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.