Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Here and Somewhere Else

Chinese Fishing Nets, originally uploaded by maisnon.

The other day, a new friend wanted me to explain my family's history to a small group as some sort of icebreaker. I balked, but not out of embarassment, or any ill will. I know that other people hear the tale, with its cast of characters comprised of countries and continents, and think my family cosmopolitan, or intriguing. I can understand that - my family members have been born into, learned and lost so many languages.

Non-desis look at "the brown" and think, "Indian", not realizing that that can also mean Fijian, Guyanese, Dutch, South African, Malaysian, etc. Even desis, it seems, expect a fairly linear progression from "there" to "here" (possibly with the obligatory stop in Merry Olde England.)

Like hair texture and parents, we always want what we don't have. I spent a good part of my childhood visiting my father's far-flung siblings, and I'm so lucky to have had that opportunity. But, what I wouldn't have given to grow up with my cousins, to feel a part of a larger family. I always felt like my little nuclear family group was the American branch, as isolated as a lunar colony.

I have a passive understanding of Malayalam. This means that I can, for the most part, understand spoken Malayalam, but I can't produce any. It requires some very deliberate effort for me to find the words. Also, while I will understand a conversation about cleaning the kitchen, I'll get completely lost if it is about something theoretical or abstract. I understand "house Malayalam." And, as I discovered while traveling south India last year, it's heavily tempered with Tamil.

I wonder what it would have been like to grow up around family: would my Malayalam be better? Would someone have insisted I speak it? (I once asked my mother why she never taught us Hindi (my father, the Malaysian, never learned it.) She said, 'For Heaven's sake, why would you want to know HINDI?!" Um, because it might be a little more useful than being able to understand you yelling at me to do the laundry in Malayalam??)

Writing this, I feel ungrateful - and I'm not. I'm glad that dim sum and pisang goreng are family food. When I recognize a word in Arabic, the mental translation is in French because I took Arabic lessons in French. I'm not ungrateful, but I am wistful.


Scorps1027 said...

the minute i saw your picture, i thought of cochin. that was the first and only place i saw these nets in the flesh, thanks to my intermittent childhood visits to kerala:)

with the language thing, i learned fluent malayalam the past few years, because i was blessed to visit kerala so much. Unlike my childhood visits, I wasn't shooed out of the kitchen this time with sweets when the ladies started their chaya time gossip talk. i learned an infinite amount just by mimicking these aunties back to my cousins and friends.

ashvin said...

Damn, it does sound like you have a very unusually cosmopolitan background that'd make an entertaining story. I'd milk it if I were you :)

About Malayalam: i get the impression that fluent Malayalam speakers are quick to mock people who speak it with an incorrect accent even though Malayalees have no business making fun of other people's accents.

This is my obligatory yearly comment on a mildly language-related post :)

roonie said...

That picture is gorgeous. I promise that when I stop staring at it, I will read the blog post.