Befriending Islam

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An Iftar is the time during Ramadan when the sun sets and Muslim’s break their fast. Although I’ neither Muslim nor was I fasting, I was invited to an Iftar dinner this week with a Turkish family.

As I drove my Persian friend to our dinner destination, she expressed her concerns for finding a job. A newly graduated computer engineer, she had just finished her Master’s and the grueling process of defending a thesis. Now, the job hunt was on.

“This is my dilemma,” she said as we drove through the city, watching the sun sink behind the clouds.

“My dream was to find a good job in computer engineering, maybe somewhere in California. But if I stay in the US, I will not be able to go back to Iran and visit my family. You know, because of the policies and stuff.”

I nodded to show I was listening, even though my eyes were fixed on the road, riddled with potholes giving my little Honda a beating.

She went on, “There are also jobs in Canada. Then I could visit my parents in Iran more easily. But if I go to Canada, returning to America would be difficult, and there are so many things I want to do here.”

Before we set out, my friend sat enviously looking at my photos from Niagara Falls. I casually scrolled through the pictures from my vacation and showed her the view from the American side.

“Julia, for you this is nothing but it is my dream to see Niagra Falls,” she said with a chuckle.

“BAM!” I hit another pothole, rattling my body as I tried to hold the steering wheel tightly. My fiend lived in the city center and the Turkish family we were going to see was a  35 minute drive north.

“Have you ever been in this kind of situation?” she asked, referring to her job search. I thought about my own search for employment. The way I wiped tables at a café for four months after I finished school. And the phone call that changed my status from “recent college grad” to “young professional.” But of course for my friend, being  international, things were different. She was crunched for time with a visa that would soon expire. She was fighting language barriers, cultural barriers and the competition of a thousand other computer engineers.

Her situation reminded me of my summer grad school project. I am researching how HR teams could better recruit international talent. Although my project focuses on the HR perspective, it was eye-opening to hear the international person’s dilemma and the rising desperation in her voice.

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At last we arrived and the sun had set. I pulled up my hair into a neat bun and followed my friend into the apartment of the Turkish family. The hostess wore a blue hijab and a long black skirt. Her face was all kindness as she hugged me and pressed her cheek to my right, then my left, and my right again. I awkwardly followed this greeting, feeling a bit stupid at my own discomfort. Then, I slipped into a chair at the table beside my friend and observed the other guests.

Across from me sat a Turkish couple who were guests as well. The husband was a middle aged man with a broad smile. The wife was petite and timid, raising her eyes with her nose kept down, and smiling at me as we made introductions. I stumbled through their names and turned to my left to meet the host. He was younger with a dark complexion and fierce black eyes. He smiled and told me his name, to which I politely nodded with no comprehension.  Then a two year old boy, with curly black hair, charted across the living room and up into the man’s lap, eyeing me curiously and whispering something in Turkish.

We ate and talked for a while before they began to speak Turkish. The other guests had a little boy as well. He squirmed in his father’s lap, dousing his mouth with sour cream and pastry. The father asked us to excuse himself and the other man to go and pray. They got up promptly and went into the next room, leaving the women to discuss education, work, and visa problems. One of the women explained that she had plead asylum and was able to secure a visa. But, despite her PhD in civil engineering she was still searching for employment with no luck.

When the men returned we cleaned the table and retired to the living room for tea and dessert. As the hours passed I began to feel increasingly tired and I realized it was nearly eleven. But because they had slept for most of the day, no one was tired, not even the little boys who played on the floor, the little one knocking his mother’s tea all over the couch, only to return giggling with an ice pack pressed to his face. My friend asked the group for advice about finding a job. Some thought that Canada would be a good decision. But everyone agreed whatever opportunity came her way she should take.

