Posts Tagged ‘English’

RYLA, Part one

June 20, 2011

From 8-10 November:

Five days before my tour of South India. I’m standing by the only swimming pool I’ve seen in four months. My costume, which has been given to me minutes earlier, consists of jeans, sneakers, and a purple sequined long-sleeved shirt about two sizes too small for me. A crowd of small school age Indian kids has gathered around me, some costumed and sitting quietly, others in plainclothes and joking loudly in their native tongues. The choreographers of our Bollywood dance have their cameras out, and they’re pointing them at me. The sun has set. Loud speakers are blaring loud Hindi music to entertain the hundred or so parents of these children, but the stone bleachers on the other side of the enormous pool are mostly empty.

Funny. If the people sitting forty meters away knew they were about to see a 6′ 3″ blond-haired foreigner perform a choreographed dance to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani, there probably wouldn’t have been any empty seats.

The three-day Rotary Youth Leadership Award camp, otherwise known as RYLA, has culminated in this performance. My group has spent the last three days learning a dance to a recent popular Bollywood song, and several other students – including the camp’s only other foreigner – have dances to perform as well. I’d been coerced into the optional performance just 32 hours before, under the impression it was compulsory. Thus I was shocked when all but three of the boys my age opted out. Now it’s too late.

I didn’t realize I had a choice.

———

In the weeks before RYLA, the Nagpur exchange students and I had been bombarded with requests for activities, usually on one or two days’ notice. We attended some. We turned down others. Some were interesting. Some were awful. It was always better when the others were present, so at least if the proceedings were unbearable, we’d have each other. But I was relying on the other exchange students for my RSVPs. I needed assurance that I wouldn’t venture into the unknown alone. Otherwise my response to an invitation would be “maybe.” And “maybe” normally becomes “no”…

Franzi, who had turned into a courier of sorts for these activities, was the one to break the news of RYLA to us. In fact, she’d given us a week’s notice, enough time for us to discuss amongst ourselves whether or not we should go. But except for Franzi, we’d all decided not to go, unwilling to subject ourselves to the attention we’d receive. It wasn’t worth it.

My host dad had found out about the camp the day before its onset. I told him I didn’t want to go. “Why aren’t you going?” he said. A legitimate question. I had no reply. For a month and a half or so, I’d been caught in the daily timepass I’d vowed to avoid. And indeed, I had no valid reason not to attend. So it was set. I packed my bag, and the next morning I was out the door. But reluctant to leave, I couldn’t help but think:

Why am I doing this?

———

Indeed, I considered that a legitimate question as I ventured the grounds of Bhonsla Military School just outside Nagpur on the morning of 8 November. I was the tallest and oldest in a group of about two dozen boys, but I was having trouble standing up straight. The sanitation of the breakfast that had been provided was suspect, and the bus ride in had violently jarred the contents of my stomach. Now my innards were in disarray; even though the Hindi-speaking army officer in full military regalia was instructing us to stand straight, I couldn’t.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to quit.

But a military camp is not the place to be weak, show weakness, or quit.

As the day went on, I was relieved to learn RYLA wasn’t really a military camp. Saket-dada had told me stories from camps in his childhood, how he’d been forced to run for miles on end and had been deprived of sleep for nights on end, unsmiling officers in the background shouting and pushing him on. But quick glances at the other members of the camp showed me it wouldn’t be like that. Though some of the boys came within an inch of my height and a year of my age, many of the boys and girls stood about two-thirds my height and looked as if a 100 meter jog would exhaust them – let alone a 10,000 meter one. So we spent the morning walking, not running, through the Bhonsla grounds and Vidharba fields, stopping at regular intervals as much for our rest as the attractions we were stopping for.

My stomach settled as morning gave way to afternoon, which was good – otherwise the day’s swimming and horseback riding would have been impossible for me. There was nothing significant about these activities to me – I’d ridden horses before, and I’d spent regular intervals each summer in swimming pools. But seeing the excitement of the younger kids vanquished my apathy. I saw it as the small kids smiled proudly on horseback – probably their first rides on such steeds, maybe their last. I saw it as they splashed wildly in the swimming pool large enough to accommodate five times as many campers as it did – especially in India. I saw it in the dingy Spartan sleeping quarters – a place where ones goods mattered not as much as the good friends around you.

Naturally, these kids took an interest in me, the likelihood of an ulterior motive correlating with age and ability to speak English. I was surrounded at every available moment, asked the normal foreigner-in-India questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? How do you find India? Do you like Indian food? What kind of music do you like? How do you find the heat? After dinner, the crowd around me had swelled to 30 and the questions had ventured into dangerous territory: Indo-Pak relations. Which country do you like more, Chris?

I was relieved when the group dissolved to assemble for the night’s nature walk.

Day two was more of the same. An early morning run through an obstacle course. Some laughably inaccurate attempts in riflery and archery. Military men teaching us about guns. People trying to teach me the prescribed steps to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani. Again, I was unintentionally surrounded by kids for an evening interview, and again the questions ceased to relent.

