Sometimes I walk while I pray to avoid getting antsy. On one of my prayer walks, God stopped me in front of a loquat tree in my neighborhood. Loquats are a yellowish pear-shaped fruit that taste like a mix of mangos, peaches, and citrus. Curiously, I’ve taken this path many times but had never stopped to notice this tree before.
The sight of this tree was completely unexpected: it was in the middle of a lower-income apartment complex covered with concrete, not where one would expect greenery to be planted. Something else surprised me — this tree was bursting with ripened fruit, but no one seemed interested in what it had to offer. I grew up eating loquats and found it astounding that my neighbors would let such delicious fruit drop to the ground and go to waste. Then it dawned on me — it was an exotic fruit that most in the area probably didn’t know what to do with. My family taught me how to properly peel loquats at a young age. But, if you didn’t know how to eat these juicy fruits, you may bite into the bitter skin or choke on the slippery pits and decide to stay away from them thereafter, missing out on this delicious treat.
Then God revealed to me: this neighborhood loquat tree was like international students. Consciously or subconsciously, American Christians anticipate unreached people groups to be in foreign countries far from home, not planted next to us in class. Secondly, just like this tree, the harvest is ripe for the many international students who have the opportunity to hear the Gospel or study the Bible for the first time. Even when we are aware of their presence, we may not be aware of the readiness of the harvest. Finally, just like my neighbors who may be unfamiliar with this exotic fruit, many of us are unfamiliar with the countless cultures represented by the 200+ nations on our campuses across the U.S.
The biggest barrier may be that we simply do not know what to do with international students. This was a bit of my own experience with Muslim international students in particular. I was comfortable with most other international students, but not so with those who were well-covered physically and on the media. I have to confess, I felt awkward around students who were dressed so differently than myself, and I felt withdrawn due to the impact of negative media portrayals. I was intimidated. However, with a few cross-cultural pointers from my colleagues, it turned out to be much easier to cross the cultural bridge and begin conversations and friendships.
My friend Tara invited me to join her and her Muslim friends for coffee. They were looking for American friends to learn about American culture practice English. I’ll be honest, the first encounters were awkward! I made a few faux pas and wasn’t always sure what to say. However, each week became more fun and natural. One week, there was an “ah ha” moment when some of them discovered that not all Americans are Christians (FYI: everyone in their country is required to be Muslim). This led to a conversation on the different types of “Christians” in America. Certain aspects of their culture, such as their modest dress code, deepened my own understanding of the Gospels; Middle Eastern culture certainly reflects much more of Jesus’ cultural context than American culture does!
All in all, my friendships with international students across the globe have been so rewarding, stretching, and fun, but I had no idea what I was missing out on until I entered their lives and allowed them to enter mine.
My friends, if you resonate with any of my “loquat story,” I invite you to stop and notice. Has God planted a “loquat tree” along your path? Acts 17:26-27
says that God decided where and when all the people of the world should live “so that people would seek him…and perhaps they would reach out for him and find him.” Could it be that God placed international students along your path so that they can know him, and so that you can gain a bigger picture of God?
Need some cultural pointers? Here are a few conversation starters:
- What are you studying? Why did you choose this school?
- When did you arrive in the U.S.? What do you miss most about your home country?
- What is your family like? What is your family's religious background?
Also, check out more resources at ism.intervarsity.org/content/integrating-intls.