And the discussion went on late into the night. My eyes began to close and my stomach to grow warm from all the food. The hostess sat beside me and asked about my parents. She was also from a family of ten. I don’t know if it was her hijab but I felt like I was talking to the Virgin Mary. Was it her long black skirt, her blue scarf, her pale skin and dark eyes, the high cheek bones and the long dark lashes? I also wondered at how someone who covered most of her body could be so beautiful. It was her smile, her animated face, and the way she pronounced words with such fortitude. It brought me to that part of the world where I’ve never been and I felt privileged to experience this Middle Eastern culture.  I watched and listened with a quiet admiration, wondering what it must be like to grow up Muslim.

“We both come from Abrahamic religions,” she explained. “Abraham’s children bred Christianity and Judaism. Later on, Islam started. And so we have the same roots.” I never really thought I could find camaraderie with a Muslim, but we felt like friends, and her hijab didn’t seem to perplex me so much.

The hostess packed us food to go and we finally left around half past midnight. My friend climbed up into my sunroof as we sped off and told me to turn the music up loud. As the wind hit her face she laughed and captured the moment to share with her friends.

“My friends in Iran are so curious about America. They will wonder what has become of me when I share this,” she said with a smile.

I laughed at her silliness, and considered why this all felt so new. I thought about my earliest recollection of Islam, and yes it was during 9/11. I recall sitting in front of the TV every night as my parent’s watched the latest news in Baghdad. Islam was terrorism, brutal killings, roadside explosions, and suicide bombers. I’d never seen Muslims as kind and generous, nor had I considered the fact that we shared a religious background, not until now.

 

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Kate Spade: Thoughts on Suicide Prevention

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Earlier this week I was catching up on the news when I saw an update that the iconic Kate Spade was found dead in her New York home. Suddenly the article I was reading of where in the world is Melania Trump seemed to fade into the background as I pondered this tragic affair.

I ran to twitter to see how people were responding. The large quantity of mental health awareness posts were gravely appropriate. Medical specialists and advocates tweeted words of condolences along with the number for The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

I found myself retweeting one such post by a Rick Wilson that seemed to speak my thoughts:

@TheRickWilson—“On the Kate Spade news, a reminder…for those of you feeling like the world is hopeless and no one is listening please remember, you’re loved and needed, and there’s help out there.”

Others spoke of the disease of mental illness the rise in anxiety, depression and loneliness, and the truth that even when you have it all, your mental health is still at risk. The Washington Post published a small obituary of Kate Spade, highlighting her life’s accomplishments. And as I poured over these new findings I wondered what it must be like to have fame and wealth but still feel hopeless.

As the summer wind brushed through my hair on the drive home, the Kate Spade incident was still on my mind and I wondered how my faith plays a part in suicide prevention.

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I feel like everyone at some point in their life contemplates suicide. Last week my job had me attend the 21st Annual Mental Health Symposium because the mental health board resides within my agency. I sat in a suicide prevention breakout session. The expert at the front of the room informed us that contemplation of suicide does not mean a person will always be suicidal. Suicides are often committed in the spur of the moment at a time of hopeless desperation.

Statistics even show that the number of individuals who attempt suicide do not die of suicide in the long run. But then again, don’t those who merely “attempt suicide” simply want someone to see their suffering, rather than to escape the confines of their mental state?

I felt increasingly curious by the session. He recommended mood stabilizers like Lithium and antidepressant to prevent suicidal thoughts. And I sat recollecting how it seems there are two approaches to suicide prevention.  Some run to medication and others seek counseling. I suppose to each his own, nevertheless I find that if we leave God out of the picture we are missing an important part of suicide prevention.

Without a greater purpose on this earth, wherein lies a hope for anyone?

Yet a greater purpose does exist and three powerful action steps along with it: faith, hope and love. Faith is the presence of things hoped for and the assurance of things not seen. Hope is the act of patiently waiting and tirelessly rejoicing in what is to come.  And love is that part of us that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Yes, love never fails.

Sometimes even Christians forget the hope we wait for. Feeling stuck in the now we begin to feel hopeless in the midst of our circumstances, our uncertain earthly future and our unfulfilled dreams.

To the Christian searching for hope on this side of heaven, be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and constant in prayer.

You are not alone.

