The rain falls in downtown Atlanta, creating a tinny rhythm atop the metal awning above me. I shuffle impatiently on a bench under it at the Marta station, waiting for the Stinger to show up and whisk me back to my dorm. Everything is gray – the roads, the buildings, the station, the sidewalk, even the puddles creating little rivulets into the gutters lining the streets. The station is desolate; the only person nearby is a man, looking in his late twenties or early thirties, wearing a red hoodie and a backpack. I give him a perfunctory smile as he glances my way, and then bury my head in my phone, hoping to remain unbothered. Suddenly he plops down on the other side of the bench and starts to strike up conversation. I fidget uncomfortably with my phone, giving one-word replies to his questions, trying to sound as boring and disinterested as possible so he’ll leave. “Anolkhi lokanshi bolu nako kadhi,” My mom’s dire warnings against talking to strangers ring through my brain, but I’ve never been good at following them. Usually, before I know it, the words are out of my mouth, and I’m saying things I shouldn’t be, weaving stories about my life for people I don’t know. He asks me if I’ve lived here a while, and how old I am, and where I go to college, and what I’m studying, and if I go out on the weekends. Kind of, college age, Georgia Tech, Psychology, and no, I’ve got finals. The conversation is getting a little too creepy, and so I deflect, divert and look as distracted as possible, but he still doesn’t get the hint. Every once in a while I peer around the bend of the road, willing the Stinger to show up and relieve me.
And then he says something that surprises me, with such frankness that I’m taken aback.
“You know,” he tells me, looking me straight in the eye, “your English is very good.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” my voice grows cold and a sharp edge begins to line it.
“I don’t know,” he throws his hands up and laughs, “I didn’t think you spoke English.”
I bristle at the comment for a short second before deflating under the weight of it. As the rain blurs the world outside, it dawns upon me again in full force how much language matters to the way that people see me, and in turn how I perceive my place in society. From a young age, I’ve wielded language as a weapon of assimilation – my first line of defense against an attack of alienation.
Words are how people understand and are understood. Proficiency at a language demonstrates competency of culture, which in turn defines who becomes part of the “in group” and the “out group.” The hum versus tum. The amhi versus tumhi. The nosotros versus vosotros. I’ve been part of both groups, and I can say definitively that one is more fun than the other.
I jumped on trends fast as a kid – it’s how I had silly bandz, rubber suction poppers, and Pokemon cards I didn’t know what to do with. It was a way of showing I fit in, just like language was. From writing HAGS in people’s yearbooks to making BFF bracelets, learning the lingo of the elementary school playground was the best way to understand the people I was surrounded by. And for the things I couldn’t explain, I just tried to make them relatable in English. Roti is kind of like tortilla, shrikhand is really good flavored yogurt, beta is a term of affection for a kid, and shi shi … well, they didn’t really need to know that one. I used English as a tool to carve out a place for myself in the social life at school; at a place where I was the only brown kid in the class, language was my way of relating to people and being “cool.”
A strategy, however, is only useful as long as it remains relevant. When I found myself in India at the age of eight, no amount of BFF bracelets could save me. I had to pivot if I wanted to be successful – a new country meant a new fight. Being the kid in class with better English than the teachers wasn’t really winning me any favors – especially when my peers only spoke Hindi and Marathi. Intuitively, I knew that language was the only way to extract myself from the mires of relentless teasing and blank stares. To that end, I learnt to speak Hindi and Marathi fluently in four months, and after that, I spoke nothing else. There were new rules to learn – “excuse me” was chucked out the window and replaced with “hato,” “khisko” and “uth,” insults like paagal, duffer, and gadhe were silently absorbed, slang like jugaad, bakwaas, and bas were memorized, with intonational differences accounted for. Nonverbal communication followed – pinky promises meant the opposite – that you were declaring a katti, tugging your ear meant you were sorry, nodding your head from side to side meant haan. Morning assemblies and PT, navy and white school uniforms, belts, ties, and school ID cards all took getting used to. However, once I got used to them, there was no slipping back. When I moved schools at the age of ten, no one could tell I was a firangi. Sure, meri angrezi acchi thi, but that was really it. It was with slight bits of embarrassment that I’d place internationally at the International English Olympiad, or be asked to do school speeches every Independence and Republic Day. Even though my school was technically “English medium”, speaking English with peers was seen as brown-nosing and dikhawa karna. It was being snobby and pompous, and altogether the mark of a kiss-up. I never spoke in that tongue – it was pretty much dead to me. “English bol na thoda,” my mom would tease me, and I’d obstinately respond with “nahi bolayache” for as long as it took for her to stop. The only times I did use it – for speeches or competitions – I concealed my identity under a carefully crafted Indian accent, double checking with my family that no other accent was discernible. For all the concealing I did with spoken English, however, there was no way to hide my proficiency in writing. Grammatical errors got on my nerves, and I’d realized early on that correcting the teachers on their mistakes was a bad idea. A tight slap, some sharp words, or individual punishment was a sign of their gratitude, and I learnt the hard way to avoid them. My sister loved to tell people we were from America, and due to my excellent chupana skills, no one believed her.
I denied major parts of my identity to fit in, trading one language for the next, as I used words to my advantage. In losing myself in a different language and culture, I found myself on the other side more equipped to face the world. I became a more complicated person – a tapestry of multiple languages, cultures, and experiences. However much I tried to cover up my English in India, I decided I wouldn’t do that again in the US. When I came back at the age of thirteen, I made it a point to find people who spoke Hindi and Marathi, so I could stay connected to the Indian side of me. I realized with time and maturity that languages were the most useful superpower that a person could have – being able to blend in seamlessly with a culture brings tremendous opportunities, and being part of the “in group” holds ridiculous advantage. Hiding the languages I spoke and the places I came from disrespected my experiences, and sure, I couldn’t always speak English in India, or write in Hindi as part of an essay in college, but I resolved that I’d be proud of who I was, and the cultures I represented.
So I look the man sitting across from me straight in the eye, as the rain paints the city gray. Atlanta can hide if she wants, but I decide that I’m not going to. “That’s kinda racist.” Indignation creeps into my voice – a tiredness of being judged by my skin color, and being preemptively placed in the “out group” because of it.
“And for your information,” I continue, “I speak three languages other than English too.”
He begins to defend his statement, “A lot of people –”
“Do you need to be somewhere?” I cut him off, realizing I don’t need to entertain people’s prejudices about me and my cultures.
He mutters something about needing directions to a supermarket, and I point him the way to Publix.
As I board the Stinger a while later, I reflect on the conversation. Bade bade deshon mein aisi choti-choti baatein hoti rehti hain, unfortunately enough. People are always going to opine and judge. They’re going to assume identities that aren’t true. They will create their own narratives for me that I don’t have to include in my own. They will try to force me into their boxes. But this time, I’m not going to change for them.