Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The world is here ...

So yesterday a student came into the office, "G -- there's a gentleman out there with some questions, and I think you can speak to him in his native language."

Turns out there were two gentlemen and a toddler, recently arrived from Kerela. Apparently the local hospitals have hired 16 nurses from India recently, and these gentleman are the now stay-at-home husbands ("no no, not all Keralite! Some are from Bombay!). Or rather, fly-across-the-world-and-stay-at-home. Schedule A at work (a newly passed law that provides for rather rapid immigrant visas, i.e. green cards, for nurses and physical therapists, since there is a critical shortage of the same in the US. Go to a hospital and there'll be nurses of every race and tongue. Even in South Carolina. I've even heard that physicians in the Philippines are retraining as RNs in order to immigrate to the US more easily!).

Of course, I couldn't converse with them in their native language. I don't speak a lick of Malayalam (Well. I can count up till 29. And we were taught "O Come All Ye Faithful" in a variety of Indian languages back in 2nd grade I think. Yes, in a non-Christian private school in New Delhi. The only one that has stuck with me [apart from the English and the Latin, aquired much later] is the Malayali version. "Vishwasi galeva, dushta manasarayi, vanni dugava nigal Bethlehem ... " My transliteration and recollection, no doubt, are quite faulty. But, I digress). Like most other Indians across the North-South divide, we spoke in English. After assuring the good nurse-husbands that this was indeed a Catholic parish, letting them know about catechism classes for the kids and the Mass schedule, I offered them a ride back to their apartment (not too far, but it had started raining quite heavily). "There's a Malayali Orthodox congregation in Augusta (about 60 miles away)" I mention. "Oh no! We're Catholic" (there's that distinctive South Indian head wobble). Syro-Malabar, to be precise. But, I guess, a Latin parish will have to do for now. :) However, they've been getting some good help and pointers in things American (and rides to Wal-Mart no doubt. Public transportation is pretty non-existent in most of the States) from a Pentecostal Keralite pastor in Columbia (it took me a second to figure out what "Bunthukostal" meant. I realized how much I miss hearing Indian English in all its resplendent variety!). A Malayali Pentecostal pastor. Here. Wow.

After I dropped them off and headed back to the office, I reflected on just how intolerant Americans are of foreign accents. It makes a huge difference on how smooth things go for immigrants, the ability to sound "American." There seems to be a sheer laziness when it comes to trying to make an effort to understand someone whose English is broken, or has a different accent. Perhaps not in New York City. But definitely here. And in most parts of the country, I'd hazard. Simple things become incredibly difficult. Barriers go up. Decibel levels rise. Patience is visibly strained. Often, otherwise smiling faces scowl. Tempers shorten. I've seen this at the Post Office, the grocery store check-out line, the bank. Comments about foreign TAs. And oh yes, in all those comments about foreign sounding customer service reps on the phone. Perhaps its just a reflection of the incredible parochialism of American society, or xenophobia, or more likely, from simply being in such a monolingual world, with an inability to imagine otherwise.

[Pet peeve. When people say that I speak excellent English, "without an accent" I always wince. Of course I have an accent. It's an American one. Sometimes (especially after Carolina football games) a distinctly Southern twang emerges. Yes, I can switch to Indian English when necessary. But please, everyone has some kind of an accent. And no, for some reason, neither requires conscious effort.]

Slowly, but surely, and despite all those nay-sayers, the world is arriving here. And a good thing too.


corey said...

um, g, everyone hates foreigners. an american thing this ain't.

to tell the truth, while americans like anyone are hardly excited to have to slow our speech down, we're less intolerant than other places by far. i'm thinking eastern europe, france, england, countries that boil over when encountering foreigners because they're simply so sick of them. americans at least romanticize foreign accents from certain parts of the world.

angelmeg said...

"My family has been having trouble with imigrants every since we came to this country."

One of my favorite lines from a movie. It comes from Finian's Rainbow and says quite a lot about Xeophobic Americans.

But as to accents: Here in Indiana we think people from Kentucky sound funny. And those Michigan people, whew we can hardly understand what they are saying half the time.

Of course I am only kidding, well mostly, but you get the picture, everyone has an accent except us.

Personally I love to hear people speak English with an accent, it makes it sound so much more romantic than we mid-westerners will ever make it sound.

Gashwin said...

Corey, you missed my point (or, perhaps, my point wasn't too clear). I wasn't just pointing out America's xenophobism, or its intolerance of foreigners. Xenophobism exists everywhere, as you correctly point out, to differing degrees (you are also correct that as a whole America is more tolerant than other places. I've mentioned on several occasions just how uncomfortable Britain is for someone who is Indian). My point really was noting the way language ability tends to be the way this (discomfiture, impatience with foreigners, or even outright xenophobia) manifests itself. I think other factors might play a part (this is conjecture based upon experience and presupposition, as always :)), such as race. For instance, I'd guess a white person with a strange accent might not get the same treatment as a brown person with a strange accent, especially a Hispanic brown person.

This is not to say that other people do not identify foreigners by their accents. However, I feel, Americans tend to be more insular and less exposed to foreign accents (the romanticization/exoticization is just the opposite of this, ja?).