Practicing Gratitude: Eight Months After His Death

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Yesterday marked eight months since my friend, John, was killed in a bike accident. I was marveling at the way it still hurts like the first day we lost him. It’s not easy to describe the pain of loss. Sometimes you feel the shock again. Sometimes you can’t breathe. Most times you just pause and recollect.

I’ve had a sort of revelation at this time. I realize when you love someone very much, you keep on loving them even when they’re gone.

If love is a verb, you love by honoring their name. If love is a noun you live with a longing to see them again. If love is a space within your heart where you cherish those past memories, you revisit them with sadness and gratitude. Because I loved him, the pain is still here, for if I did not love him his absence would not be such a heavy weight.

To the reader who has lost someone close, your pain is a sign of how much you loved them.

 

Finding France in Broad Ripple

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It was a spur of the moment kind of thing, the sort of decision you make when life has become entirely dull and could use a douse of Indian curry powder.

Holyn and I walked nervously up to the cafe. It was connected to an iconic restaurant in the south of Broad Ripple (my neighborhood). We entered with a quiet confidence until we hit the bar. The place was nearly empty but for a few customers in the far corners of the room, and I had this sinking feeling I had misread the invitation.

Eight hours prior I was at work thinking about summer. I suddenly remember the French Social Club I always wanted to attend. So I shot a text to Holyn who agreed at once to go with me. Now, I was having a moment of panic at the thought of mistaking the location.

The French Social Club did say they usually met at Cornerstone Cafe. Maybe tonight was unusual. The bartender eyed us suspiciously while he polished a clean glass with his towel. A waitress with a black nose ring came over to inquire why we were wandering around, when at last we heard it.

“I hear them, but I don’t see them,” Holyn said, spinning around. To our astonishment we had walked right passed the long table of French-speakers. They were sitting in the restaurant at a table that was nearly full. And all at once we both felt too afraid to approach the group.

“They’re a friendly bunch,” the bartender assured us, setting the glass on the counter. “I bet they’d be fine if you joined them.”  And so with a douse of confidence, we did. Moments later, I was introducing myself in that language I love so much. We chatted and laughed with a group of total strangers and I was reminded of the sense of adventure I had when I was abroad.

In a foreign country, everything seems so new and exciting that to attend a social meet-up is really no big deal. But for some reason when one returns to her own country, the sense of adventure begins to fade and the world resumes its dull and uneventful state.

So there I was, eating fries out of a basket, feeling so excited that I was immersing myself in something new. At first the words felt slow on my tongue. Each syllable was like moving a muscle I hadn’t used in a while. But slowly it began to return and I played off of other conversations, looking at Holyn when I was at a loss for words. We met a journalist and a software designer, a neuro psychologist and a chemistry professor.

The table was a mixture of age and ethnicity: Venezuelan, Syrian, and a man I suspected was from West Africa. When a few of our new-found friends got up to smoke outside, I was reminded of my life as a student once again.

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When I studied in York England my friends and I had a small dinner party on Fat-Tuesday, or what the British call “Pancake Day”. As we cooked eggs and bacon in our friend’s apartment, one of the French girls looked over at me in the middle of our conversation. She was a beautiful woman with dark eyebrows and perfectly lined lips. I had always found her to be extremely intimidating until the week prior when she had offered to help me with my French homework.

“Do you smoke?” she asked, with a look of inquiry. I froze for a moment. No one in my life had ever asked me this. Allow me to remind you, I was a student at a Christian university back in the United States. It was a dry campus that had just legalized dancing and was flirting with the idea of mixed-gendered dormitories. But for some reason her question made me feel accepted, despite my obvious conservative background.

Smoking, where I came from, was not common among Millennials. The only time I’d ever held a cigarette was at the age of seven when my little brother and I pretended to smoke the half-used cigarette butts tossed out on the curb. We later received a serious whipping for entertaining such an idea.

I told her that I didn’t smoke and so she went out front by herself, and I realized she was looking for a smoking companion, someone to chat with as she stood outside.

