One week ago, I took an auto rickshaw on my own. I haled the driver, and doing my best to copy the “Indian” English accent, managed to bargain an acceptable price.
While we were driving, I was honored to hear him ask me “ Ma’am, Kannada, Hindi, Telugu…? (But then felt a little embarrassed to have to answer him “ No,… English, only English.”) On the moment, I felt proud he had asked me the question, as I thought that I had finally managed to pass the Indian test, that I had fooled him into believing that I was Indian. In my head, I attributed this “success” to my borrowed Indian intonation, to the fact I was wearing a kurta that day, as well as to my effort to look self-assured and speak firmly to the driver. It is a general belief that, in India, rickshaw drivers tend to charge foreigners more, and so I had always thought that somehow the less American and the more confident I would sound, the easier it would be for me to bargain an acceptable price.
Looking back at the event, I realize that I had probably over-estimated the extent of my success in passing for Indian that day. If the driver had asked me which language I spoke, it might rather have been specifically because I looked like I did not quite fit in (and thus he was curious to know more….)
Earlier on in the internship, Chitra (our boss) told the four of us, nicely dressed in kurtas that day: “You all look Indian!”. She was probably only trying to compliment us on our clothes and make us feel good because then, observing us more closely, she added/felt constrained to add:“ …except the hair, the eyes, the skin, the way of walking….”. (This, to the four of us sounded almost the same as if she had said “ you do not look or act Indian in any way”).
But that was fine to us. Throughout the internship, we realized that being an outsider could also have fun sides: there was a constant challenge for us to learn new things every day. People were generally extremely tolerant towards our “Westernized” behaviors and always willing/eager to teach us their ways.
In our daily lives, we were constantly reminded of the fact that we were not Indian, for instance through explicit or implicit feedback we would get from the people we met:
Eating with hands
One day, our coworkers surprised one of their friends for her birthday with a cake at work. All four of us interns were present at the cake cutting ceremony and received a piece of cake on a cardboard plate. After handing out the last piece, Chitra started tearing apart one of the remaining cardboard plates and gave each of us four a piece of it. She saw our confused looks, so she provided some clarification: “spoon “ she said.
I remember the day we ate in the workers’ canteen with a few of the friends we had made amongst the tailors. At the staff canteen where we usually ate, we always had the option of using a spoon to eat. In the workers’ canteen, however, there was no cutlery and we were to eat the rice with our hands. In an attempt to not touch the burning rice, it tried to scoop it into my mouth using a papad, a sort of large light cracker served with the meal. I was immediately called out by one of our coworkers who, looking amused, asked me to not cheat.
Aside from the fact that we did not speak Kannada, the official language of the Karnataka region, we encountered numerous communication difficulties even while speaking English. Indeed, we soon realized that our choice of words/structures, as well as the way we pronounced these English words was also different. This often made it very difficult for us to understand and be understood by Uber drivers on the phone!
Even though I sometimes tried to copy the “Indian” accent in order to be better understood and to attempt to fit it (my interaction with the rickshaw driver is an example of such a situation), I progressively realized that achieving a somewhat accurate Indian accent would be difficult because it would require that I learn to pronounce sounds that I could barely make out, even less pronounce. Here is an example:
For a few weeks at work, we played an ongoing pronunciation game with our coworkers. All four of us would constantly try to enunciate the work “jhootha” correctly: if one pronounces the “th” using the “t” sound normal to us Americans, the word means sandal. Pronounced with a Hindi “t” sound, the word means liar. To our ears, the difference between those two sounds was very subtle, and we would also struggle a lot to pronounce the Hindi “t”. Because this Hindi “t” was the “t” sound most of the Indians would employ while speaking English, I guess it means that we got all our “t”s wrong while trying to copy their way of speaking. On top of that, because I was very bad at the pronunciation game, I would call my coworkers “sandal” whenever I meant to tease them and call them “liar”. Below is an audio extract featuring one of our coworkers saying “jhootha” -liar and “jhootha”-sandal/shoe. I asked her to speak slowly and distinctively so as to make the difference between the two “t”s easier to spot. Can you hear the difference?