I rarely get identified as a foreigner. Because I speak American.

Meg, I didn't mean to downplay the differences in accents within America. However, in Michigan, I don't think someone from Kentucky would face negative treatment because of their English accent. Someone from Mexico just might.

Anyway, it was a reflective ramble, not cogent analysis. :)

assiniboine said...

It’d be interesting to check in with your Malayalis in a year or so: chances are they’ll sound like they never stepped foot out of South Carolina, Indians being perhaps the most acutely sensitive-to-linguistic-nuance on earth. I met a Tamil fellow — and, unusually in my experience, one from Tamil Nadu, not Malaysia or Singapore — an officer in the Australian Army, in fact, who spoke perfect American broadcast English, if one may call it that. However did he learn to speak like that? Well, he’d spent two years in Nashville, Tennessee, and no one would understand him: even one unfamiliar-sounding word in a sentence and they’d switch the whole thing off. So he did the necessary.

On the other hand, living in a little community of at-home husbands of female Malayali nurses, it may not happen quite so quickly. A Tamil friend of mine were on the way to the Saturday markets one morning and my friend pointed out a tiny South Indian and exclaimed: “Look…that guy’s even shorter than me!” The tiny Indian in question waggled his head at us and I asked him where he was from. India. Well, obviously, but where in India? The South. OK, let’s narrow it down: Tamil Nadu? Andra Pradesh? Kerala? Karnataka? Kerala. Wonderful! Where in Kerala? Cochin. Aha! So you’re Hindu? Christian? Muslim? Jewish? Christian. By this time the poor fellow was becoming rather spooked and his head was virtually rolling on ball bearings. But I persisted. Well! So are you Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant? Orthodox, he said, as he turned tail and ran. My Tamil friend, who had spent an unhappy year lecturing at Madurai Kamaraj University in Tamil Nadu and finds “mainland Indians” fairly difficult (“You are an Iyengar — you can’t wear your lungi like that! It has to be EXACTLY ½ inch from your ankle bone!”) thought all this hilarious, needless to say.

That being said, whenever I have been in Bombay the question arises again and again, “How’s my English?” Meaning “my accent” — mid-Atlantic English being thought tony, it seems. They all sound like Upstate New Yorkers to me in that environment, but when a friend-in-common of ours spent a few months working in Montreal and I spoke with him by telephone there, boy did he sound Indian! And here I slightly beg to differ as to your suggestion that we’re all of us xenophobes: he had been mildly nervous at the prospect of being << un maudit éthnique >> in francophone Quebec, and proposed using the English form (Zack) of his Malayalam name (Cherian); I suggested that he not go too far overboard, and the fact of the matter was that he had an utterly wonderful time, made a special point of befriending all manner of folk from all manner of backgrounds but Indian — he eschewed them on the basis that there are plenty of them back home and he was here to have an interesting experience. Even the francophones were nice to him (they actually are very nice; just a mite prickly on the subject of sovereigntism). His one disquieting perception was that a certain Pakistani-Canadian he got to know, he considered to be the image and likeness of me. I thought this somewhat improbable — my background being 100% Celtic — and when I asked for a photo of this Punjabi double of mine, the fellow was, well, no oil painting; when I demurred from the proposition, he responded, “Oh well, you know all Indo-Europeans look the same to us!”

assiniboine said...

But to complete my point (I got sidetracked: I sometimes do), cosmopolitanism is, it hardly needs saying, mostly a matter of being in a metropole. I wonder which Indians — or more broadly, South Asians — you know who find England a trying place to be – Pakistanis in Bradford, of course; but I know any number of Indians from both India and Malaysia and Singapore who think that they’ve died and gone to heaven, being in London. (“The theatre! The concerts! The galleries! The world within the confines of one city! The gorgeous church liturgies — and by the way, would you come with me to Brompton Oratory? I’m nervous about making a fool of myself in my Anglican Indian obliviousness to Catholic niceties!”) Whereas they think that the idea of being in the USA is terrifying beyond imagining.

And when all is said and done, a keen ear for dialects (or the lack thereof) isn’t necessarily dispositive of ethnic tolerance (or otherwise). Pakistanis are phenomenally sharp-eared and you really wouldn’t want to be black there. (There is a sizeable population of descendants of the African slaves whom the Arabs brought with them still living in Sindh and they are universally shunned.) My mother, on the other hand, and a more colour-blind person never walked the earth, once picked me up from the RC Cathedral in my home town, where I was playing the organ. The Cathedral is in what was once a German-Italian ghetto, it was blizzarding and a little old lady dressed in black was struggling along. So Mum picked her up and gave her a lift. The little old lady said in heavily accented English that weather like this always made her terribly sad because her son had died in just such a storm. To which Mum brightly responded, “Oh yes, I love it when it’s like this too — how could anyone object to the cold when it’s so beautiful?” [Thunk]

VERY small town question, that, re: your accent. I get that ALL the time here in Brisbane (population 2M) whereas in Sydney or Toronto or Vancouver (actually Vancouver's only about 2M too but it's rather more colourful, integument-wise) that would get you a punch in the mouth, the question, "Where are you from?" being thought to imply, "And why don't you go back?"