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As I watched the couple from the French club outside the restaurant enjoy a cigarette, I felt sort of nostalgic about my time abroad. Hearing the French-speakers around me, those who were fluent and those who were stumbling over their words, created a sense of magic in the moment. As I write these words I realize I see the world much differently than most. To me every person is a character, the waitress, running around our table refilling drinks, the bartender still polishing glasses at the empty bar, and the woman sitting in the middle of our long extended table, so focused on cutting her steak she hasn’t let out a word. They’re all characters and for some reason I want to know their stories.

But I recognize not everyone perceives the world like me. To some, the couple smoking outside is just another group polluting the environment, the man who laughs so hard his food flies out of his mouth is just a rude foreigner, and the bartender who is waiting for the girl in the corner of the cafe to take notice of him, is just another guy. Perhaps they all have a story or perhaps I just have an untamed imagination of “what ifs.”

We left together, Holyn and I, chatting about the people we met. We passed the Jazz Kitchen were a group of Hispanic men were singing a poor rendition of Despacito. Perhaps next week we will try salsa dancing and I will again venture from my comfort zone to season my life with a little bit of cross-cultural experience.

Morning Musings on Race and Identity

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I came into work this morning with mixed feelings about my race.

Mr. _____ passes me with a sleepy smile—he’s the guy with dark skin and dreadlocks who asked me out a few months ago. I never did give him an answer, but my friendliness began to dwindle, and I took a different route to my car to avoid running into him so often.

Not for lack of interest did I fail to respond to his invitation, rather it was the deficiency of readiness to pursue a relationship with a total stranger.  He still smiles at me, breathing a quiet “good morning,” and I walk away wondering why black guys are so much bolder than others.

The office door knob flashes green to let me in and I shuffle over stained carpet. The phones are already ringing and I hear my black coworkers making jokes. Their animation fills the dimly lit office with a vibrant energy. The girls flip their weave back and forth in a shiny, glossy wave of beauty. As I watch I can’t help but feel like the minority among them. When I make it to the office fridge and stuff my lunch inside, I remember that my skin is brown like theirs’ and I share something with them, a race if you want to call it that.

But this is when I realize a desire mixed with confusion. What I speak of is a wonder at why I don’t relate to black people and a want for acceptance among them. Sometimes I consider what it’s like to be white. Perhaps then I could fully ascertain the difference between me and my black coworkers. For if I were white, I might not feel an urge to identify with them merely because we share the same color. Instead of trying to relate but not knowing how, I could attribute our racial difference as reason enough for a loss of relativity.

For shame, I know. A shame to my people, for whom I’ve contributed the statistics of surviving teen pregnancy, graduating college, and staying employed. Why can’t I just accept my blackness? Perhaps because I am still fifty percent white, brought up in a white society, reading books about little white girls.

I sit down at my desk and feel my ironed hair brushing against my shoulders. As my coffee begins to brew in the little pot on my desk, I think about why I want to be white, or more why I forget that I’m black. My dialect, my mannerisms, my clothes, and make-up all seem to express an affinity to whiteness. But my mind is exonerated when I see the skin covering my body, when I sit beside a white girl and realize, no I’m not white. Almost part of the majority culture, but categorized as other considering the melanin that colors my skin, I falter back and forth. To whom do I belong?

Fifty percent of either race feels significant until I try to be a hundred percent of one or the other. A small dilemma in a complicated world, but I wonder if this is a struggle for any multiracial individual raised in one culture trying to identify with another.

A Rightful Anger at the Loss of a Friend

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On a sunny day in April the air blows through the sunroof of my car. I sit in the driver’s seat with a pounding in my chest as I prepare myself to talk about John. Regret floods my mind as I consider skipping today’s session. I would rather go home and eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, hide under a blanket and drown out my feelings with a Bollywood classic. I wait for the clock to say 1 minute ‘till my appointment, and then I go in.

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It was a few months ago when I decided to start talking with someone about my grief. Ice cream only stifles your sadness for a short time. Although I was encouraged to talk about it sooner, I found myself denying the sadness that spread like fire into every area of my life.

