Looking At Home Through Different Eyes
by David Sisler
Elena Vladimirovna Borisenko was 19 when I met her three years ago. Lena became a close friend and a willing helper for my wife, Bonnie, and I, as we lived and ministered in Samara, Russia, her home town. When she graduated from college this summer, we flew her to America--fulfilling her life-long dream.
Not long after she arrived, a friend of mine asked her (he thought he was being clever), "Do you want to defect?"
Lena drew herself up to her full height, and said sharply, "No! I love my country!"
"Good for you, kid!" I thought proudly. "Good for you."
Watching Lena, and listening to her, as she explored a little bit of America, my pride in my own country swelled. Looking at home through the eyes of a foreigner is an experience I highly recommend.
When was the last time you watched popcorn exploding in a microwave oven and danced with sheer delight at the sight? Never? Same here. But the first evening she was in our home, Lena did. Something we take very much for granted, but something Lena taught us anew to appreciate.
She was startled the first time the automatic seat belt retracted in our car. She watched with wonder as Bonnie wrote her own money--a personal check. She observed, perhaps incorrectly, that "there is a church on every corner," but then she said, with absolute correctness, "That is why America is so blessed!"
She wanted to try everything. No matter what we ate, Lena tasted it. When I offered her a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast one morning, she declined at first, but then took a small bite. She screwed up her face, swallowed hard and said, "I was right!"
The first restaurant she visited in America was a buffet. We explained the system to her and she marveled, "You mean I can pick anything I want, and then pick some more?"
The almost unlimited variety of choices was initially overpowering to Lena. She said that friends had told her about America, "but until I saw it for myself, I did not believe them."
After her first shopping trip she said, "Next time, do not take me where there are so many choices!" But shopping soon became her favorite American sport--not the buying, just the looking. She enjoyed going to the mall and just wandering for hours.
If you've ever shopped in Russia, you know why it was such a joy for her to be in American stores. In Russia, you have to ask someone to help you, and they will, eventually. In Russia, almost all of the merchandise is behind the counter, not easily available for examination. Lena marveled that here, almost everything is out in the open, where, she said, "I can touch it."
Clothes are particularly hard to purchase. It's not that they are scarce, but finding your size is very difficult. And if you have a particular style in mind, forget it. Lena said, "If I can find one pair of shoes, in my size, close to what I want, I buy them." She took several pairs of new shoes back home.
Lena enjoyed worshiping here. She enjoyed the spirited, charismatic-style singing at our church. She could flow with the spirit of the service and not have to worry so much about the words. Understanding God's presence is a lot easier than understanding a stranger speaking English with an unusual accent.
While Lena was a guest in our home, my ministry took me back to Samara for five weeks. And in a fashion similar to our young guest, I saw things that I had not seen in previous visits.
I saw a homeless woman, about 50 years old, washing herself in the street, using cold water from the public faucet and trying to maintain some dignity.
I saw a man cooking his food beside the sidewalk, over a small wood fire.
I saw a man who had only one foot crawling down the street on his hands and knees.
I saw a man, who from behind looked like an old man, his body twisted by some horrible disease. He drug himself along on crutches, his right foot turned under, becoming a cushion for his left foot and his short left leg. When I walked past him and looked back, I was staring into the face of a young boy, not older than 15.
I saw old ladies, pensioners, begging in the streets, holding pictures of themselves taken 50 years ago when they were young women in uniform, proudly serving their country. Today their pensions, because of inflation, are worthless, and if they are to survive, they must beg. The faded brown photographs say, "I served and now I have nothing. Will you help me?"
I watched Samara's needy and I remembered the unabashed joy of one young woman from that city and her wonder and appreciation of all things American. I recall a greeting we share in church in Samara -- "buits blogoslovania" -- be blessed -- and I think of America and say, "We are! Thank you, God!"
Published in the Augusta Chronicle 11/18/95
Copyright 1995 by David Sisler
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