Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Those of you who are close to me know that I have recently moved to the Heartland – relocated through my husband T’s job, I am about to start a new position at Operation Breakthrough via Children’s Mercy Hospital of Kansas City, Missouri. I recently had to give a very bittersweet goodbye to my previous employer – KidsHealth of the Nemours Foundation — through which I truly explored my creative interests and my zest for health education and writing over the past two years. And all in all I pretty much lived in my own hometown for 30+ years — 10 years consecutively, most recently, so it was a tough place to leave. T has worked his hardest to make the transition smooth for us. We have found a comfortable home, a nice neighborhood, wonderful vendors for various services related to moving, and have come across wonderful new friends.

The inevitable homesickness has pervaded each and every day for me – I hear it takes about 2 years before you feel settled in a new community. So, I go to networks like Facebook for solace and am focusing on making this new home everything I want it to be — hanging pictures, putting away belongings slowly but surely, getting a CD player to play long lost CDs and enjoy some nostalgia, finally getting the courage to start bike riding (even though cars are the norm here, very much so).  I do miss my family deeply, but all in all I can say that I lead a life of very good fortune — thanks to having had caring parents who sacrificed much to raise me, and having had many opportunities in life and now a caring husband and two wonderful kids. And I’m nervous but excited to start my new job, and am hoping I can bring to it everything I planned while I was applying.

But for every multitude of lovely interactions, I do have one here or there that is less than ideal – most recently it was being dismissed by some staff at a prominently known furniture store here, after which I was curtly directed to browse and consider the cost before looking at the items that I was considering.  I’m not sure if it is the color of my skin that directs it, but it sure feels that way sometime. And people have made assumptions about me – either what I can afford, what I should be doing, where I should be — and none of it is directly offensive, nor do I think that people are intentionally trying to make me feel bad — but these assumptions indeed do make me feel bad and very unsure, and it makes me think about the role that we all play in creating communities that are receptive to outsiders.  At that particular store — fortunately I approached another staff member, who was extremely kind and helpful, and gave me all the information I needed to inform on my decision-making.

People who are new to a community for reasons like mine may be like me in other ways — maybe they have a very strong social structure, and enough social and often intellectual capital to persevere when an off-putting event happens.

But I can only imagine what it must be like for others going through upheaval. Consider refugees, foreign guest workers, undocumented immigrants, and others who truly come to a new place because they seek opportunities and indeed may have nowhere else to go.  My interaction was simply as a customer in a furniture store, but what of more serious issues — being denied medical care, having trouble finding a good job? For example, I remember one recent immigrant I met who was working as a cab driver — he had been a registered nurse in his previous country and a good one, but needed to earn immediately and couldn’t go through needed training here in the US. My experience is nothing to those who are going through so many daily struggles just to get by — and they experience this all in a totally new place.

I think of my interactions with some of these individuals in clinic — and think of the denouement of the visit — the utter relief that a non-English-speaking patient expressed when I was able to use an interpreter with them – not only for the visit, but when I took steps to extend that to other clinicians they were seeing that day. Contrast that with other memories — the days when I knew I was not at my best, and the frustration that patients went through. I now think about the tears families may go through when learning their child is ill, or realizing they cannot afford the care they seek, not being able to advocate successfully for themselves because their new environment is so utterly foreign.

The kindness that we show others is not only intrinsically a beneficial thing — something that can turn a tear-stricken day into a good one for someone who has been through it all — but it has also been shown to improve their outcomes (google Health Outcomes from Positive Experiences — it’s too late for me to research tonight). I recently heard an NPR story documenting the experience of recent refugees in Canada — who after just a few weeks to months of schooling were already showing improved mental health and positive attitudes, speaking English, and adapting to Canadian society.  It is so important to show kindness and build trust with the people to whom we are least exposed, the people with whom we are least familiar. I am so grateful for the many in this community who are already so open to my being a new part of it and have shown me so much loving kindness. I only hope I can continue to grow from my experiences being a total newbie here and extend that kindness to others.