On this clear-skied day in April, I was doing very well. As I checked in with my feelings I noted that these days my emotions were showing signs of mental stability. There was more to laugh about and life’s distractions were succeeding in driving my sadness away.

But it only took a car ride home through dark roads two weeks prior, only a moment of contemplating the realness of never seeing Johnny again. It was enough to cast me down into a pit of darkness for a few days. My mind sometimes protects me from the thought of death, making it seem less horrible than it really is. But this session of talking about John allowed me to see why I always become so angry and forlorn when I think of his passing.

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In a garden long ago, God and man could walk together and see each other face to face. I wonder what that garden was like. But in Adam’s fall a separation happened and therefore death entered the world.

In response, on long car rides home, during sleepless nights, and often in church, my soul cries out against this wrongness of death in a bitter spell of weeping. I guess this is me recognizing how this world is not what it should be. I beat my fists on the steering wheel, I weep into my folded arms and soak my shirt in tears.

I want to encourage anyone who is going through a season of grief not to be afraid. Sometimes passing through this altered life, after losing something or someone, you may feel alright. But it takes no less than a moment to trigger a sadness just as heavy as when the loss first happened.

So maybe you live in fear of the back and forth. Maybe you are tired of the unpredictable winds and rains of grief’s unruly ways. My words to you are simple. It is right for you to be angry at loss and to recognize how wrong death is. Was it not the Son of God who wept when his friend was taken to the grave? He, the one who knew his purpose was to raise that same man, Lazarus, from the dead, did stop to weep and wail at the wrongness of death.

So cry and weep and be sad as you recognize the perverse manner in which death wreaks havoc on our lives. Your grief will not overtake you. Rather, your bitter tears will point you to see what this world was meant to be, and what this world will come to be when He returns.

When Easter Doesn’t Feel Hopeful

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This Easter was difficult and full of unexpected pain.

It seemed like as everyone was talking about the death and resurrection of Christ, for some reason I grew increasingly tired of it.

Driving home from work on Thursday, I turned the radio off and sat in the silence of my car. I started talking to God and telling him I was tired of hearing people interpret different parts of Holy Week. I simply yearned for a quiet minute with the Divine.

Each day of Holy Week felt heavier than it has ever been. In light of John’s death, and his absence, all I could think about was the brutal death of Jesus and how sad his friends must have been to see him die.

On Good Friday I decided to stop and visit John’s grave. My mind grew quiet as I drove down the country road to the graveyard. The earth was wet and squishy beneath my shoes as I made my way to the spot where he was buried. I trembled and wept before I even reached the grave and stopped where I think they laid his body — they still haven’t set a stone.

I felt like Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb of Jesus. Blinded by my own tears I understood how she could have mistaken him for a gardener when Jesus met her there. My sobs seemed to carry across the small graveyard into the farmlands around me. A barn of farm machinery stood far off and I wondered if the men working could hear me crying.

My knees met the wet earth as I knelt and pondered the reality of death. I thought of this weekend and how the resurrection of Christ means the resurrection of John . . . some day. I wondered if he would resurrect from this spot or if his spirit would be given a new body. And then I just cried at the thought of one day seeing him again. I’m really looking forward to that day. There are so many things I want to tell him.

Hours later I was sitting in a Good Friday service, holding a slip of paper that read, “I’m thankful that I am forgiven for . . . ” I filled my card with a lot of things. Then followed the crowd up to the cross where I nailed the paper into the soft wood.

John’s death has been difficult to bear. But Christ’s death is somehow harder, considering I am the reason for it. He was pierced for my transgressions, he was crushed for my iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that has brought me peace and by his wounds I am healed.

My recollection of Christ’s crucifixion has brought me to a very low spot in my opinion of myself. I seem to recoil in shame and sadness realizing my undeservedness. But shifting the light from myself to him, I see a very amazing God who I hardly know how to approach. This person I thought I knew my whole life has somehow transformed into a far greater God than I remember. Not only great in power, but great in goodness and love.

