How to make a political statement by learning Spanish

SpanishClub3
Photo credit : bhs.burlesonisd.net

We are living in interesting times. Times when xenophobia, racism and suspicion of the ‘other’ are going mainstream, at least at the level of political rhetoric. While one can excuse this as the misguided logic leading up to the primaries, one cannot ignore the amount of confusion this is causing- both domestically and across the world. President Obama had to clarify recently at a high level ASEAN leaders’ summit that this trend of xenophobia does not represent America and it will pass[i].

Culturally, this phenomenon of xenophobia also challenges the very idea of what the U.S. is about – the ‘land of opportunities,’ an enduring myth that has survived centuries[ii]. The complexity in the idea of ‘land of opportunities’ is that it is true under certain circumstances, for certain people. While being challenged by nativists and others, who resisted immigration, this idea has survived; thanks to the generosity, wisdom and plain common sense of the American people and (some of) their law makers.

Additionally, this 2016 Political campaign is challenging the very idea of a culturally plural America. This divisive campaign is also bringing up a lot of issues that I deeply care about, both culturally and politically. I am both surprised and shocked at the level of bigotry against ‘Hispanic’ people, in particular. Language is at the heart of this battle, as well.

Let me clarify: My wife is a Spanish speaker –she is Mexican-American- and I was only vaguely familiar with the language. When we dated for four years, before getting married, I would add ‘o’ to every English word, to make it ‘Spanish’ sounding. Initially, I thought it was funny, but later on realized that I was being facetious and outright ignorant, not to mention offensive, as well. I love my (new) Mexican family as much as my (inherited) Indian one and it pains me to see the kind of narrow-mindedness that is characterizing American public sphere.

So, how does a brown, Indian born Muslim, with a Catholic Mexican-American wife tackle such bigotry? By learning Spanish, of course.

Keeping in mind the common wisdom of ‘happy wife, happy life’, I decided to learn the language. Well, that wasn’t the only motivation. I have always wanted to learn Spanish. As someone who knows four other languages – I grew up in India: where being a polyglot is the norm, rather than the exception- I thought that learning Spanish couldn’t be that hard. But boy! have I been wrong. Spanish grammar is hard. And tricky. And extremely nuanced. But it is a challenge worth overcoming and I am enjoying the journey. This process is also helping me map my own limits, of learning as well as expanding my skills of observation.

I have no delusions of grandeur and no great ambitions of mapping the cultural and administrative landscape of the U.S. like Alexis De Tocqueville did, when he wrote Democracy in America[iii]in 1835. But I do think there is a need for closely examining the changing contours of what America is ‘becoming.’ Tocqueville, who, until today is cited in scholarly and popular books and articles is considered one of the great chroniclers of American life. His greatest insight was that America was very ‘equal’ in many ways. The trends of aristocracy were long over, given that Americans resisted the ‘old world’ ways of doing this. He says “ Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance[iv].”

Tocqueville went on to argue that equality of social condition translates into equality in political opportunities. The equal political rights that are given to everyone are a gift of democracy and it also means that everyone who is in this country ought to be treated in a similar manner. The current political rhetoric by Mr. Trump seems to be challenging this very idea – by clubbing blacks, gays, Muslims, Mexicans and others are ‘undesirables’ and shutting them out of ‘respectable’ American society. Even if it means doing so, rhetorically.

For me, learning Spanish is also proving to be a ‘border crossing’ phenomenon – quite literally. You can reach across and touch people’s hearts with the language and make them feel that you are ‘one of them.’ Partaking in a ‘linguistic community’ is being part of a culture, a way of life and a way of thinking. It goes merely beyond the ability to string a few words, together. I am learning this, each day. I did visit Mexico City with my wife, over Thanksgiving and learnt that my Spanish flows much better in Mexico, for some reason. Something about ‘full immersion’ perhaps?

At the same time, Spanish is proving to be my inspiration and a test of what I can push myself through. It is also teaching me that we are constantly borrowing and learning from one another. Look at words such as ‘Bastante’ (enough) and ‘Alfil (Chess piece) among others; which have been borrowed from Arabic. Besides, Spanish itself has Latin roots and shares ‘family resemblances’ with many other European languages.  There is an inherent cosmopolitanism in Spanish. This language of the conquerors – yes, let’s not forget the Spanish colonial history – did assimilate from other cultures and languages. In this regard, Spanish is very open and embracing. In addition, I am able to appreciate the intermingling of the other part of my heritage – the Muslim one – when I watch Destinos and look at the architecture and linguistic influences of the Moors on Spain[v].

