Of Language – I

Contrary to some Indian jingoistic opinions, which are usually a consequence of either the American capitalistic or protectionist policies, my experience of the United States has been a pretty secular and productive one. People are generally in the mood to get things done, rather than yak about inequities (if there are any). Barring a few idiots in the local metro-bus, most Americans welcome aliens like me with open arms, sometimes inviting us for Thanksgiving dinner or asking us for a baseball game.

After two years, my amalgamation here has been so complete that only when I see telugu movies (which is rarely the case these days, what with the dry spell since Happy Days) do I realize that I am in a foreign land. But this incident struck a note, an interesting one at that.

So there I was, at Costco, on an early Saturday morning at 10 am (yes, it’s early!). For those of you  new to the Costco culture, it is the equivalent of an Indian wholesale godown, only that the humongous bags of rice or dal are replaced with purple boxes of raisin bran cereal or 3 pound nets of potatoes. The pyramidal arrangement of watermelons or oranges is replaced with small 2 or 3 pound packages of ready-to-carry apples imported from China. The familiar jute bag Indian families use for shopping are substituted by railway cargo style ‘shopping carts’ and new age polythene bags, often packed using double their numbers to ensure that they don’t tear.

And there I was with my buddies, pushing one shopping cart in front and pulling one from behind after a friend of mine apparently got lost between the colossal racks, trying to look for a shaving kit (When he found it  ultimately, he didn’t take it because not only did the economies of scale not allow him to grab just the blades, but also forced him to buy another razor). On the numerous rounds we had already taken inside Costco that day, there were two old ladies, peering about excitedly in the medicine section.

As it happened, one of them approached me while I was red in the face trying to both push and pull two carts. With bright eyes and a Sunday smile, she said, “Excuse me.. you  seem to have done a lot of shopping.. could you tell me where.. oh, excuse me (bending forward), do you speak E-N-G-L-I-S-H?”

It was then that my enthusiastic Indian head waggling abruptly stopped. My eyes became wider and I shrank and inflated at the same time, and shortly, after a brief two seconds, I was able to look into her eyes, bend a little and could hear myself replying with an over-emphasized ‘YES.’.

“Oh, that is good. Would you know where Claritin is available?”, she asked, her smile being ever so genuine and respectful.

“I believe that you would find it in the thirrrrd aisle from herrrre, though that’s one thing I haven’t bought.”, I joked in an unusually bad imitation of an Indian accent that I seemed to have put on instantly to convince her that I did know the language, although not with the same accent.

“Thank you very much. Have a great day!”, she said, and trundled along.

For all my two years here, it was the first time when I was asked if I knew English, and rather than being mature about it, I conjured an image of myself being an ape, scratching my ears as if I seriously wouldn’t have been able to comprehend if she would have continued to talk. There are  many Spanish speaking folk, a lot of Indians and more Chinese, who stay here, probably getting by without using this ubiquitous language, it seems.

Although not a wee bit racist, not one bit condescending, and in no means disrespectful, it did remind me of my colour in a foreign land that I was foreign.

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