The Kindness of Strangers

Although we live in a world that can feel terrifying more often than we would like, sometimes it is the kindness of strangers that reminds us that on balance, most people are truly kind and helpful. I am in the middle of a two week family trip in Mexico. We spent the first part of the trip with my wife’s family in Nuevo Vallarta. That gathering ended on December 31st. But, we extended our stay in Mexico because my cousin Beatriz is getting married in her home town, Los Mochis, Sinaloa, on January 6th. While we would have flown from Puerto Vallarta to Los Mochis on December 31st, there were no flights available.

This left us with the challenge of finding a place to stay in the Puerto Vallarta area for one night on New Year’s Eve, which turned out to be very challenging. Since it is peak season, like just about everywhere else, the place we stayed with my wife’s family was booked solid. So, I decided to try Airbnb, which also proved challenging, as during peak season, most places required a minimum of more than one night stay. After a lot of searching, I finally found a place, but the hostess cancelled on us due to a family emergency, so I had to renew my search, and by that time the options were few and far between.

I finally found a small place in a village, San José del Valle, a half an hour from Puerto Vallarta. Since it was just for one night, I assumed it would be sufficient for our needs. We took a taxi there, and the village is remote enough that the taxi driver was not confident he could find it, so he called the owner and with her help on the phone while he was driving he was able to find it. Given the small size of the town, I was concerned that we might have a hard time getting a taxi to the airport the next day, so I asked the driver if he would pick us up at noon, and he agreed. He even gave me his phone number just to be sure.

The Airbnb hostess told us that if we needed any help, we should ask the next door neighbor Noe. Given the small size of the town, it was not immediately obvious where we might find a decent dinner. So, after we unpacked, I found Noe hanging out with his friend Hector and I asked them if they had any suggestions for dinner. I relied on my less than fluent Spanish, as they spoke virtually no English. They told me that there were no restaurants within walking distance, but they could take us to a good seafood restaurant when we were ready.

Although my wife and son were somewhat reticent to have strangers take us to an unknown location for dinner, they realized that our other options were pretty much non-existent, so they agreed to go with them. Although I saw a car in Noe’s driveway and assumed they would drive us, it must not have been in working order, as when it was time for dinner, we all started walking to the main road. When a mini-bus pulled over, Noe and Hector told us to get in and then we all travelled 2 more towns down the road until they told us to get off. They paid our fares and then we walked across the street to a seafood restaurant, which turned out to be fantastic. Of course, we bought them dinner and we got to know each other better. After we finished, we noticed that the restaurant had a foosball table and we had a lot of fun in friendly competition.

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We asked Noe and Hector if they knew where we could buy some eggs to cook for breakfast, so when we returned, they told us to get off the minibus at the closest grocery store to the Airbnb. After we bought a few things for breakfast, we all walked back and said good night.

The Mexican music that permeated the atmosphere all night seeped through the walls and lulled us to sleep. The next morning, I discovered that our Airbnb was even more primitive than I thought as there was no hot water, so we just took quick chilly showers and after breakfast, we relaxed and packed our luggage for the trip to the airport. Just to be sure, I called and sent text messages to the driver who had agreed to pick us up at noon. He did not respond, which caused me some concern, but I also didn’t want to give up on him because if he honored his word, and we left before he arrived he would have driven to this small town for nothing.

But, noon came and went, and by 12:10, we determined that we had to look elsewhere, so we tried to get an Uber. Despite numerous attempts, however, no Ubers were available and we now started to fear that we would miss our flight. I knocked on Noe’s door and asked if he had any suggestions. He told me it is difficult to get a taxi in his small town, but he agreed to walk out to the main road to see if he could find one. While I appreciated his effort, it offered me no assurance that he would find a taxi in time.

Since I am a solution minded person who never gives up, I looked around the neighborhood, and noticed a house a few doors down with a car that seemed big enough for my family and our luggage, so I knocked on their door. A woman answered and I once again relied on my Spanish to explain our situation and asked her if there was any chance she could drive us to the airport. I assured her we would pay her. She asked me to wait a minute, after which she told me that her daughter would take us but needed 20 minutes to get ready. As it was now 12:30 and we calculated that we need to leave by 12:45 to get to the airport in time, I pleaded with her to ask her daughter to get ready as fast as she could. She agreed to do so.

We brought our luggage over to their car and loaded it in the back while we waited for her daughter to freshen up after a night of New Year’s Eve festivities. Her mother joined us for the ride, and both of them, Alondra and Laura, were gracious and kind and very happy to help us on our way to make sure we got to our cousin’s wedding. They allowed me to take this lovely picture of them when they dropped us off at the airport.

