Followers of this blog--if any remain!--know that my posting frequency has been dwindling. Since moving back to Boston two years ago, I spend most of my time outside work engaged in anti-racism work and immigrant justice. I still love and use foreign languages, but they don't occupy the foreground of my thoughts very much anymore. Tonight, however, I have a story that brings it all back together.
As part of the Spiritual Care Givers program at Refugee Immigration Ministry, I provide chaplaincy services to immigrants detained at the local jail. We do not provide legal advice or facilitate contact with family; we simply listen to them, letting them know they are not forgotten. The work is important to me because it lets me maintain a connection to the people most affected by policies whose effects can easily seem impersonal and irrelevant. I hope it is also some small comfort to the detainees.
I wasn't sure how much help I'd be tonight. Still recovering from a bad cold earlier this week, exhausted and a little depressed, I made the hour-long trek to the jail to find that only one other person had showed up; our coordinator was stuck in traffic. We were escorted into the unit, the usual announcement was made, but no one came out. For twenty minutes we sat there; I wondered if we'd be talking to anyone tonight. Then, through the window to the hall containing the cells, I saw a young Latino man gesturing to a sixty-something Chinese man, who came out, looked at me, and said apprehensively, "Ni hao."
I asked, "Would you like to talk to us?" but he responded, "No English."
I was prepared to offer ministry in Spanish; I've done it before. Many of the immigrant detainees are Latino, and my Spanish is somewhere between advanced and fluent. My Mandarin, on the other hand, is abysmal. Characterizing my skills as "conversational" is generous. Nonetheless, this man needed to talk, and I was there. I explained apologetically several times that my Chinese was very bad. I had to ask him to speak slowly, and even then I only understood a fraction of what he was saying. I didn't understand the details of how he'd come to be in detention, only that he had been living in New York and that he'd been at the jail for over two months.
I can only imagine what it must be like for him in there: far from family, unable to speak to or understand a soul, herded around day after day through the routines of prison life, not knowing what the future holds. He told me that there had been a few other Chinese detainees earlier, but they were gone. I asked if he'd spoken to a lawyer, and he showed me a business card but told me it was of no use. He asked me whether there were other Chinese-speaking people at the jail; I told him I wasn't employed there. I don't know the Chinese word for volunteer, so I explained that I just came once a month, then said haltingly, "Church. Minister. But I'm not a minister. I just come so people can talk." We talked about our families; he has two sons about my age, and granddaughters the same age as my daughters. I felt his yearning for human connection, his gratitude at being able to speak to someone who could understand, even if only partially. I taught him how to say "Good morning" and "Good night" and encouraged him to practice with the people around him.
When the hour was over and we were instructed to wrap things up, I couldn't remember how to say, "I'm sorry you're in here. Good luck." I don't remember what I said instead to try and convey my feelings, but I think he understood. I clasped his hands, and he said, "Xie xie." I don't know if I'll ever see him again.
This is what it's about for me, this drive to learn and master as many languages as possible. It's about being able to be that bridge, the person who can connect to people, whether it's interpreting at the pet store or helping a tourist at the subway station or talking to an immigrant detainee. I have the motivation to keep pushing myself with my Mandarin studies now, and in time I know I'll achieve the fluency I desire. But tonight, tonight even a little was enough.