Friday, May 06, 2016

Germane thoughts

One of the (not so) funny things that happens to me a lot is that when people hear that I live in Germany, they start talking to me in German. They are not the Germans. They are people who were talking to me in perfect English, Bangla, Hindi, or whatever language 2 minutes ago. It has happened to me so many times now, in person and in emails. Emails are better, I can at least go for the "German to English" dictionary. But given that I neither look, nor am German, I wonder why people do it, to get blank stares and stupid looks from me. For me, the conversation (that starts with English and ends in German) is like watching a group of graceful dancers enter the stage and dance beautifully for the first five minutes, only to slip on invisible banana peels, get derailed, and never be able to get up again.

Some of my non-German acquaintances recently wrote back to me about a professional achievement, congratulating me in German. I could only mutter a feeble danke shoen (thank you very much) in response. This is of course not the first time it has happened to me. When people hear that I grew up in Orissa and speak and understand Oriya fluently, they start talking in Oriya, which most of the times is non-sensical, gibberish words with no real Oriya meaning. Most of the time, I sit stone-faced, announcing, "This is not Oriya, this sounded more like the Azerbaijani language", only to get disapproving looks from people.

So I land in DC, and am confronted with the immigration officer. I am trying to hear him carefully, everyone speaks English with a slightly different accent even within the USA. He checks my documents and asks me something. Only that I am no longer able to understand him. I ask him thrice. I get nervous. It's never happened before that I have not been able to understand American English. I think he gets slightly irritated and asks if I speak German at all.

"nur ein bisschen" (only a little), I tell him honestly.

At which, he gets annoyed and says, "Just say nein (no)"

Okay, granted my German is not that good. But what he just spoke didn't even sound like German. It could be my unconscious bias too. When I see a non-German, I do not expect them to speak German. Or maybe I was really tired. Whatever it was, I understood not a word of what he said. These days, I know enough German to know how it sounds, even though I cannot understand the words. But the big question that still remains unanswered is, why would an American see an Indian and start speaking in German?

During a recent interview outside Germany, the interviewer started talking to me in German. Not ordinary German, but Swiss-German. Yeah, there are these classifications too. I had to request him (in jest) not to evaluate my potential for the job based on my German knowledge.

This happened at the Chicago airport too last year. The guy said something, and I started blankly. Later, my colleague told me that he was just saying goodbye.

Sometimes, things people do just don’t make any sense to me.


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