From the start, my opportunity and ability to master the Thai language fell far below the ideal. With a toddler and a baby to care for, I had to limit my lessons to one hour per week with a tutor. I did make slow progress, despite a few stops and starts due to another pregnancy and then a baby in the house. At our two-year point, I had finished three “modules” of spoken language and was ready to begin studying the Thai alphabet. (People studying language full time usually finish a module every 1 to 2 months.)
Our family took a three-month visit to the United States, where I told everyone how excited I was that upon returning to Thailand I would finally be learning to read and write in Thai. But it was not to be. I returned to Thailand in the throes of morning sickness from my fourth pregnancy. When the sickness eased, I started my hour-a-week introduction to written Thai. But, less than halfway through the consonants, I had to face the reality of the time commitment involved in caring for four children age five and under, with the oldest child ready to start home-schooling. Thai study would need to be put on hold indefinitely.
Meanwhile, my husband Ken had finished the basic Thai course and was working full time as the only American involved in a Thai government project. As his fluency increased every day, mine hit a plateau and then began to regress from lack of practice. It seemed so ironic to me, an avid reader with a college degree in Communication Studies, to be facing the next several years as an illiterate with the vocabulary of a third grader.
But as always, God has His reasons for leading us the way He does. If not for being “language challenged”, I would have missed my best language lesson of all. This lesson came through my Thai friend, Noy.
I first met Noy and her husband Gerund through a mutual friend. Later, our family began to attend their Thai church. Noy could speak no English, but she had a history of being friendly to foreigners. I quickly discovered why: she was willing to adjust her vocabulary to my limited one, to repeat herself in many different ways and to wait patiently as I stumbled through whatever I was trying to say. Best of all, she was always ready to say “never mind!” She made me feel that she liked just being with me, even if we couldn’t always understand each other.
My limited language ability did not stop her from asking me hard questions. “What kind of relationship should a husband and wife have?” “What do you do when you don’t really feel like worshipping God?” “What is your favorite verse and why?” These were just a few of the questions she posed to me over the years. Sometimes, if Ken was handy, I would pull him into the conversation as my translator. Other times I stumbled through an answer on my own. But, I always felt there was so much more in my heart than I would ever be able to communicate to her.
Our friendship grew mostly through shared experiences. Church picnics, cooking lessons, and rummage sales were good opportunities to be together without having to make a lot of conversation. Noy was the one person in the church who saw my potential and my desire to contribute. I couldn’t lead Bible studies as Ken was doing (despite my years of training in discipleship), but Noy got me involved in various projects such as baking Christmas cookies, decorating and making fruit platters. Ken led us in a couples Bible study for a short time, but, mostly we just encouraged each other as we walked side by side through the same seasons of life.
We rejoiced with Noy and Gerund when they gave birth to their firstborn daughter. They rejoiced with us during our two Thai births. We also mourned with them when they had three miscarriages in a row. When we received news of the third miscarriage, I was crushed. I decided to call Noy every day for awhile. I didn’t really know what to say, but I wanted her to know I was there as her friend.
The first time I called I asked how she was feeling.
“Not too well,” she replied.
I told her that all morning I couldn’t do anything but sit and feel sad.
“Thank you, “ she said. I was surprised.
“For what?” I asked.
She said she appreciated that I shared her feelings.
The next day, I called again with a rehearsed question to ask her. After some small talk, I asked my question, “Do you still love God?” Immediately she burst into tears and couldn’t continue our conversation. I got off the phone feeling completely useless as a friend and comforter. I was mad at the language barrier that kept me from being able to communicate with sensitivity and gentleness.
To my surprise, the next day she brought up my question and began to answer it.
“When I was in the hospital,” she said, “I told God that this was His baby and He could do what He wished.”
She continued speaking, but I quickly lost track of the conversation as she poured out her heart. I knew this was not the time to break in for our usual volley of repeating ourselves. I just listened and prayed that the Lord would give me something fitting to say.
Time passed, the grief eased and our friendship continued – still at the third grade level. But somehow that fact never seemed to get in the way anymore. I felt just as comfortable getting together with Noy’s family as I did with any of my American friends. Ken described our friendship as “hearts knit together”, despite the language and cultural barriers.
One day after church, almost six years into our friendship, we had to tell Noy and Gerund that God wanted us back in the States. The situation was a bit complicated, so I waited until Ken could join us and explain it all. When he finished, suddenly all four of us found ourselves fighting back tears.
As the news sank in, Noy sadly said, “You’re my only friend.”
In disbelief, I laughed and waved my hand toward the crowd of church people.
“You have lots of friends!” I exclaimed.
“There are lots of people I spend time with,” she replied, “but no one like you who I can talk to, who really understands me.”
At first I couldn’t believe she could say such a thing. I thought of the literally thousands of times our communication had fallen short of my ideal. But as I pondered her words, I remembered the many times she had ministered to my heart over the years and the times I had been there for her as well. Although I could not understand half of what she had said to me, I could honestly say she is one of my closest friends. And the only possible explanation for our closeness is this: We have a God who can make hearts speak to each other even when words can’t.
In humility and awe, I thank Him for my friend, Noy, and for my most powerful language lesson of all.
View the original print magazine where this article was first published.