Friday, February 19, 2016

Mind your language

It is a rewarding feeling to see one evolve with time, for the better. Perhaps, I just gave away the last line of my post.

I have many friends who work in the technological hub of India (cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Chennai). One thing they always complained about is how rude the auto wallahs and the bus drivers are, refusing to speak to them in Hindi despite knowing the language (a speculation on their part). While my friends demonized these local people, I nodded with them in agreement. "Absolutely. How could they?" I had never experienced living in a place where I did not know the language. India, USA. I fluently spoke the language everywhere I lived. How unfair was it that one moved to Chennai, and the local people are so close-minded and wrapped up in their own heritage that they would not even help a stranger? I have actually believed in these ideas for a long time.

Then, I moved to Germany. The initial months were a nightmare, not because German is a hard language (It is quite manageable, now that I am getting a hang of it). They were a nightmare because I completely resisted learning German. I suffered from a sense of entitlement, just like my friends did, where I believed that people should know English, and talk to me in English. As a result, I suffered every day. Bus announcements were made, and I had no clue. I would look for certain things at the grocery store, and would be clueless about how to explain myself. Bank documents and credit card statements were sent in German. The visa officer sent me my appointment letter in German, refusing to write in English when I asked her to. Even my online banking website is in German. I would not read departmental emails or go to monthly meetings in silent protest. Sometimes, I used my hands in exasperation. Sometimes, I shook my head violently to indicate what I wanted. I even minimized going out, so that I would not have to deal with the helplessness. "How can you run a research institute and not talk to me in English?", is what I kept silently asking.

I think at some point, I exhausted myself from my passive-aggressive resistance after which I thought, why the eff am I acting this way? So I started learning German. Not too much, just for 30 minutes every day, a few days a week. And the gains were exponential. Soon, I learnt a critical mass of words and phrases that suddenly made my life so much easier. I realized that one does not need to master the language well enough to be able to author books. Simple words like thank you, sorry, please help me, excuse me, I speak only a little German, do you speak English, and counting from one to ten, etc. were enough to help me navigate my way around. I am not going to stop here. I am going to continue to learn until I am fluent. However, it doesn't take much to learn the basics.

I now wonder why my friends did not learn some basic Telugu, Tamil, or Kannada to be able to make basic conversation. Was it the same assumption and sense of entitlement, that I am the superior one here because I can write computer codes, and you bus drivers will learn my language? You are not really a part of the society if you are purposefully insulating yourself from the local experiences and living in your own comfort island, just hanging out with people like you, who speak the same language, eat the same food, and complain about the local people. If Jhumpa Lahiri could move to Italy (that too, temporarily) and learn Italian well enough to write a book, why was I complaining?

As I changed my attitude, the people around me changed too. These days, I even add a line in German while writing emails in English to my colleagues. I feel more accepted, and they too go an extra step to make me feel accepted. They drop by my office and bring me their kids' story books to read, suggest me movies and songs, and invite me home to share a meal with them. I even make fun about phonetically similar words like glücklich, täglich, and möglich, and they never take offense. During a recent presentation, the organizer explicitly wrote in the email that every one of the twelve teams have to present in English, because there is one (yes, only one) person who does not understand German. You have no idea how much generosity this is. A colleague even ended his presentation with the word "Shukriya" (thank you in Hindi) on the last slide, as a gesture of showing that he appreciates my effort of integrating into the German society. For me, it has been alienating and isolating. But on a good day, it has been hugely rewarding and humbling.

So the next time, instead of whining and complaining, just learn the local language.


1 comment:

idom said...

Hi Sunshine

It is great to see/read that you are blogging much more regularly.
I am a Gujarati and was in Karnataka for my engineering as well as 7 years of job (11 years in total). And I picked up bits and pieces of Kanadda. Later I put some effort in reading and writing as well.

I have always noticed that even if you put little bit effort to learn the local language , People are immediately delighted and are always ready to help. I noticed that when I was trying to deal with RTO in Bangalore, and requested the government officer some help in Kannada form and he was so happy to know that I have put some effort in learning kanadda, he filled up the form for myself and helped me.

Any new language is a great advantage and we should learn as many as we can.