I don’t speak Hindi. Even though I’ve picked up a few important phrases since being here, I still have the same apologetic smile when I nod my head and say “Mujhe Hindi nahi athi hai.” The women here usually respond by saying that I should learn Hindi immediately, but more importantly, a larger portion of these women have volunteered to teach me. They usually smile and say, “You teach me some English, and I’ll teach you Hindi” (in Hindi of course). I never thought about it too much, but I’ve never really asked someone who doesn’t speak English in America to teach me her language. Rather, I feel as Americans, we think worse of someone who struggles with English in America, look down upon anyone who speaks with a thick Indian accent, and are embarrassed when our immigrant parents pronounce words differently with “American” people there. Even though I myself wish I knew Hindi, never have any of these women patronized me for not speaking their language. With English as its only primary language, America is partially paralyzed from accepting the slightest deviations from the norm, whatever that may mean.
A week ago, about ten high school students, part of the Chinmaya Mission’s international branch, arrived at CORD to learn more about rural development and women’s empowerment. Rhea and I, as we usually do with any new human being that enters our otherwise quiet campus, greeted two girls who were apart of this group with our usual: “HI HELLO! WHO ARE YOU? WHERE DO YOU COME FROM? WHY ARE YOU HERE?” It probably sounds more obnoxious in person. Anyways, we started talking to this pre-college frosh and 10th grader about religion and Indian culture in the USA, as they are both were of Indian decent. Rhea asked them if they were very religious and cultural. They gave the usual response: “Haha, I mean we go to the Sunday Balavihar class and stuff, but we’re not like VERY religious.” As soon as they said that, I was reminded of me when I was asked this question in America. I had (maybe sadly still have?) the same fidgety feet and nervous hands trying to clearly establish the fact that, although I may seem very Indian, I am not in fact TOO Indian. Sigh, as someone who definitely felt awkward fully grasping this question, I wondered what this force was pressuring the young children of immigrants to feel uncertain about embracing our own histories.
However, in India, America is still revered as the ultimate workplace, the dream of all dreams. One of my supervisors, Munish (who also let me attempt to ride an Indian scootie for the first time in a mostly empty field minus a few cows), asked me if marriage was required in America. Trying to understand where he was coming from, I explained how I did not think it was required anywhere; but, maybe compared to the Indian culture, American culture was more accommodating of people’s choices to remain unmarried. Later in the conversation, he explained how he had desired to work in America or Canada; but now that he is 29 years old and recently got engaged, thoughts of starting a brand new life abroad seems almost impossible now that he is “tied down” (his words) with marriage now. However, he has high aspirations for his younger brother, who has studied Sanskrit to become a priest. Even in the middle of the incessant strife internally bounding our country, America is still revered as the universal melting pot where all its residents can attain their wildest dreams.
Immigrant families in America fought tirelessly with their own individual hardships to end up where they are. Yet, in a country brimming with so much diversity, such a rich history, and heterogeneity, we are left trying to become one standardized people and even demeaning those who may be a little different. No one wants to stand out as “un-American,” whatever that may mean, in a country that champions individualism. So sometimes we find ourselves being condescending towards other’s accents, even though every modified intonation represents years of personal struggles; we dissociate ourselves from our individual cultures or religion, forgetting how delicately it was transported overseas to comfort our ancestors in this daunting land. I know that I am personally guilty of this.
But what if we all had that attitude? What if we could all strive to understand one another, our positions, our attitudes, our feelings without judgment or condescension? If we could look at our fellow immigrant Americans and WANT to learn about their culture, their history, their story without jumping to conclusions? Maybe it’s time we unapologetically embrace our own cultures and stand up for those battling to do the same by demonstrating a little sensitivity. America is hurting, for sure; yet she still inundates the dreams of millions aspiring to become a part of her culture everyday. It’s inspiring honestly how far a little tolerance, love, and respect goes when women here tell me to teach them so they can teach me. I hope to bring some of that willingness to learn back with me.