This time I tried taking a different approach, seizing the opportunity when a brief lull arose. I turned the same questions back on the people asking them: What are your names? What are you all studying? What are your hobbies? These were group questions, and their replies were curt; they seemed uninterested in giving me the same information they were requesting of me. Most of these students were in the higher standards; the younger ones generally stood idle, either unconfident or unwilling to try their English on me.

It soon became clear there were two rather distinct groups of boys. The first group mostly consisted of 9th or 10th standard boys who would ask me peculiar, often crude questions and follow up my answers by turning to the others with laugh-arousing remarks in Hindi or Marathi. Unable to understand them, their remarks didn’t frustrate so much as confuse me.

(And these were only boys. The girls were strictly separated from us for almost every activity of the camp. My contact with them was limited to the occasional brief conversation with Franzi or a quick five-second self-introduction. It was probably better that way. Most members of the camp were wrongly convinced Franzi was either my girlfriend or my sister.)

But whatever this older group was saying, it was clearly affecting the members of the younger one. Most of the younger boys were in my camp – at least that’s the way it was made to appear. On the eve of night two, a group of older boys were sitting on bunks 12 feet away from me, telling jokes in Marathi that I couldn’t understand. The young Hindi-speaking boys around me couldn’t understand them either, but they’d gathered the older boys were speaking of me unfavorably. These small children – none probably higher than 8th standard – had firmly chosen righteousness, and to them, that meant sticking with me. Despite their difficulties with English, they sat in the bunks surrounding me, trying to communicate to me the atrocity of some things that had been said against me, surprised that I remained unfazed.

I reassured them that I was fine. I was.

They were just trying to help. But I didn’t need it. Not this kind, anyway.

———

North Tour: Jaipur: What language is that?

April 17, 2011

Wednesday, 2 March

JAIPUR TO JAISALMER: India is a land of many languages. But even though it has 29 languages with at least 1 million speakers, those aren’t sufficient for its exchange students.

Despite having just three different mother tongues, the 13 of us use at least ten different languages. We’ve increased our use of Hindi at least fivefold since the South Tour, our vocabulary now extending beyond bas (enough) and chalo (let’s go). Select Marathi words such as fukta (only) have made their way into our conversations. Because of the efforts made by some to stretch their high school knowledge, Anaïs can occasionally communicate with some of us in French, and the three Germans have no trouble speaking their native tongue amongst themselves. We’ve used Spanish, Italian, Sanskrit, Korean and Japanese with various degrees of fluency and success. And of course there’s English – the Indian variety, at that.

So what do you call the language we speak? Fre-Ger-Spa-Ita-Kor-Sans-Jap-Mar-Hinglish? Spicy English? Or my favorite: The exchange student language for dummies properly perfectly itself only?

Whatever language we use, we can always understand each other, even if our lack of knowledge in one language creates more confusion than comprehension. So as not to take tension, one of the activities I do whilst one of us is speaking non-English is speak a made-up language with Serenity, Jordan, and whomever we’re not driving out of their mind. We’ve yet to decide on a name for it, but it has many kha‘s, badada‘s and words fun to say, such as chalakamata.

It’s harder than you’d think to carry on a fake conversation, but I think we do quite well. While conversing with Serenity at the Hawa Mahal, one half of a couple we passed distinctly asked the other “what language are they speaking?”

Good question.

As for the settings in which we had such conversations, they once again proved spectacular – or whatever the accompanying synonyms in Exchangese. I’d already seen three majestic forts since coming to India, but I took no issue with visiting a fourth today. Both that and the Hawa Mahal gave us great views of Jaipur and the surrounding area. The 12 km long “Great Wall” of India adorned the surprisingly lush countryside, and we spent the better part of the afternoon hunting for bargains in its wake. Finding souvenirs in Rajasthan has not been a difficult task, and while I already have three keychains, a decorative string, and a mini-wire bicycle to show for it, that’s still less than the haul most of the others have added to their suitcases already.

Today, too, was a good one.

🙂

P.S. See the glossary for more information on how we speak!

An Indian Year: Now in Fre-Ger-Spa-Hin-glish!

February 6, 2011

Thanks to the powers of Google Translate, you can now read my blog in five languages!

This may be – and probably is – a superfluous addition to the upper right-hand corner of the home page, but the fact is I have friends with at least seven different mother-tongues. (Sadly, Google doesn’t translate into Bengali or Marathi.) That’s one of the great things about Rotary Youth Exchange: You meet people who speak a lot of different languages.

I’ve gathered from my limited knowledge of Hindi that some things are lost in translation, and I’m curious about how well my writing translates to other languages. Your feedback is appreciated!

🙂

My favorite -ollywood starts with a “B”

January 25, 2011

About a week ago, I went online and looked at a list of popular American songs for the first time since coming to India in July. Before leaving, my musical taste was undoubtedly pop-centric, with about 25 songs from July’s Top 40 among my favorites. So it was with mild shock that I realized I hadn’t heard a single song on January’s list. I know it’s in the nature of such lists to change often, but seriously, not one song?

I guess Bollywood has filled the void for me pretty well.

Since the New Year, I’ve dedicated myself to finding the Bollywood songs that I’d been hearing on the radio and humming to myself for months. Whereas in December just three Bollywood songs had a home in my iTunes library, over ten times as many have now joined them. And I haven’t even tapped into my host brother’s vast collection (yet).

