Learning from the Language

(This post first appeared on Assist News Service in November 2014.)

Most students of a foreign language want to be able to communicate with people from a different culture, either at home or while traveling. But learning a foreign language does so much more than open the doors to communication; it also gives valuable insights into the other culture. For instance, in Japanese there is a word omiyage that refers to the gifts one brings back from a trip to give to family, friends, and co-workers. It is usually translated “souvenir,” but that’s not what it means at all.

In English, a souvenir is something that we bring back from a trip to remember the place we have visited. Sometimes we gift souvenirs to others, but we also keep them for ourselves. They are often tacky trinkets no one would want to keep around under normal circumstances, except that in this instance, they evoke memories. A fridge magnet that says, “I ❤ NY,” seashells with place names etched on them, Eiffel Tower earrings, and T-shirts emblazoned with, “My parents went to (fill in the blank), and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” all come to mind.

Japanese omiyage, on the other hand, are always given away, and they don’t have to have anything to do with the place you visited. The point is not to evoke memories but rather to show that you were thinking about others while you were gone. I would argue that the word omiyage has no direct translation into English, and this linguistic difference highlights a cultural one. Whereas in the United States, bringing gifts back from a trip is appreciated but optional, in Japan it is expected and required.

I have made a few similar discoveries studying Ukrainian, and they have deepened my understanding and appreciation for the culture of my host country. One of these discoveries is the Ukrainian word schedrist’. (The apostrophe is part of the word, replacing the Ukrainian soft sign, which has no counterpart in the English alphabet.)

Schedrist’ is usually translated “generosity,” but I don’t think that translation communicates to an anglophone mind what a Ukrainian means when using this word. To my knowledge, there is no single word in the English language that does justice to the Ukrainian concept of schedrist’. It is a warm and lavish generosity closely linked with the idea of hospitality. In that context, it describes a host who is genuinely concerned for her guests and willing to go to any lengths to ensure their comfort and well-being. In this tradition, a host will not accept no for an answer when offering you something to eat or drink. Instead he (or she) will offer again and again, pressuring you to accept, because he wants to make sure you aren’t declining out of modesty. How horrible it would be for guests to be hungry or thirsty but not feel bold enough to ask for what they wanted!

Schedrist’ also means that a Ukrainian hostess will often prepare at least ten times more food than necessary to feed the guests she invited, because generous hospitality means that everyone is able to eat their fill without ever feeling like the food will run out before they are completely satisfied. In my experience, this is especially true of weddings and the traditional Christmas dinner, where the guests, after eating for hours, hardly make a dint in the impressive spread of side dishes, main dishes, and desserts. Ukrainian schedrist’ is very different from the American concept of guests making themselves at home. In Ukraine, guests usually aren’t made to feel at home; they are made to feel like royalty.

One expression of schedrist’ that has made a deep impression on me is the ease with which Ukrainians will invite relative strangers to their homes. It’s not uncommon to meet someone on the train, spend a few hours sharing a compartment and chatting, and at the end of the ride invite them to come be your guest sometime—and really mean it! I have actually known Ukrainians who took in overnight house guests after only meeting them on the train, and as far as I could tell, no one thought it was very unusual. That kind of hospitality goes beyond the English concept of generosity into the realm of schedrist’. I can’t imagine something like that ever happening in the Southern Californian culture where I grew up. There are perhaps good reasons for our reluctance to take strangers into our homes in California, but in my ideal universe, everyone would be as warmly generous and lavishly hospitable as many Ukrainians are.

Living in the midst of this kind of hospitality has changed me. Being a private person and an introvert, I’m most comfortable at home by myself. I enjoy having family around, but admitting anyone outside the family circle requires going outside my natural comfort zone. Years ago, realizing my deficit in this area, I decided to cultivate hospitality. I studied it in the Bible, I leaned from the examples of the people around me, and I began to practice it whenever given the opportunity. Because my examples were taken from Ukrainian schedrist’, I’ve been challenged to a higher level of hospitality than I would have been in the United States. I owe a debt of gratitude to the Ukrainian culture for this. I’m still learning and growing, but I’m encouraged when I look back and remember who I was compared to who I’ve become.

I’m also encouraged when I think about the legacy my example will give my children. Whereas I grew up with the model of never having outsiders in our home except for birthday parties, my kids are growing up with the opposite extreme where overnight house guests are such a part of our life that I’ve overheard them asking random people if they are going to come stay with us. In fact, for the last two and a half years, we’ve actually had someone whom we first met randomly in a cafe living with us, and my eldest son recently commented to me that she’s like part of our family.

My kids now love having guests over and constantly challenge me to grow and stretch farther in this area. Yesterday we had one of my eldest son’s classmates over for a few hours of playtime, and it was all initiated by my son. Last Sunday at church my second son invited someone to come have lunch with us this week and informed me about it after the fact. I explained to him that he has to let his dad and me do the inviting, but I think I’ll follow his example and extend an official invitation to this person to join us for lunch after church this week.

I’m grateful that my sons are pushing me to continue to grow in this area. In this season of life while my kids are all young, it’s easy to let hospitality get pushed aside by the constant demands of caring for the needs of my small children. While it’s true that these days it can seem impossibly daunting to find the extra time to prepare for guests and also set aside several hours to entertain them, I think I’m guilty of using this excuse to do what is comfortable and convenient instead of what is lavish and generous. But I think God has more for me during this stage than simply surviving. I think He wants me to thrive, and I know that won’t happen in isolation. It reminds me of another particularity of the Ukrainian language. When a compound subject includes the speaker, you don’t use the English constructions, “he and I,” “you and I,” etc. These expressions subtly put focus on the speaker and highlight the individuality of the parties concerned, and if you need to be clear about who was involved, there’s no way around this emphasis in the English language. But in Ukrainian you would say instead, “we with him,” and “we with you,” underlining the importance of relationships and community in the Ukrainian culture.

Relationships and community aren’t just important to certain cultures; they are crucial to the human experience. Why else would it be that babies who are not touched fail to thrive? Or why does the Bible say, “It is not good for man to be alone,” and “God sets the solitary in families”? When we have meaningful interactions with other people, it’s true that we become vulnerable to pain and disappointment, but we also open up the possibility for profound joy and fulfillment. It might be a gamble, but it’s one I’m willing to take. And I’ve learned that meaningful interaction happens much more easily in the warmth of a hospitable home.

So I’m committed to keeping our door open to others, especially the needy, lonely, and hurting, in the hope that they will find encouragement, joy, and peace as a result of their time with us. And it’s my desire and prayer that my kids will absorb this mentality, so that by the time they have their own families, schedrist’ will be second-nature to them, regardless of where in the world they are living.

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