Mornings with Anita

When you apply for the Fulbright, they also give you the opportunity to apply for a CLEA (critical language enhancement award), where they pay for you to take intense classes in any approved language for 1-3 months at the start of your Fulbright. I received one of these awards, and after much deliberation I opted not to take it, as I really wanted to spend all nine months just focusing on music. I thought, “I know enough. I can already get by in Gujarati. I’ll just pick it up as I go.” While yes, that’s kind of true, there is basically one reason that I’ve been picking up Hindi as quickly as I am: Anita.

Anita is our maid. She maybe speaks ten words of english, but the only way we can actually communicate is in Hindi. She arrives and rings the doorbell persistently any time between 8 and 9 in the morning, and I am jolted out of my sleep to answer it with the promise of fresh chai and sometimes a buttered chapati. Each morning, I sit half-awake in the dining room sipping a little demitasse cup of chai while a barrage of Hindi comes flying at me, and I force myself to listen closely and make sense of whatever I can catch. It could be anything from What is this thing called Tilex (which also involved me finding a tile and pointing to it and then pointing to the Tilex), to the eloping of her son last year (or at least that’s what I think she said… maybe once I know more Hindi I will realize it’s something completely different.)

My ability to understand things has gone from barely passable to pretty good. As long as it’s not too complicated, I can basically make out the gist of what she’s saying. There are definitely times where I feel like I’m in one of those aural comprehension tests gone wrong, where the words just slur together and I know I’m done for. But for the most part, I can catch a few words and get back on track.

What throws me the most is when she inserts English words. Today she was talking about old Hindi film songs (I sang her the two phrases I know of Kabhi Kabhi), and she probably said “siddee” five times before I realized she was saying “CD”.

On the other hand, my spoken Hindi, while finally now confined only to indian languages (there was quite a bit of italian and spanish in there before), is still very rough. There are those things that you say to prove you understand what they just said without making any meaningful comment about the situation. I have gotten quite good at those: Chalo, theek hai (yeah, that’s fine), Urreh!/. (Oh!/. – either the surprised version or the wistful version.), Dekho! (Look! or See?) Mujhe to malum nahi hai. (mm, I don’t really know.) Haan, haan, haan. (yeah, yeah, yeah – with a wave of the hand and a head bobble, it has the connotation of “no problem”.)

Anything else I want to say, I have to think carefully before I say it. I have realized how important future tense is when talking to a maid. Can you clean our rooms tomorrow? I will be gone this afternoon. Bring vegetables when you come. Any planning involves future tense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve messed this up – referring to myself in third person, or used the male verb tense with her.

To actually ask a question means that I have to stop listening to about two sentences she says in order to formulate the question. And then, after I congratulate myself for correctly phrasing the question, she starts answering it, and I realize that I can’t understand what she’s saying. And so it goes.

This morning, though, I came up with the novel idea to bring my laptop to the kitchen table and write everything I don’t understand or anything I want to say into Google translate. As long as I can figure out how to spell the word in Hindi (which, considering there are 4 kinds of Ts and Ds, is often challenging), I’m able to piece things together more easily. Today, I learned how to say “upset” and “rub” (by which I think she means grate) and “put in” (as in put coriander into the daal). Baby steps.

I’m finally at the point where, instead of being stressed out because I don’t know what she’s saying, I’m actually starting to relax and enjoy learning. A week ago, when she came at 8:15 AM, woke me from a deep sleep, and started in with requests for various kitchen items in Hindi, I felt like a deer in headlights. It was all I could do not to go back to bed and hide under the covers. Yesterday, I opened the door, and before she could say anything I started telling her about this dog that randomly started barking outside my window at 6 AM and a child who somehow thought it would be a good idea to bark with it (?! seriously, kid?).

When I lived in New York, I had an adult piano student who was Chinese. After she had studied with me for two years and made quite a good deal of progress on the piano, she confessed that part of why she chose me as a teacher is because I spoke so quickly that it forced her to improve her English in order to understand anything I was saying.

I kind of feel the same way about Anita. In addition to making awesome food and cleaning up around our place, she helps me improve my Hindi every day.

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