Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Deutsch doesn’t go Dutch

If you grew up in India in the seventies or eighties and watched Doordarshan, you would remember the song, "Padhna likhna seekho, o mehnat karne waalo, padhna likhna seekho, o bhookh se marne waalo." (Be literate o hard workers, be literate o hungry people). I have been looking for the song, and last I remember, it was a song with a social message. Yet my efforts were unsuccessful and all I got were hits to webpages asking me to download hot and sexy wallpapers, or look for other singles in town. Safdar Hashmi, the writer of the song, would die once again if he saw that.

Anyway, this song plays in a loop in my head sometimes, especially on days when I check my mail (letterbox). I get plenty of mails, but none from friends or family. All of them are official mails, in German. Letters from the bank, from the immigration office, from the health insurance. Bills I have to pay and money I have to deposit, official invitation letters for events, and so on. I open the letters, and understand nothing. So I fold them back neatly, and take them to my departmental secretary.

When she is free, we sit down together, and she reads out and translates those mails for me (sometimes, she uses her translation websites as well). And inevitably, she expresses frustration over how Germany is rude to foreigners because people do not type mails in English. And I sit with a pen and jot down the important things I need to do, the amount I need to pay, the documents I need to take to the visa office, and the time and place and dates when I need to show up somewhere. I neatly write down the information I need to know in English in those German letters. Nothing important or fancy, just information like debit card pins and security passwords and my health insurance clauses. 

And while I do that, this song always plays in my head. I remember the movies I grew up watching, where poor people who did not know how to read and write would take their letters to the post office, where a Samaritan would read out those letters for them. Sometimes, the bad guys would get their thumb imprints on documents and steal all their money. I am not illiterate, I know that. But never in all these years had I imagined that I would get important, official letters in a language I do not understand, and sit down with a translator while I write down the information I need. Something like, "Hey, this is your social security number. Write it down. And by the way, this is your bank pin number, and this is your password, don't share it with anyone. And this is where you need to take your passport, and show up at this time. And by the way, this letter from your health insurance says that they do not cover cosmetic surgeries, so don't get a nose job."

Sometimes, learning something new requires some degree of unlearning. So I am unlearning the sense of comfort and security that comes from something as basic as being able to read, write and follow a language, and instead, learning to be okay about that momentary "eff! What will I do now?" panicky feeling I get every time I open a mail, and then trust others to tell me correctly what I need to know to navigate my way around. You might be reading
this and nodding as if you know what I mean, but you will not understand it until you live this experience. I live in a country where I witness strong linguistic identities every day. From good news to bad news, scholarship letters to grant rejection letters, bank statements to invitation letters, rental contracts, etc., everything comes to me in German. It is my responsibility to translate it. My house lease is in German (that I signed), the English version being a mere translation for my benefit and not necessarily a legal document or contract (which means I signed something assuming that the translation of it that I read was correct; there is no way to know).

However, I am not complaining. Far from it. It is my choice, whether or not I want to live in Germany, whether or not I want to learn the language, whether or not I want to live as an outsider, insulating myself from the more local experiences. Some people might talk to you in English (mostly in the academia and out of kindness, but not outside it), some signs might be vaguely written in English.

So as always, I continue to experience something new every day.


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