learning new English in India

Updated 2009-08-18 07:24

Lucky for us, business is conducted in English. Sure, the good jokes come in Hindi, and we sit there grinning as we pretend to know what’s so funny; but for the most part, we get by in the office in our Mother tongue. Except when our Mother tongue meets Mother India, where a brainstorm is an “ideation” and an annoyance is a “botherization.”

This is nearly every conversation we have when a stranger calls us:

Phone rings.

Me: Hello?
Person: Hello?
Me: Hello?
Person: Hello?
Me: (exasperated) Yes? What do you want?
Person: (confused) Ma'am?
Me: (nearly shouting at this point) WHAT?
Person: (tentatively) Ma'am, I'm calling from Vodafone about'¦)

We thought it was just us. What are we doing wrong? How are we supposed to answer the phone? Why do they always sound so confused when they call us, as if we're the first sales call of their entire career?

And then we began to notice the receiving halves of 'Hello? Hello?' during meetings. (In India, the person on the phone inevitably takes precedent over the person in front of you. There is literally no such thing as voice mail. Conversations end and meetings are put on hold for people to answer the phone. The first time Dave answered his phone with a quick 'Jenny, I'll call you back,' everyone in the room was shocked at how rude he was to his wife.)

So after paying attention to conversations around us, we're convinced the Four Hellos happens to everyone, not just us. Except they don't get exasperated. They don't shout. That's just us.

(By the way, when the above conversation occurred, I cut the sales guy off by telling him I wasn't interested, and then I hung up without waiting for a response. The joke was on me: he patiently redialed and the entire conversation, including the Four Hellos, was then repeated in its entirety.)

On the other hand, if you *do* know the person calling you, you don't say hello. You say 'Tell me.'

When we call our landlord: 'Yes, Dave. Tell me.'

When our bosses pick up the phone: 'Yes, Anuj. Tell me.'

'Tell me.' Not 'How's it going?' or 'What can I do for you?' or even 'What's up?' ' just a jarring, demanding, abrupt, 'Tell me.'

Me: 'Hi, Prachi, this is Jenny from downstairs.'
Prachi: 'Tell me.'
Me: 'Uh'¦'

Dave's coworkers have taught him Hindi curse words just to hear them said in his American accent. It's like when you teach your four-year-old brother to say 'doodie'. They giggle when he says lund (dick), they laugh when he says choothia (bastard), and they love it when he says bhen calera (a nonsense swear they made up especially for him; it means 'sister dick'). And when Dave learned gaand meh le lo (eat my asshole), Dave's boss ran around the office telling junior account staffers to go ask Dave for such-and-such piece of paper so he could hear him tell them to gaand meh le lo.

And lo, did the office ring with cruel laughter that day.

Dave is reciprocating. He recently taught his coworker the word 'douchebag.' His coworker has a thick Bengali accent, though; he now runs around calling everyone 'doozebag.'

Indian corporate and governmental entities don't like to take responsibility for anything. Their efforts to apologize for the horrific state of the infrastructure take the passive voice to enterprising new heights with three simple words: 'Inconvenience is regretted.'

'Rest assured,' they're essentially saying, 'that someone is sorry this four-lane highway is squeezed into one lane so we can spend six months installing these sewer pipes. We're NOT saying that WE feel bad about anything; but we want you to know that someone, somewhere, is filled with intense remorse. Not necessarily us. But someone.'

At the airport, which is under a perpetual state of construction, someone somewhere is really ringing their hands over the plight of the traveler. 'Inconvenience,' say the signs, 'is deeply regretted.'

Originally posted on our blog: http://ourdelhistruggle.com

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