Friday, May 3, 2013


Okay, so I didn't expect the boys to pick up much of the Tamil I was learning.

The last time I was in language training, learning Portuguese, Sam would run around the house with his hands clamped over this ears, screaming "NOOOOOOO!" when I tried to speak to him in Portuguese. This is deliciously ironic given the fact that he would go on to attend a Brazilian pre-school taught entirely in Portuguese and become practically bilingual in our short time there.

It's different with Tamil. I can't speak it nearly as well as I could speak Portuguese in the same stage in my learning. If I do speak Tamil to them, I can really only say "Hello", "Goodbye", and ask them if they like pizza.

I can also tell them to sit down in the polite form, "Oot-car-roon-gal!" (Spelled above in the Tamil script in the blog title)

Though they don't benefit from much exposure to the language, they do benefit from my learning experience, even if I only use it as an easy way to make them laugh.

For example, early on, we were learning the difference between speaking to someone in a casual manner (i.e. a close friend or child) and speaking to someone in a more formal manner (like an elder). My instructor, explained it like this, " respect." And he wagged his fingers at us. "Neengal...respect."

It might not sound funny, but evidently in India it is a big deal if you talk to someone casually who you are supposed to talk to formally.

In class, when someone mistakenly used the casual, familiar form "nee" instead of the formal, polite form "neengal", our instructor's eyes would go wide and he would express astonishment by exclaiming, "AH-DOH!" and wag his finger at us admonishingly, adding, "Very rude word. No respect!"

I though this hilarious, so I had to bring it home, and soon Peter was wagging his finger at me and saying, "No respect." To which I had to respond in kind, "AH-DOH! Very rude."

Even Clementine has gotten into the finger-wagging.

Unlike with Portuguese, Sam is the most eager to learn a few Tamil words. He can say hello, "Vanikkome" like a perfect Indian boy, placing his palms together reverently in front of his face and even doing a little Indian head bobble as he says it. He reminds me of the small Indian boy omnipresent in Indian Jones' movies who bursts through the large wooden doors in an Indian palace, hollering, "Dr. Jones! Dr. Jones!" as a way of warning Indiana of eminent danger.

When I leave for work in the morning, sometimes I tell everyone goodbye in Tamil, "Aprom parka-lam." Clementine will the first to respond.

Today in language lab, we used the future tense to make sentences about travel. I use these opportunities to practice phrases I may actually need like, "Can you please help me carry my nine gigantic suitcases, three car seats, and two strollers?"

My instructor was trying to decipher what I was trying to say. He pointed at his notes and asked, "This one. What mean?"

I explained that I was asking for help carrying my luggage.

"Ahh...." He told me that I was using the wrong word for porter. That the word I used was for the guy who takes the money. Evidently, there is a second guy who does the actual carrying who goes by another name. Fortunately, he is called "porter". "'Porter' is 'porter'. No problem. You say..." And he makes a waving motion with his hand, "Come...come...carry," and he asks me "You know....they come. Put suitcase on head. Carry away. No problem."

I don't mean to write this sounding as though I am perpetuating a stereotype, but we know precious little about the country we will be living in for two years, and sometimes stereotypes are all you have to go on. The lack of clarity on what actually life in India will be like is starting to seep into our subconscious and create a form of angst it is difficult to recognize. You don't always know it is there, but manifests itself as a source for irritability. You know you are stressed out, contrary to all exogenous indicators. Everything seems to be in order around you ('order' is relative when you are the parent of three children all under five year's of age) and yet, something is bothering you. That something might be India.

People we have met who have just returned from Chennai, have said it is "hard". But we have yet to ask what was hard about living there, and remind ourselves that one person's definition of "hard" may be different from someone else's definition of hard. We know India doesn't have drive-thru Burger Kings, if that's what you mean. We also know that some people found Brasilia hard.

Our one salve is that we have done this before. That is, face the unknown and not only survived, but prospered. That balm may do little to soothe the anxiety, but until we get a better idea of what awaits us...or until we get to India and see for ourselves...we will have to trust that this challenge, too, can be met.

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