Friday, May 26, 2017

Raaga Kumbhakarnam

After a long time, I was reprimanded, shouted at, and told that my actions would have consequences while I struggled to stifle my giggles. I was also told to go stand in a corner, and that I would be separated from my (fictitious) class.

It is hard to keep up with the energy of an 8-year old. Baby Kalyani is not only a music geek, but also decided to make me her student for the next few days the first time she visited me. So she spent the day teaching me her notes, sa ri ga ma, the arohanams and the avarohanams, the gamakams and the aakarams, and what not. I was expected to sing, so I sang along, sometimes repeating with devotion, and sometimes humming half-heartedly or inserting my own funny lyrics. I was patiently corrected, and, just like GRE questions, given easier or harder notes based on my previous performance.

I got my first warning when I was asked to repeat Raag Malahari. In my lack of imagination and control for poor jokes, I asked if Malahari meant green poop (mala + hari). I was asked, by the same Baby Kalyani who would hum sa re ga ma with me as a baby, to behave myself. So, I did.

I tired myself eventually and my battery ran out. So I told her that I would love to teach her a new raag and call it a day. She got all excited and perked up.

"It is a new raag. It is called Raag Kumbhakarnam. Puriyarda? Do you understand" I asked.

"Puriyarde. I understand. And how do you sing the aarohanam and the avarohanam? What about the taalam?" she asked.

And instead of singing, I started to snore. Loudly. Seriously. In different notes. High notes and low notes. Fast notes and slow notes. I snored like I was Kumbhakaran, and that was Raag Kumbhakarnam for me. I lay down, closed my eyes, and encouraged her to snore along.

That's when she lost it. She reprimanded and shouted and told me that my actions will have consequences. That once she goes back to Seattle, the first thing she would do is call her mom's music guru and tattle on me.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Micro-aggression 101: Your English Sucks

I teach a late night class. I usually take the 9:30 pm bus after that, but that night, I was exhausted. I had multiple deadlines that week, it was pretty icy outside and I did not want to risk a fall in the darkness. I save my Uber rides for very special occasions when I have absolutely no energy to take the bus. That day, I hired one.

My workplace to home is a mere 7-8 minute, $7 Uber ride. Naturally, there was not much time for conversation. The gentleman asked me what I do and I said that I am a faculty.

"What do you teach?" he asked me.

"Statistics," I said.

"How do your students understand you in class?" he looked quizzically.

It took a while for what was happening to sink in. It was so surreal that although it was happening, I could not believe that it was happening. I speak English in my own accent which is not quite an American accent. None of my colleagues or students has complained so far. I have given job talks, I have taught 3-hour long classes, I present at conferences every year in front of large crowds. Yet it took a chance encounter with a man I do not know to question my ability to do my job properly. I wondered if he would have asked the same question to a White, Australian man instead of a brown woman. Let me make an educated guess here. He would have found the Australian man's English cute.

I felt repulsed. That seven minute ride suddenly seemed so long. I knew I did not want to fight this battle. I took a deep breath and said, "Look, if we care so much about pure, authentic English, maybe we should all move to England."

He rambled on for the rest of the trip about how it was so funny that India had so many languages. I did not engage anymore.

A guy I do not know and am never likely to meet again questions my entire gamut of effort of years that brought me to this point where I would tell, on being asked, that I am a faculty and I teach a course in statistics. Did you know that 75% of my class consists of immigrant students, those who moved from various countries to get an education in the United States? None of their native language is English. I don't think anyone in my class has ever complained that they do not follow what I say.

These stories of marginalization and micro-aggression are not trivial. Sitting in my ivory tower and socializing mostly with people in university settings for eleven years here, I have been insulated from chance encounters like this. As a result, I always thought that the US is very liberal, tolerant and broad-minded. The reality is, the US I know of is very liberal, tolerant, and broad-minded. This man taught me an important lesson in statistics that day. My reality was heavily biased due to selective sampling, making it impossible to generalize my sample characteristics to a population setting.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Mother tongue speaks the loudest

The sign outside my office door has my name written in English and my mother tongue, Bangla. This creates quite a stir in the busy hallway with students, teachers, faculty, and other people walking around.

At the least, people stop and take a close look before walking away.

And some stop to tell me how beautiful it looks, asking me what language it is.

Some keep the conversation going, wanting to know more about the place I come from.

And some come inside my office, wanting to know what their name looks like in Bangla. They always leave my office very excited at having seen their name written in a foreign language.

This has sparked many a long, important discussions, about the history of languages, language politics, the brain of those who speak multiple languages, colonization of the English language around the world, diversity and immigrant power, and so on.

Some people are so inspired that they want their names written in Bangla too, just like mine. Because it's not fair that they can speak and write only in English whereas I have the advantage of flaunting my knowledge in multiple languages.

Of course, I did not plan any of this. All I have wanted for the longest time is to have my own office one day, and have my name written in my mother tongue along with English. And so I did, sparking so many joyful, interesting, and important conversations in the process. I know so many more people in the building now, just because they stop by to read my name, introduce themselves, and ask me to write their names in Bangla too. And that is the power of the human connection.