Yes, I speak English

Lost in Translation

By the time Golden Bear Orientation finally ended and some kind of feeling began to creep back into my overtired muscles, I had practically developed a template for the conversations that I had with every new student. And it went something like this.

First, I’d pick a personality. Who did I want to be today? Chirpy, bubbly and entirely unlike myself? Or what about smart, smooth and also entirely unlike myself? I was really taking the whole “new day, new me” to another level, and I was proud.

(Side note: It just makes it more interesting to think that I didn’t just roll out of bed every day, grumpy, cynical and entirely myself).

And once I’d picked which kind of fake I wanted to be for the day, I’d bestir myself and saunter out to meet the world, armed with my arsenal of totally generic, mind-numbingly boring, small-talk questions. I’d approach another student, start with an abnormally elongated and nasal “heyyy” and dip right into my stash. (Side note: Let’s once again pretend that this was a smooth process and didn’t involve me hanging around awkwardly until I was noticed.)

First question: Where are you from?

Great start — smooth, noncontroversial and provides the other an opportunity to carry the exchange forward. Worked perfectly every time. And once I’d set the stage, I’d go onto slightly more complex questions, such as “What’s your major?” followed by “Where do you stay on campus?” The last one was critical not to me, but to my lazy prefrontal cortex, which would immediately signal to me whether I should even bother carrying on this conversation. You see, I’m all about the Unit 3 life. But what if my new friend ended up living on Clark Kerr Campus or something? I can’t commit to a long-distance relationship already. Way too high-maintenance.

But before I could launch into my exceptionally well-thought-out scheme, the person I was having a conversation with decided to go completely off-script. And out came the question that I was unfortunately familiar with — a question that almost makes me hate this country and everything that it has ever produced.

“Oh, my God, you’re from India?! How do you speak English?!”

Wait. What? I wait for them to process the giant reactionary question mark that has been seared into my face, hoping that they will somehow understand how utterly ignorant they sound without me having to educate them. But unfortunately, that never seems to happen.

The blatant and genuine surprise at the fact that I can speak English fluently shows an internalized underestimation of the Indian education system as a whole. Not only that, but it also brings to light the fact that fluency in English, a byproduct of decades of colonialism, is still viewed as a marker of status and development. Additionally, this reaction also holds the underlying belief that not conforming to the Western way of life, not knowing to speak English, is somehow representative of underdevelopment and backward national identity.

I always tried to keep my annoyance in check as I asked them what the hell they meant, because I’d like to think that they aren’t backward enough to believe that India is still the land of snake-charmers and bullock carts.

So, for everyone who has ever asked, will ask or has considered asking another Indian student this question — here’s a quick lesson on the realities of modern India.

First off, we do not live in the Stone Age anymore. With time, as the world around has changed and evolved, India has done a spectacular job of evolving with it. It’s no longer the land of dust, primitivity and coarsely fashioned language — the kind of land that foreign writers conveniently banish unwanted characters to, in hopes that they die of some exotically contracted disease. Today, it is a land that stands for diversity and strives for progress with every move that it makes. It’s a land that still has rich pockets of thriving indigenous culture, untainted by Westernization or colonialism. And yet, it’s a vibrant hub representing the amalgamation of multiple modern identities.

Hence, in response to my ex-new friend’s question — How do I speak English? I speak English because I went to an international school in a cosmopolitan city where people of all nationalities lived harmoniously. And I am representative of a niche population. But the streets of India are full of people who converse in the rich languages of Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Urdu, French, Portuguese and a million other languages and dialects — and they don’t always know English. But that is in no way indicative of their competence, the progressiveness of their thoughts or the level of intellect and civility that they embody.

And evaluating the colorful and vivacious Indian identity through a reductionist marker of Westernization is something that will never, ever be acceptable.

Anusha Subramanian writes the Thursday blog on being an international student. Contact her at [email protected] .