Sunday, January 28, 2007

You say Tomato. I say Ta-maa-ter.

THERE IS NOTHING WORSE THAN being exposed to two completely different cultures. I am not a third culture offspring whose parents would be from different ethnic roots. My father is from Chikkaballapura and my mother is from Shivamogga. Both etched into the mainland of the Kannada speaking state. That said, as far as culture is concerned my exposure up until the age of 22 was always one – Indian.

Trouble began when I followed the line walking outside India in pursuit of bigger and better lifestyles. When I ascended that Air France flight out of New Delhi that cold August morning in 2000, little had I realized how much would change in the way I viewed the world and vice versa. I had willingly migrated into the Western world without a clue as to how my representation would get mixed up in the process.

My first brush with it occurred with day-to-day use of vocabulary. There were so many new definitions of words and expressions I had used with élan back home. The one that comes to mind immediately is the expression ‘freak out’. My first few months I had trouble understanding why it was people in the West associated this fabulous expression with fear. I never completely digested the fact that someone was actually ‘freaking out’ and hating it at the same time!

Why? Well in Indian English the expression ‘freak out’ means ‘have fun’ or ‘party out with friends’. Imagine my surprise when one of my American colleagues said ‘…and when I realized I didn’t have enough money in my account I totally freaked out, dude!’

I took a moment to absorb that. He freaked out because he was out of money? What kind of a moron was this fellow? How could something so serious sounding be associated with fun?

‘Oh ok...’ I responded innocently (read still high on my desi version) ‘so that you don’t have to pay, right?’

The man looked back at me as if I was insane. ‘What?’ he said making his face as if he had seen something distasteful ‘What the hell are you talking about dude?’

I realized there had been some mistake somewhere so I quickly changed the subject.

It took me almost a month to realize that ‘freak out’ in the West meant ‘be afraid of’ or ‘panic’ or ‘not know what to do in a state of manic uncertainty’.

Phew. So much for 15 years of English education, I thought.

A few more months later one more nugget of the puzzle came my way. One of my co-workers came in one day and announced ‘Yes! I did it! I proposed to her last night! And she said YES!’

We all applauded and congratulated him. When the cheering crowd had scattered I leaned over to ask him ‘So where are you guys going?’

‘What d’ya mean? When?’ he asked me looking a little surprised.

‘Well…on your date.’

‘Huh?’ he continued before patting me on the shoulder and walking away.

Another month and I realized ‘proposing’ in the West meant ‘asking for marriage’ and not ‘asking out on a date’ like my desi version had convinced me all my life. I decided to spend some time picking up these little pieces of wisdom before I opened my mouth from that day forward.

A few years later when I was on vacation in Bangalore I sat in a café with a close friend. We were soon joined by another friend of his. He came over and declared proudly ‘I proposed to her da! It was so full of masti and excitement man! Cool stuff da!’

‘Congrats. When is the wedding?’ I asked him.

He looked back at me puzzled this time ‘Wedding? What da? Kidding or what?’

I continued sipping my coffee with a smile.


2 reflections:

Anonymous said...


In Singapore, when someone is referring to the past, they say 'last time...'. For example, 'Last time people were more considerate, nobody ever honked at anyone on the roads.'

- Akshita

shakri said...

To each his own indeed. Each culture has a flavor of its own which hopefully we can appreciate. Thanks for the words Akshita.