Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mind Your Language

I wrote this post a few weeks ago, during a 48-hour train ride from Chicago to Seattle, specifically while staring into the flatlands of North Dakota. The idea started from musing about my life, or what it looked like last year this time, and how a string of events led to starting a new chapter of life in Germany. When my contract was going to be over, and nothing else looked promising, I started looking for a job outside the US. In Israel. Brazil. India. Germany.

Israel asked me if I can learn Hebrew. Brazil never responded. India responded, but only a year later. And Germany offered me a job right away.

So seven months ago, I condensed my life into three suitcases and a carry-on bag, and moved to Germany. My US journey of eight years started and ended in Seattle.

Breakups are messy. They don’t end well. Mine did not either. I moved to Germany, and started a brand new chapter in life. But not before patiently listening to the enormous amount of gyaan that people had to offer for free. Gyaan, that brought tears in my eyes out of gratitude.

“Why don’t you move back to India? It’s high time you gave back to your country.”

“People like you have a misplaced sense of entitlement. This country doesn’t owe you a job.”

“Great. You can travel all over Europe now. Maybe I will come visit you.”

“Germany is just like the US. My cousin’s in-laws’ half-sister’s stepson moved there thirty-three years ago.”


“Let me see if I can set you up with someone. Maybe you can come back that way.”

I mean, my entire life was crumbling in front of me, and here, people were talking about patriotism. Entitlement. Their own travel plans. And an anchor boyfriend.

Germany is a nice country. Buses run on time. Things make sense. Most days, you don’t fear getting mugged or killed on the streets. Before I left for Germany, some people told me that the Germans are very good in English. They also told me that learning German becomes easier when you speak English. I am sorry to report directly from Deutschland that these people are clueless about what they were talking. 

Let me tell you what German sounds like, if you are hearing it for the first time.

Awkkh.  Awkkh.  Awkkh.  Tschschshsch. Awkkh.  Awkkh.  Tschschshsch.

Pretty badass, right? My grandpa used to make that sound at eighty, when he got phlegm in the winter, and his lungs choked and refused to start. My car made that same sound in the Nebraskan winter, refusing to start every morning. I should have seen that as a sign.

Bad words

German has many bad words. Not that they are bad per se. It’s just my dirty mind that finds them funny. There is a book store, not so far from my place. It is called HugenDubel. And they just don’t stop at potty. They fart too. Big time. Einfart (entrance). Ausfart (exit). Gute fahrt (have a great trip). Uber Fahrt. Fahrt means a drive. And any idea how the Germans say goodbye? Tschuss! I went red with shame the first few months, every time people around me said it excitedly.

Long words

I often like to think that when the German language was birthing, there were no space bars. What resulted were long, really long words. I mean, how do you say a one-way street? One-way street, right? The Germans have only one word for a one-way street. Einbahnstrasse. And here is the name of a bus stop. Schauenburgerstrasse. And food I order- Hähnchenbrustfilet. It’s nothing fancy, just chicken breast filet in one-word. And my favorite is Science- it is Naturwissenschaft in German. Nothing stops at less than twenty letters.


I haven’t even told you about the umlauts. No, not the omelets. The double dots you see above the vowels. Next time, take a closer look at the Häagen-Dazs cover, okay? The idea is, when there are two dots above a vowel, it sounds somewhere between that vowel, and the next vowel. So A double dot or ä should sound midway between A and E. Mathematically speaking, that’s (A+E)/2? How do you even make the averages of sounds? Apparently, the Germans have figured it all.

As a result, I am often stopped mid-speech, to be corrected.


“It’s Lübeck”
“Pout like a duck. Like you are going to kiss.”

And I haven’t even started about how Y sometimes becomes J, and G becomes G as in God. So Geomar is now Ga-yo-mar, Biology is Biolo-gee, although German is not Garman. Gymnasium is gee-mnasium, and it means, high school! And you say Ya, but write Ja, write Julia, but say Yulia, and now the Cs in clinic, coffee, and October are all replaced by K. Oktoberfest, right? Yeah, everyone knows that!

The Germans are big about rules. So you can enroll in German classes, but you cannot be absent for more than two classes. When I told them that I will be in the US for six weeks, they looked at me really seriously. Not that they had to make an effort, they look extremely serious any given day. And they told me, “Come back next semester, when you feel more dedicated to the cause of learning Deutsche.”

And what about their English? Well, I am delighted to report that the Germans have their verbs all screwed up. So they cook coffee. They make sports (the only sport I know people make is, yeah, making love). Forms become formula. Someone wanted me to fill out a formula the other day. Advice becomes hint (They don’t give advice; they give hints, like I am solving a puzzle). They also ask me to remember them (which means remind them). And someone said, “My husband will come and catch me after work.” I wanted to add, red-handed?

So amid long words, potty words, all the farting and sucking, umlauts, the Js and Gs, their unwavering rules, and the German-genders, I have learnt nothing more than please and thank you and I am a woman and I am a pregnant woman. I picked up the last one when my officemate got pregnant. I cannot speak one functional sentence in German. But I tried.

