next town west i’ma find my tribe, part 9: touchable speaker

The Indian languages intrigued me because most of the girls that caught my eye in high school were Indian. The first girl I went out with was Gujarati. We went to this Indian shop to buy me a book on learning Gujarati. The shopkeeper got a huge kick out of it. My best friend was a native Urdu-Panjabi bilingual from Lahore. He met a Telugu tenderoni on America Online; she brought some of her friends into the mix and they taught us some Telugu. To this day I’m amazed at how easily and precisely they were able to type in Telugu using the Latin alphabet, despite being U.S.-born and -bred.

I went to a bigtime research university that offered courses on all kinds of distant tongues. For the most part I was able to resist their charms. I’m not high on classes anyway, but pricey out-of-state tuition made it a double no-no. Still, I did it two or three times. I took Hindi-Urdu, Akkadian (Babylonian), and a mini-course in Hoklo.

There were only three people in that Hindi class that didn’t have some kind of South Asian heritage. One was a White guy, the “token White guy”. He was doing graduate studies in Sanskrit. Another was a Chinese-estadounidense chick from my dorm who was “seeing” an Indian guy on line. I rounded out the trio.

On the first day of class, the teacher went around the class asking everyone, “आपका नाम क्या है?” I thought she must’ve just explained it, but maybe I’d zoned out, so I listened closely to what the other students said in reply. One said, “Meranaam shreyahae.” Another said, “Meranaam gopalhae.” Another said, “Meranaam prasadhae.” So many options, so little time. I decided I would say, “Meranaam prasadhae” too.

She got to the White guy just before she got to me. He said, “Mera naam David hae.” It hit me like a ton of bricks. She was asking everyone their name! I’d been this close to telling the class my name was Prasad. We would’ve all laughed all semester, man. I pulled back from the brink, saved by the White guy.

Another time the teacher told us to compose and present a paragraph about our hometowns, using the words and structures we’d already learned. At this point our vocab was pretty limited. We knew how to say water, and not, and clean, but not dirty.

Now there were three guys in the class from Jersey: me, my high school buddy, and the White guy. Working independently, we all ended up saying, “The water is not clean.”

Jokes aside, none of us learned much in that class. The lovergirl and I never got anywhere with Hindi. My buddy, who spoke native Urdu, forgot his Devanāgarī and uses all English all the time today.

All through college, whenever it came time to pick classes, I would circle certain languages in my catalog. Thai. Tagalog. Tamil. Vietnamese. Cantonese. These five especially, and maybe a few others. I circled them year after year, without knowing why. I’m glad I never acted on my urges, but it’s like my subconscious knew something that I didn’t.

Read more —

part 1: speaker in the storm
part 2: comeback speaker
part 3: impossible speaker
part 4: honorary speaker
part 5: madaspeaker
part 6: romance speaker
part 7: born-again speaker
part 8: gateway speaker
part 9: touchable speaker
part 10: everyspeaker

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