I am starting to feel some pressure to beef up my Hindi. After all, if a person tells you that your language skills give them a sense of national pride, you need to try as hard as possible.
This all started with a trip to purchase a phone – Nisha’s phone broke so we went on an expedition for a new one.
While we’re out, Nisha and I have gotten into the habit of prodding each other – I’ll make her read signs and she’ll make me repeat numbers back to her in Hindi. I’ve needed the extra help with the numbers, because learning them in practice is tricky – even if you can say them all fast in a row, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can remember a specific number off the bat (I.e. you might count to ten in succession, but do you remember which one means eight?).
This has proven even harder for large numbers. If something cost 1,260 rupees, you have to remember how to say one, a thousand, two, a hundred AND sixty. It looks like one number on the page when in reality you’re remembering five numbers and putting them together.
The reason I used this number as an example is because when we got to the phone store, we were told that the basic phone cost 1,260 rupees. And as the store clerk announced this, I chirped back at him “Ek hazaar doe saw sarth” (or 1,260 in Hindi). I looked to Nisha, as I always do, to make sure this was right. But once I saw her nod I turned around and noticed that every one of the seven people helping us was staring at me in amusement.
“You know Hindi?” one of them said.
“Tora, tora Hindi boltay,” I said, (roughly translates to “I speak little, little Hindi”). They clapped their hands with delight.
“Where did you learn Hindi?” I nodded towards Nisha but their curiosity wasn’t satisfied, “Why you learn Hindi? Where are you from?”
“Well,” I started, “I’m from America. And I only know very very little Hindi. But I’m learning it because I think it’s important to know the basics while I’m living in India.”
They all looked at each other and nodded. One man who had been silent up until that point suddenly came to the front of the counter and looked me dead in the eyes.
“You have no idea what this is to us,” he said. “If people like you want to come here and speak in our language it means something great for India.”
“We are very happy to hear you speaking Hindi,” another man said. “Yes,” another concurred, “It gives national pride.”
I didn’t really know how to respond to this. My basic Hindi gives these people national pride? That I can recite numbers (extremely slowly) in Hindi? How could I possibly believe that?
Here I was, surrounded by more than half a dozen young Indian men who spoke perfect English and yet they wanted to praise me for the rudimentary Hindi words I had picked up.
I tried to explain that I hadn’t learned very much yet, but they would hear none of it. They spoke in quick Hindi to Nisha trying to find out more information about me.
I wasn’t going to protest. After all, this was why I’d wanted to learn Hindi, right? I wanted to be politically correct and culturally sensitive and all of that. But it’s one thing to think that you should try hard to respect the culture you’ve moved into; It’s quite another to have someone tell you that it’s meaningful to them that you’re trying. It made me feel like I should be trying harder.
And this certainly wasn’t the first time my terrible Hindi has received a shocked reception. Everywhere I go – at bars, in rickshaws, at markets and now at the phone store – most Indians seem bemused that I’m at least trying to speak their language. No one expects white people to try at all (since English is the co-national language here), so even the basics in Hindi are congratulated.
And I’m sure that for most people, half the fun is in watching this foreign person struggle with a bad accent at their language. But every time my bad Hindi makes someone laugh, or whenever they ask me to repeat my words again for their friends, I’m getting the sense that it’s the most crucial way for me to adapt. It’s an immediate signal that I’m trying, ever so slowly, to fit into Indian culture instead of trying to make it adapt to me. And that seems to be appreciated.
As we left the store I waved and said, “Muje apsay milnee acha laga”.
“It’s nice to meet you too, ma’am!” they replied, before talking animatedly amongst themselves while continuously looking back at Nisha and me as we walked away