My new book, “The Making of a Servant,” is about how God, the Potter, molds us, the clay, into the vessel He wants us to be. Sometimes this molding can be painful, sometimes humorous, and sometimes exhilarating! I share here an excerpt from my book illustrating a lot of pain, some humor, but not much exhilaration in the process of making me a cross-cultural servant.
“Standing at the lectern, shifting from one foot to the other, breaking into a cold sweat, I looked out on an entire class of New Yorkers laughing uncontrollably, looking at me! I faintly heard the professor saying, “Quiet! Quiet, class! This is highly impolite. Okay, Mr. James, begin your speech again.”
I took a deep breath and broke the silence: “I want to tell y’all how to raise tobacco.”
The class again broke into peals of laughter.
One by one, each of the students from every borough of New York City and towns in New Jersey had presented his or her speech. I was the last to speak. I could not understand why everyone was laughing at me! I had enrolled in a communications class to begin night school at Pace College (now Pace University) in the business district of Manhattan. This seemed like a fairly easy course for me. The first assignment was a five-minute talk on how to do something.
The professor calmed the class and turned to me. “Mr. James, please sit down and listen.”
From the podium to my seat seemed like a thousand miles.
“In the first place, you don’t have to say ‘y’all.’ The word ‘you’ includes everyone. Also, you don’t raise tobacco. You grow tobacco.” He repeated to be sure I understood, “You raise children. You grow tobacco!”
At that point, I was feeling frustrated, helpless, embarrassed, and angry. I spoke back, “Where I come from, you raise tobacco.”
With an overly condescending attitude, he said very slowly, “But you are not there anymore. You are not going to be able to speak your colloquial dialect and expect to be taken seriously.”
“You will have to learn to say things where you are living, not where you formerly lived. I will challenge you in this class to listen to your fellow students and learn how to express yourself in an understandable way—in this context.”
Though this was a painful moment, this lesson defined much of my cross-cultural communication through the years.