Updated: Jan 22, 2019
It’s been two weeks since I’ve arrived in India, and I’m realizing how easy navigating places, situations, and conversations can be when one knows the language of the majority. Having spoken only English my entire life, I recall how simple it was to go to school and make friends or buy something from the grocery store. Actually, let’s be real: making friends can still be difficult even when knowing the same language, haha. However, knowing one language has many limitations – especially within a family that speaks multiple languages. Because I am unable to speak Cantonese, I feel that I have missed out on many stories, lessons, and connection with both sets of my grandparents. I remember being in their apartment in San Francisco when I was little and trying to find alternate ways to communicate other than words: the basics. Smiling when my Ying-Ying feeds me a bowl of Top-Ramen as I watch T.V. Nodding my head up and down when she shows me her practicing spelling my name on a paper napkin. It was similar when I became older and started to visit my Pau-Pau in Hong Kong. It’s amazing how much can be understood with laughter. As they say, laughter is a universal language. Although there is an abundance of everything they were not able to share with me, I remember every gesture my grandparents have made to try to communicate their love.
Being in India is going back to these basics I practiced with my grandparents. I’ve been countlessly surprised by how friendly our interactions of limited English and very limited Kannada with people here have been. It’s been memorable to try to learn more about our talkative Auto drivers (and get their number like a private vehicle!) and interact with our bus drivers Mannu and Nagraj. It’s also trying to find commonalities in being a human. One of my favorite examples of this was watching my peers interact with the school children on the day we visited Biome Environmental Solutions. As few children could understand English, we had to find other ways to interact with them. I and a few classmates started to dance and sing, as the schoolchildren started to teach us how they danced and sing. I saw others encourage the schoolchildren to start a game of frisbee and a relay race. Movement, music, and sports: these things transcend across cultures.
On our rural visit to Kokrebellur during the last two days, one interaction stood out to me. We were led to her by a stroke of luck, by someone our group conversed with at the silk market. Her name was Sarojamma, a woman in charge of the second stage of the process. What struck me was her hands. They were mesmerizing, as they nimbly spun silk from the worms in the bath onto a rotating wheel of machinery. They also caused disbelief in me, as she did this all while handling boiling water. Her hands had shown the effects of this heat for 30 years; they were calloused, scarred, and discolored. My mind could not stray away from thinking about this sacrifice. With so many questions and thoughts, I realized that I could not share them with her in Kannada. It was a feeling of frustration, because it was the first time here where I was unable to convey my sympathy in words.
In the next eight weeks I will find ways to exceed the limitations of this language barrier. I’m going to hear many tough stories from the school children at the Dream School in APSA, but
I’m eager to learn their story and will be a listener. I’m grateful we ran into Sarojamma, as I’m realizing that many things can be understood without words. Her crinkly eyes as she smiled and laughed showed that she was happy, as she shared more to us about her grandchildren. There was so much to learn, just by being present and with her in the moment. There can be so much to find, in communication unspoken.