You know how we say words like, “really”? I figured out the German word for “really”, just because people said it so often. I tried it too, just to fit in. When someone told me something in English, I said, “akkh sow”. They were not pleased. They gave me a dirty look and said, “Did you just say asshole?”

And who said everyone speaks English? Bus drivers don’t speak English. People at the grocery store don’t speak English. And when you ask them something and they don’t understand, they don’t apologize. They get angry. Real angry! They roll their eyes, and speak even louder and faster. I mean, on a normal day, German sounds like people are fighting, from the epiglottis. Imagine how it sounds when people get angry and frustrated.

I was once on a bus to Berlin. When the driver made a long announcement in Deutsche, I understood nothing of it, even though I have been diligently trying to learn German. So I turned to my neighbor, asking if he could translate it for me. He nodded, and repeated the entire message in German, speaking slower and shaking his hands some more, as if that will make me understand this time.

That day, something else happened too in the bus. I fell asleep while listening to an audio lesson, teaching me how to say basic German phrases. For 30 minutes, I listened to them teach me how to say- "Excuse me. Do you speak German? No, I do not speak German. Yes, only a little. Did you come from America? I am from Germany.", and so on.

When I woke up, we were waiting in an unknown city, just halfway through my long ride. I was starving, and this was my only chance to grab food. So I dashed out of the bus. I wanted to ask the driver how long we would halt, but as usual, I did not know how to ask, and he did not know how to reply. So I held out my hand, and he drew patterns in the air on my wrist watch to tell me how much time we have (I have started wearing a wrist watch here after more than a decade, so that people can show me the time for something happening, even if they cannot speak English).

I dashed out of the bus and landed in front of a kebab shack. However, I blanked out. I remembered nothing of what I had learnt less than an hour ago. Imagine one fine day you lose your communication skills, your ability to make coherent sentences. I panicked, and the harder I tried to remember, the more I could not remember.

In one last desperate attempt, I shouted the keywords I knew. Hähnchen (chicken). Fleisch (meat; the man heard "fish", and that added to the confusion). Essen (to eat). Bitte (please). The man must have finally understood, and later when he asked me what else he should put in my sandwich, I said yes to everything. When he forgot to give me a spoon, I said, Löffel (spoon), and he said, not Löffel, but Löffel. Looks like I said that the wrong way too.

I came back to the bus, only to realize how I had stripped a language off its dignity by shouting out keywords, and that too, incorrectly. If this was English, it would be the same as saying, "Chicken. Meat. Eat. Please. Spoon." instead of "I would like to order a chicken sandwich, and could you please give me a spoon too, thank you?" I was disappointed with myself. This was perhaps the most undignified way of saying something. But I am trying. I am failing and floundering, but I am trying. Maybe someday, I will say that perfect sentence in a perfect accent, umlauts and all, and someone will smile and acknowledge me and give me what I want. Maybe someday, I will learn to string these keywords to make beautiful sentences. Maybe someday, someone will compliment me on how good my German is.

So amid this constant linguistic struggle I face everyday, that has added even more to my sense of alienation, I am trying to find the hidden part of my voice box the German sounds come from. Seven months, and I have realized how much language plays an important role in our cultural and social sense of belonging. When I moved from India to the US, understanding the language wasn’t a problem. I just had to change my dickys to car trunks, rupee notes to bills, restaurant bills to checks, and the capsicums to bell peppers.

I am without a phone for the last seven months, because I have no one to call and talk to. Sure, I have a job where I need help daily to translate every email and website and every meeting where people speak nothing but German. I have a bank account, but it is all in German, and I have learnt from muscle memory what buttons to click on to check my account balance. The other day at the Chicago conference, someone told me that they just met a bunch of Germans, and I should go introduce myself. I ran as fast as I could, but in the opposite direction. For after seven months of all the cacophony that grated on my nerves, I knew that I would keel over and throw up if I had to hear one more word of it. I have been gladly making small talk with every cab driver, grocery store cashier, and hotel receptionist for the last few days in Chicago, just because it feels so comforting to hear English.

And with this, I have realized something else. That Germany will never be home.

Perhaps, the feeling of home has nothing to do with nationality and place of origin. My passport is Indian, my work-visa German, but my home address is not on my passport anymore. Because no matter where I live, it is Seattle, and the US, that will always be home. This is where I belong. This is where all the milestones in my life happened. This is where I built everything, and then saw most things go. My work identity, and even the research I do sitting in my German office, is still American.

But now, I am a visitor in my own home. Because after having two student visas and a work-visa, I now have a visitor visa to be able to enter my home. Ironically, the student visa was for five years, the work visa for three years, but this one that prohibits me to work and earn, the visa mommies and daddies use to visit their children in America, is for ten years. Other than actually being homeless, this must be the closest to what being homeless feels like.