On an Easter morning several years ago, John and I were baptized together. I shared my story of faith and he shared his. I remember being embarrassed for him because he cried in front of everyone. And then we were standing on the lawn, dripping in damp towels, smiling in our limited understanding that heaven was awaiting us. . . .  some day.

In that sacrament of rebirth pointing to a coming resurrection of the dead, I do take heart.

I believe I will see him again.

This is why I talk to myself in French

You know you are an odd person when you talk to yourself in French. And when you find yourself speaking French to your recently purchased used car, well you’ve probably lost all hope of sanity.

But I have to say these past two months have nearly driven me insane with the car accident and coordinating rides. Life without a car has forced me to see what its like to receive unconditional love from friends and family. But after prayerful searching — and a lot of help from my Uncle — I finally bought one. And I’ve come to name him Harry.

Tu es mon voiture,” I say as I drive to work, emphasizing the word “Mon” which tells me that this is mine. Yes this car is mine, not a rental, not a borrowed car, not a car on loan. C’est mon voiture.

I don’t really know when I started talking to myself in French. Was it during my study abroad in England when I strolled home from evening class through the cobblestone roads repeating new phrases? Was it after my time in Paris when I sort of missed being able to converse in French?

Or maybe it was during my college years when I felt so distant from God after my injury that I had to find some other way of talking to him. I remember praying in French all the time because I was so tired of repeating my request for healing in English.

“Aidez-moi, s’il vous plaît,” I would whisper during those nights I couldn’t sleep because the pain was so bad. There are some things we pray for again and again, and it seems like God cannot hear us, or he just watches from afar. So we find another manner in which to cope with the situation, merely to maintain our sanity.

Referring to a quote I posted yesterday, I’m starting see God’s sovereignty in my life. I’m learning also to better understand how the path of life he designed for me — although it is confusing sometimes — is for my good and for His glory.

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A Word On Language Barriers

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My cousin Bryan is in Washington DC for an internship with the Belgian embassy. He is part of my long lost Rwandan family most of whom reside in Europe. Even though I am entirely jealous of his opportunity in Washington, 😀 I asked him how the internship was going. He made me laugh when he said he was finally able to tell jokes in English.

This reminded me of my time in France where my knowledge of the language was stretched so thin I barely felt like myself. I remember joining a group of people on an outing to a castle called Fontainebleau, a beautiful chateau with gorgeous grounds and gardens. Here I spent an entire day with a group of complete stranger who were loosely connected to my hostess.

Most of them were British, either finishing up their student teaching or beginning a carrier in Paris. One of the girls was a French native with limited English ability. And so considering I spoke a little French, the general consensus was to speak primarily in French during out outing for the sake of the French girl. I remember finding this extremely inconvenient and most of the day I had no idea where we were going or what we were talking about — which is the unfortunate the plight of an international student. It seemed like every time I caught up with the conversation and thought of something to contribute they had already moved on to discuss something entirely new.

The only question I could answer was my name and where I was from. To this I answered perfectly. But as for what I had done during my spring break in Paris I limited vocabulary to tell of my excursions.

At one point I was walking with the group through a spacious forest where the trees stood far apart from each other, shading the open space with their branches. I found myself side by side with the French girl who didn’t speak English. She asked me what I did the day before and I told her I went to see the Basilica called Sacre Coeur — sacred heart — which is basically a church on a hill with a great view of the city. Excitedly, I went on to tell her about a man who was there playing futball. What I’d meant to say was that he was a doing stunts with a futball ball, sort of like a street performer–you can see him here on youtube. But she gave me a funny look as if I’d said the tourists were playing futball in the basilica and replied, “Hmm c’est très bizarre.” Although I’d hoped to make her laugh at the idea of this man doing soccer stunts outside the basilica she merely shook her head in confusion and I was silent.

I look back now and realize I was sort of being entitled in the way I sulked while they went on speaking French.  I really believe this experience taught me to be more understanding of non-English speakers in the U.S. Even going back to England after my time in France I had so much more grace for the non-English speakers.

Alors, dit a moi.  What is your experience with language barriers?