“Do not judge, so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7:1-2
Although I identify myself spiritually as a Christian, I firmly believe that many other ancient traditions’ teachings are just as beautiful as those of Christ and, in fact, parallel them in many ways. For me, the chants and quotes and mantras we learn at Shanti Yoga Center have actually enhanced and even deepened my faith. At yoga class this morning our wonderful teacher, Sundari, played a song for us to listen to and join in the chorus when we felt ready. The chorus was not in English until the end. It was the same three words repeated over and over again, “By His Grace.” It was very powerful for me personally and I felt deeply moved. She also gave us a quote, a Sufi Poem from Rumi. It reads, “The law of wonder rules my life at last. I burn each second of my life to love. In each leaping second, love lives afresh.” I didn’t give that one too much thought because there were a couple of other quotes that she gave us that I felt resonated more deeply with me. One was a Chinese Proverb – “People in the West are always getting ready to live.” The other one was a simple, yet powerful quote from Swami Rama – “Contentment is falling in love with your own life.” I could think of so many things these two meant to me and so many examples that I really didn’t give the other much thought. Or…. did I?
For the longest time I thought that Bible verse at the beginning of Matthew meant that if I called somebody a “meanie” then I would probably be called “meanie”. I tried not to say things about people that I didn’t want anybody else to say about me. What I’ve come to realize is that this really means that if I judge someone harshly I had better be prepared to have my own life examined and judged just as harshly. So when I was in the grocery store deli on the way home from yoga I had to remind myself not to judge someone. And that’s when the real magic happened for me.
Before I begin my little story I thought I should mention that not only should I “know better” from a golden-rule, how-to-treat-others standpoint, I also should have known better because of my language education background. I speak Spanish proficiently. I would almost say fluently but I wouldn’t want to have to interpret in a court of law. And my accent is pretty decent. Some people from south of the border can tell I’m a “gringa” and I’ve had people from South America tell me they don’t detect an accent – possibly because my first three years of instruction were with a Chilean woman. I have an M.Ed. with not one, but two areas of focus: Reading & Literacy and ESL/ELL. I also have a Reading & Literacy certification and a certification in ESL/ELL. So I know what the research says about the difficulties of learning English past a certain age, about accents, about transferences, interferences, and fossilizations from a home language to a second language. So truly, I should have known better.
In one of the grocery stores near where I live there is a woman who works in the deli whose voice I find a bit irritating. It is high-pitched, sharp, and loud. I always feel like she’s yelling at me. And, on top of that, she is heavily-accented and sometimes hard to understand, and it seems every other sentence sound like it ends in a question (a fossilization, perhaps?). Her native language is Chinese, although I don’t know what dialect. The poem I heard at the Shanti center must have wormed its way into my brain anyway, because as soon as I heard her say (okay, in my mind she was screaming) “I CAH HEP YOU???” I thought, “Oh boy.” And then I realized that she is not the problem here. My perception is. She isn’t annoying, I’m the one who decided to become annoyed. So I decided I would take the approach of loving her voice instead of feeling annoyed. I figured I needed to come up with something about it I could love. So I made a quick little list in my head: Her voice is strong; There is a lot of confidence in her voice; She speaks a second language; It must be scary to live in a foreign country and work in a supermarket deli – she might have been a rocket scientist in China; She isn’t actually mean or anything; She’s kind of amusing, really. So my heart softened a bit and a small smile began to spread across my face.
I hadn’t intended to get Chinese food. It’s sooooo bad for you out of the grocery store deli. A sandwich or a chicken strip, maybe. But she asked again, “I CAH HEP YOU??” I told her I wasn’t really sure what I wanted. I asked her if the General Tsao was any good so she offered me a sample. I asked her if i was saying it correctly. I thought it was pronounced “sow”, like “cow” but there is a really great movie calledThe 7 Faces of Dr. Lao with Tony Randall (I highly recommend this one, by the way) and Dr. Lao pronounces his own name as “LOW”. So I wasn’t really sure. She said I was correct the first time and then told me in Chinese how it is really pronounced. She told me that in English it is called “General Tsao” because that’s kind of what it sounds like when you hear it in Chinese but you don’t speak Chinese, so it was spelled the way it sounds. In the world of language learning, that’s called transliterating, by the way, spelling a word the way it sounds in English when the word’s language of origin uses a different alphabet. Then she told me something really interesting. She told me that she was from Hong Kong and that she learned English in school there and that it was too hard to transliterate her Chinese name to English because it sounds like “Why Sue” and she didn’t know how to spell it. So she went with one of the English name choices she had been presented with by her teachers when she was in the public school system there. When she was growing up, Hong Kong was ruled by the British Empire. So all of her classes, except one, were in English.
Hearing that was pretty humbling for a couple of reasons. One, it reminded me of how difficult it really is to learn English because this woman is in her 50s, if not her 60s, and I would have never guessed she’s spoken English nearly all of her life. Two, I can’t imagine knowing my nationality was one thing and then being taken over by another and told I have no choice but to learn a new language and be proficient enough in it immediately to be able to survive school and state testing. And three, because it reminded me that everybody has a story, no matter who we are. We all have one. The problem is that none of us wants to sit still long enough to listen to others’ stories. Oh sure, we expect everybody else to listen to us and sympathize but actual listening? Hearing?
I’m glad I chose to listen today and that I chose to soften my heart and listen from a place of love. It made me feel more compassionate toward a woman who lives in a country not her own for whatever reasons she felt compelled to leave China and come here. I can only imagine what that must be like. It made me admire her. It made her voice sound like the purest music to me when she said “OKAY YOU HAB NIGH DAY NOW!” It made me look forward to the next time I see her.
I caught a glimpse of the Chinese woman’s name tag as she checked me out. The English name she had chosen for herself? Grace.