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What could have been a disaster turned into an experience that restored my family’s faith in humanity. We will never forget Noe, Hector, Laura and Alondra. They are a reminder that most people are generous and kind and will help strangers in need. The challenge, of course, is to turn the kindness of strangers into public policy. The struggle to do that continues.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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So Many Reasons to Learn a Language

Do you know what this means?

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Does it scare you?

Apparently, hearing this word for those who do not understand it scares some airline employees enough to kick someone who says it off an airplane. This was not an isolated incident as kicking innocent Muslims off airplanes happens far too frequently.

Communication is the key to understanding. Unfortunately, English speaking nations tend to be the worst at learning foreign languages. In the United States, most students who study a foreign language only do so for 2 years, which pales in comparison to the 9 years which most European Union students study a foreign language.

As this infographic by Middlebury Interactive Languages shows, learning a foreign language has many practical advantages besides the obvious ability to communicate with others who do not speak your native tongue, including:

  • Higher college placement test scores in reading, writing and math;
  • Higher rates of pay; and
  • Translation and Interpretation are among the fastest growing careers.

Remarkably, despite these advantages, the percentage of US elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction has fallen dramatically.

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On a recent visit home from college, my son wisely commented that he believed that a lot of fear in the world would be reduced if people only understood each other’s languages. He is currently studying  both Hebrew and Arabic in an effort to bridge and reduce the fears that exist between Jews and Arabs. He made note of how important it was that he could understand both the Spanish and Arabic on this sign in our front yard.

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While it is true that no one can learn every language in the world, it is also true that even if one is not fluent in a language, when one travels or meets people who speak another language, it goes a long way to find out how to be courteous by learning how to say, please and thank you in the native language.

Since last November’s election, our President and his allies are fanning the flames of xenophobia, highlighting Islamophobia and deportation of many of our neighbors with Latin American roots. But each of us can do our part to counter these fears by learning even a few words of Spanish and Arabic (or other languages of your neighbors and co-workers). For my part, while not fluent, I have studied and speak Spanish, Hebrew and German.

Oh, you want to know what that Arabic word above means? Inshallah literally translated means, “God willing.” It is often used at the end of a sentence to add a hopeful note of success to whatever good wishes the speaker is conveying, such as, “our team will win tomorrow’s game, inshallah.”

Indeed, the Spanish word, ojalá is borrowed from the Arabic inshallah and means the same thing: God willing.

So, the next time you hear a word you do not understand, rather than sinking into fear, you may discover that the speaker is sending you good wishes from above.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Speaking another Language

Like most other Jews, the legacy of over 2000 years of diaspora, including expulsions and flight from many nations, means that I have relatives in many other countries. When I was 12 years old, I travelled to Mexico City to attend my cousin Susy’s wedding, and that is when I met my many Mexican relatives, with whom I still stay in close contact. It was during this trip, that I made a commitment to learn Spanish, and while I am not fluent, I can carry on a conversation and make myself understood when necessary. Perhaps the highest compliment of my Spanish came when I travelled to Costa Rica, and a local told me I spoke Spanish like a Mexican.

Due to the world-wide dominance of the English language, too many Americans fail to learn another language. Given that the US now has more Spanish speakers than Spain and more than any country other than Mexico, sound education policy would require all schoolchildren to learn Spanish starting at an early age when children’s brains absorb new languages much more easily. In fact the Index for Human Development ranks Spanish as the second most important language on earth, after English. Sadly, instead, have a long history of states who want to pass xenophobic English-only laws instead. This trend is exacerbated by a drop in those studying foreign languages in the United States.

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Yesterday, we were having some work done on our bathroom. The workers handed me an invoice and I asked them if they wanted me to write them a check right then or send it to the office. One of them responded by saying, “no hablo inglés.” When I was immediately able to switch to Spanish and ask the same question in Spanish, he broke out in a big smile and simply told me to send it to the office. That led to him telling me that he was surprised I spoke Spanish. I told him I had Mexican cousins. He asked me where and the conversation continued and we both became more human to each other.

Speaking someone else’s language has so many benefits, from business transactions to simply getting from point A to point B. Obviously, nobody can learn every language in the world, but when traveling, it is at least common courtesy to learn how to say please and thank you in the language of the country you are visiting.

However, the most important thing about learning someone else’s language is that you are demonstrating that you recognize their humanity as equal to yours and that recognition helps connect each of us to each other. The stronger the connection, the more likely that the human family will help each other rather than hate, fight and often kill each other.

So, instead of English only laws, declining support for teaching foreign languages and worst of all, building walls along our border, let us move instead towards requiring learning Spanish as a second language laws to bring us closer together.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.