a very old cook to give you proper idli. Young people now don't know real Tamil food."
He added that my accent was just like an Indian, and said that if we spoke on the phone, then he would think I was Indian. I told him that I felt that was a great compliment and thanked him. We reached our destination and we both wished for a longer taxi ride.
Aliza the Malay Cashier
Several hours later, I gave in to my jet lag and wandered onto Bukit Tima Road and over to the 24-hour supermarket. I staggered up to the checkout at 3:30 am with arms fully loaded with various snacks and many bags of dried mangos to take home to my wife.
The cashier was a tiny hijabed Muslim lady, and she smiled when I approached. She quietly laughed and said, "You didn't want a cart, sir?"
I said, "You know how men shop, yes? We don't even know what we are shopping for until we see it. And then suddenly we have spent all our money."
Laughing, she asked, "You don't sleep, sir?"
"I'm jetlagged and decided to go for a walk. I'm visiting Singapore from Chicago."
Then I asked, "Are you originally from Singapore?" She said she came from Malaysia and explained that she took a one-hour bus trip daily into Singapore to work the night shift at the supermarket. We talked about her family and mine and my work with coffee and how God is good to give us many blessings that we never expected.
She said her name was Aliza and extended a soft, timid hand for me to shake. We wished one another a good evening and both thought we would likely meet again.
Let's Not Overcomplicate This
There is much that is and will be complicated as we attempt to engage in cross-cultural mission either as host-nation followers of Jesus welcoming migrants into our world, or as migrants ourselves, seeking to enter the world of the ‘other’ in the name of Jesus. There is much that is complicated about breaking barriers and, well, changing the world. But one thing that is entirely uncomplicated is the first step.
I don't live in Singapore, but if I did, I could easily have asked Suresh to take me to a place for good idli. I could also easily go back to that supermarket a few times a week and slowly get to know Aliza. And the three of us have already agreed that (1) God is good and (2) that our ethno-religio-cultural differences are not barriers big enough to keep us out of one another's worlds.
Entering the other's world is just as simple as beginning the conversation. No advanced missiological or cross-cultural training is necessary. Patience, a teachable spirit, humility, and a love for the people for whom Christ died are enough to begin.
You’ll surely learn and sharpen many tools along the way, but ultimately you just begin by beginning. And all our hopes to change the world begin there—to step right into the world of the ‘other’, to smile. and to say hello.