White Hindu Conversations Part Five

White Hindu Conversations Part Five May 20, 2015

You know how I was talking about trying to use Hindi with customers at the grocery store? I had an experience a couple weeks ago that put me in their shoes and it was…weird.

I was at the mall with a friend and, as usual, wearing my little red bindi. (I’ve spoken before about how important that practice is to me and since that post I’ve been wearing a bindi full time whether it is inconvenient or not).

Anyway, we passed a girl in the hall who I nearly ran into and as we were both apologizing to each other she said that she liked my bindi and I said thank you. Then as we were going our separate ways she turned back to shout, “sukriya” in a nervous but self-pleased kind of way.

And I realized that she assumed I was Indian and was proudly practicing her Hindi on me. Oh the irony. (I run into this a lot where people have trouble classifying me. Indians tend to know immediately that I’m white but many white people think I’m Indian).

It was cute but it left me rather uncomfortable. I saw myself in her and I realized how much it came across like she was showing off, wanting me to be proud of her “inside” knowledge. It certainly didn’t make me think that she knew any Hindi but just that this was one word she had picked up and now she had a chance to use it and she almost didn’t out of fear or self-consciousnessness but she overcame it and said it anyway.

Just like me.

Having seen it from the other side now, I don’t think I’ll be trying out my Hindi on anyone any time soon. I didn’t realize how much it makes it about you and not about the other person.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Aizlyne

    Namaste Ambaa,

    I’m sorry you perceived this negatively. As a white Hindu learning Hindi myself, I have always had positive feedback from other Indians. One thing to keep in mind is that to know a word like “Namaste” or “Shukriya” alone probably does come off as just “showing off” because it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to learn that. (anyone can google “hello” or “thankyou” in Hindi) Also a lot of people who practice non-dharmic religions use “namaste” out of context or don’t know where it comes from and that is obnoxious for sure. But If you use your Hindi with other Hindi speakers and you know at least a few full sentences, that tells them you are serious. People have always been pleasantly surprised. At worst I pronounce something wrong and they look confused or we laugh and it’s all good. I encourage you to keep using your Hindi. Knowing another language opens up doors for you and it connects people. I find myself envious of people who live in central Europe or India because many of them grow up knowing more than one language.

    Language practice is scary because you’re afraid of being judged, but it’s something you have to overcome if you want to improve. Don’t mistake your anxiety for evidence that you shouldn’t do it.

    • Jenny Addison

      I agree with this, Aizlyne! Great insights. I don’t think she should stop either!

    • Ayan

      What you don’t understand is that Hindi is mother tongue of 30-40% of indian people..And among indian americans 80% are non hindi speakers..Most of them are punjabi, bengali, gujarati, tamil or telugu & if they are born in america they might only speak english..Then there are people from other parts of south asia who might looks indian…My language is bengali & when i am outside India i prefer English not hindi.. There have been occasions when white people have come to me & said ‘namaste’ & i just frowned at them..But if they would have said Namaskar instead of Namaste then i would have been happy & greeted them back…

      • Aizlyne

        I definitely try not to assume that every Indian person I see or meet speaks Hindi, but that’s what I mean about using complete sentences instead of just “namaste”. I go up to people (when I’m feeling brave) and I ask them in Hindi, if the speak it. That may be part of the problem – people assuming that any Indian they meet will know Hindi and that would be a mistake, but really no worse than if I were in France and a French person came up to me and started speaking French, assuming me to be French too. It’s an easy mistake to make.

  • Jenny Addison

    I don’t think this would be comparable situation to you speaking your limited Hindi (or any other language) with a native Hindi speaker. Speakers of a different first language are generally pleased to see others learning and practicing their tongue. Direct conversation is one of the most important ways to really learn a new language! I don’t think Hindu speakers are “stingy” with their language, but I do think your reaction might have something to do with the guilt over the concept of cultural appropriation that you must be accused of sometimes, as a white American with a bindi.

    But also, speaking a new language with a native speaker is SO intimidating. My partner is French, and he insists I speak my terrible French with his Grandmother in France when we call. Let me tell you, it is SCARY! And it’s silly because all that happens is she gets confused, then corrects me and laughs, and oh look! I learned the correct way to say something from her so why was I so terrified to try? Because we feel as Americans that we’re stepping on someone’s toes, taking some of their identity from them and screwing it up. But non-Americans dont’ have this feeling associated with learning new languages, and absolutely not about learning English. In fact every other non-English speaker I’ve met who’s learning English is eager and excited to be corrected and practice with me. (I had many penpals when I was young – Dutch, Russian, Thai speakers – who I helped learn English!)

    Would you think it strange to be in France, and have an American mistake you for French and say “Bonjour” instead of hello? I’m sure you wouldn’t feel the same way about them for their clumsy French, you’d just say, “Oh no, I speak English!” Also, PLENTY of American Indian people who don’t speak a lick of Hindi (or any other language) must feel the same way every time an unfamiliar Indian person tries to speak another language with them, assuming they have the same backgrounds.

    I wouldn’t stop practicing on other people or engaging in light grocery related topics in Hindi! It’s good for learning, and I bet your customers are surprised and complimented that you’ve taken an interest in their language. If you’re uncomfortable “surprising” people at the store with Hindi, try a site like Duolingo, or Lango, where you can Skype with native speakers who WANT to help you learn! Then you share a goal, and you don’t risk feeling awkward! Good luck learning, Aamba. I am glad you are sensitive and aware, but don’t punish yourself needlessly!

    • Paul Julian Gould

      When I was stationed in Germany, it was always fun to visit a busy Gasthaus and try out the language. There’d be no shortage of helpful folks, each with a different dialect, correcting each other and me, and I’d seldom have to pay for my own beer, on top of it!

      I was always blessed by the expressions of delighted surprise that I was actually trying to communicate in their native tongue, especially as opposed to just trying again in English, only LOUDER….

    • If in France, it makes perfect sense to speak French, or in a situation where you have a relationship with that person like with your partner’s grandmother. But in the U.S., busting out your Hindi on anyone who looks vaguely Indian is a bit presumptuous and does center you. Perhaps the person you say “sukriya” to speaks Tamil and doesn’t know a word of Hindi, or they are Sri Lankan, or they are born here and don’t speak Hindi at all. I can imagine that being accosted by white people speaking Hindi at you all the time has to be a microaggression. I don’t go around saying “ni hao” to all the people I assume to be Chinese; where I live that would absolutely be racist and unacceptable.

      People of color are not our walking language schools. It is great to speak a language we are learning with native speakers, but that is still best done once a relationship has been established.

      • Ayan

        You are absolutely right Andrea….

  • Darshan

    Strictly speaking sukriya is Urdu word derived from Arabic shokran. But Urdu and hindi are mutually intelligible. Right hindi word for thanks is Dhanyawad. Ironically, most in India would just say Thanks instead of sukriya or dhanyawad

  • memike

    god damn. more eggshells. they are fucking everywhere.
    this reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where he buy the cigar store indian. then latter he asks the mail man where the Chinese restaurant is and the mail man turns around and is Chinese. ‘ooh, honorable chinaman knows were all Chinese restaurants are’. aren’t we all just getting a little too sensitive?