Note that I refer to the music that populates the airwaves here as Bollywood music rather than Hindi music. The reason for this is twofold. “Bollywood” normally refers to the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, but its movies are known worldwide for their heavily choreographed song and dance numbers. Unlike in America, the music and film industries of Bollywood are very closely intertwined. The majority of songs you’ll hear in India come from its movies – in fact, I don’t think I’ve heard a song that hasn’t.

And after listening to songs like I Hate Love Storys (sic), is it really fair to call these Hindi songs? Like their accompanying Bollywood scripts, an increasing number of songs have at least some English. In most cases, use of English is sparse – with only repeated phrases like “People on the floor” or “Oh girl, you’re mine” – but some songs are nearly half English. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to label these Hinglish songs. Then again, that wouldn’t be fair to the many songs still written in pure Hindi.

But for me, even the pure Hindi songs are no longer the garbled strings of sounds they once were.

Since the end of December, I’ve been taking private Hindi classes five times a week, and my rate of learning has skyrocketed. I can now read almost every character in the alphabet, and I’m able to write a one-paragraph self-introduction in Devanagari script. Speaking Hindi makes bargaining with rickshaw drivers a lot easier, and I keep shocking my Indian friends by tossing new Hindi words into our conversations.

But the real rewards of learning Hindi come in understanding the words that are spoken. Bollywood songs have truly been instrumental in my language learning process. Frequent are the instances when I’ll recognize a word, pull out my pocket dictionary, and see if I’ve guessed its meaning correctly. I guess you could say I read the dictionary for fun.

In full disclosure, I’ve since added eight of those Top 40 American songs.

But I have to admit, Bollywood music is the far more educational form of fun.

🙂

P.S. Here’s a sampling of Bollywood music for your enjoyment.

A. Pee Loon
B. Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani
C. Aal Izz Well
D. Udd Udd Dabangg
E. Sheila Ki Jawani

Bonus question: To which of the above songs did I perform a Bollywood dance in front of 100 people at a RYLA camp in November? The first person to answer correctly gets a prize(!) and a detailed explanation of the performance in context.

Hislop College: Not your ordinary college (even for India)

September 7, 2010

I’d heard the rumors from past exchange students from India – who told me they didn’t see the point of going to school after a few weeks.

I’d heard the rumors from current exchange students in India – who had already been going to school for a few weeks.

I’d heard the rumors from people in Nagpur: When I told them where I would be going to college in town, they would often give me a sympathetic half-smile or look down and shake their head.

My first day at Hislop College gave me just a glimpse of daily life at the school. My first week, however, gave me a larger sample size with which to test those rumors – many of which I’ve found to be true.

I’ve found my enjoyment of each class depends greatly on the answer to these four questions:

1- Is the power on?
2- Is the class in Hindi or English?
3- Which students came to class?
4- Is there class?

When I walked into my first real class last Monday, the fans offered me no relief to the classroom’s 85 degrees and humidity. Nor was there any air-conditioning. None of this would have been a problem, except I was already covered in sweat from my ride there.

I’d heard about the frequent power outages in India before I came, but I’d been pleasantly surprised by the constant stream of power we had in our house. What I didn’t realize was that our house uses a generator. Power outages occur frequently throughout Nagpur and India, but our family is lucky enough to never have to worry about them in the house.

So I just had to get used to a little heat, right?

Everyone had told me Hislop was an English-medium school, and I’d heard the same for the other schools Rotary used. But I couldn’t understand a word of what the political science teacher was saying. Nor the Hindi teacher. The history and sociology teachers also spoke in Hindi half the time. I can understand the security guards not knowing English, but I’m perplexed as to why I was never told half the classes would be in Hindi.

Even when our classes are in English, it’s easy to lose focus. The rumors I’d heard about the teachers mostly turned out to be true. Teachers will usually just read from textbooks, and sometimes they’ll tell us to take notes. At least in my classes, the blackboard seems to be there only for decoration. Unfortunately for me, the teachers only seem passionate about what they’re saying when they’re saying it in Hindi.

And that’s if there’s class at all.

About 25 percent of the time, teachers just don’t show up – sometimes with notice, sometimes without. The concept of a substitute teacher doesn’t seem to have caught on. Perhaps that’s the reason most students don’t show up for class either.

The same ten to twelve students usually show up from a roster of about 40 for each class – boys on the left and girls on the right. As a general rule, the people who go to class tend to be better people than those who bunk and spend the day in the courtyard joking with one another. I’ve spent as much of my time as possible in the classroom with the three or four students I can trust, away from the mass of kids in the courtyard calling out to me with choice Hindi words. I’ve had to be far more cynical in choosing friends than I’ve ever wanted to be.

What gives me hope is that I know not all schools in India are like this. A couple of the exchange students are quite happy with their schools and the people in them. The infrastructure is similar elsewhere, but the people that populate the halls aren’t all like those that roam the courtyard at my college. Hislop may not have as many good people as I’m used to, but I’ll keep going to class because of the ones I’ve met.

🙂

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