In English, I can use the word “you” to address my mother, or my friend, or a 2-year old child, or a professor. In Telugu, and in many other languages around the world, this isn’t the case. With English as my first language, I’ve always struggled in other languages with when to use which pronoun, and with what implications it might carry. I never really understood it until I learned the same rule in a French classroom with more explicit instructions and guidelines. Here and elsewhere, the notion of respect for elders and others is built right into the language. “Nuvvu” can be used to address a friend, while “miru,” the plural form, might be used to address a grandparent or an official at work. The culture of respect is obvious in day to day speech. This means that references to social and professional hierarchies are unavoidable.
Over this trip, Judy and I have both been unwitting and often uncomfortable recipients of the “miru” address. It’s probably because we introduce ourselves as coming from America, whatever that implies to whoever we are talking to and which I won’t get into now, since our age and education level don’t merit it on their own. In Araku, we would be offered the few available chairs while the entire rest of the village sat on the mud floor and we would have to insist upon sitting with them. We would be served lunch and have to scramble to clear our own plates before the older women of the village swooped in and did it for us. What was basic hospitality to one side of the group was uncomfortable and awkward for us to experience at times. Reframing the interactions as a matter of friendliness and hospitality was something we had to do consciously.
In the second half of the summer, Judy and I have been working at N-Star centers in Hyderabad, which are after-school skill-building and life skills centers for young women around the ages of 15 to 20. No matter how much we’ve tried to shed the formality of the situation, no matter how many casual and natural conversations we have, and no matter how many impromptu dance parties we participate in, we still get greeted by a “Good afternoon, ma’am,” and addressed with at least one “ma’am” per sentence, by girls who are just about our age. Even though we feel like we’re getting to know each other on a similar plane, talking about books and movies and college classes, every time we hear a “ma’am”, it makes us wince a little, as though there is a barrier between us that can’t possibly dissolve, although we were breaking it down bit by bit.
It’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s hard to remember that some of these norms are paralleled back home as well. For example, even in the office, these subtle cues are prominent. We eat lunch in groups, which correspond roughly to different roles in the office. Younger employees address older ones with respect even if they’re in similar positions, and junior employees address more senior ones with respect even if they’re the same age. While it may not be as explicitly tied into the language back home, it’s not too different from office culture in the US, and it took some time for me to realize that. For now, I still default to English when I’m not sure which conjugation the situation merits, but it’s more because I need more practice and not because the entire concept makes me uncomfortable and out of place.
Today’s our last day in the office, and we’ll be heading back this weekend. It’s bittersweet but we’re also eager to be home. Thank you for reading my reflections on the way!