Language, like other aspects of life is not insular. As a student of Spanish I am learning this and appreciating the increasing complexity of thought, learning. ‘Effort’ has taken on a new meaning – though I learnt that lesson well, when I was finishing up my dissertation writing. Nuance – both in thought and in speech-is another aspect of language that I am learning. Just a small change of accent or word can make a lot of difference.

Learning a language as an adventure ? One of the bigger insights I have gained personally since I started learning Spanish is that one needs to have a sense of adventure and also courage, to succeed. While the rudiments of a language, its grammar may be known, a learner does not know ‘all’ the rules or even the words necessary to form a fully coherent sentence. At the beginning stages at least! As one progresses, with trial and error; one’s confidence grows. It happened with me too. I am at what my teacher; Claudia calls ‘basic-intermediate’ level, where I am forming some coherent sentences and am beginning to understand much more than 50% of all words spoken to me.

Language in use – What Wittgenstein tells us about language? He is considered the greatest philosopher of the modern era. As this BBC podcast says “the limits of my language are the limits of our world[vi]”. While I will not indulge in the intricacies of Tractacus Logicus Philosophicus, his magnum opus; I will however, point to one of his key arguments – that language must be understood in how it is used. Not merely in terms of the symbolism that it denotes. ‘Language and logic also point to the limits of our world’ would be a good way to summarize one of his key arguments. I would argue, by way of Wittgenstein that having a broader ‘spectrum of logic’ can open up more ways of seeing the world. Better linguistic skills can enhance reasoning and ways of imagining the world.

Finally, language can unite us more than divide us. Just look around the world – there are more than 400 million Spanish speakers around the world[vii]. That is more than the population of the U.S. Learning Spanish can also diminish the world’s ignorance a little bit. Adding an additional speaker of another language is a good thing – and I say this as the son of two language teachers, who grew up in India, that has more than 23 ‘official languages[viii].’

With over 41 million native speakers of Spanish, the U.S. has more Spanish speakers than in Spain, according to a study by Instituto Cervantes[ix]. Besides, there are 11.6 million bi-lingual speakers. This is not counting people like me, who are learning their fifth language. So, how can one ignore or at worse malign these people, who speak other languages? By 2050, there are going to be an estimated 150 million Spanish speakers, making it the largest Spanish speaking country in the world. How can one fight this natural diversity of languages and cultures? If the founding fathers had the wisdom to avoid this issue, keeping in mind the diversity, why should we tinker with the existing order? Why fix something that is not broken and also why fight against the order of how our world is becoming global – through trade, commerce, better communication technologies? And of course, the growth of appreciation of Latin American culture. As my wife asks ‘Why hate Mexicans, when you love Mexican tacos’?

On that note, it makes sense to ask: Does the ‘English only’ movement even make any logical sense? Obviously, Wittgenstein would disagree[x].  Such racist and rhetoric narratives are the border-line where logic stops and bigotry begins.

 

 

[i] http://dailycaller.com/2016/02/16/obama-slams-trump-and-rubio-foreign-observers-are-troubled-video/

[ii] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8140.html

[iii] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm

[iv]  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm#link2HCH0006 Chp.3

[v]  https://learner.org/series/destinos/

[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9jYaTCn8vw

[vii]  https://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size

[viii] http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Languages_of_India

[ix] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/29/us-second-biggest-spanish-speaking-country

[x] http://www.iperstoria.it/vecchiosito/httpdocs//?p=547

Indian hospitality, American lives

As I am saying my good byes to people in Blacksburg, where I currently live, and moving to NoVA, I ran into an old acquaintance of mine. This professor of religion –the son of American Methodist priests was born in India – and knows Telugu, among other Indian languages. We got talking about a mutual acquaintance, an Indian scholar, who is constantly traveling. He told me that his family hosted this Indian scholar for a week, even though he didn’t know him at all. “Quite a common Indian expectation, isn’t it,” I asked him. And then the conversation turned to Indian expectations of hospitality, the topic of this brief post.Indians do tend to have high expectations of themselves and of others. As guests and hosts, there are particular rituals, traditions and norms that are followed. Living in a Western society does change this norm a bit, but not radically; there is a constant negotiation going on, in terms of how much ‘tradition’ the family will  uphold and I believe how one treats a visitor is a key part of this negotiation.indian-hospitality-HC62_l

Indeed, there are sayings in various Indian languages such as “Atithi Devo bhava,” which is a Sanskrit aphorism that roughly translates as “The guest is God.” Quite a big claim, isn’t it? As a host, we are expected to treat the guest with everything that we are capable of. I remember this, as a matter of upbringing. Every time someone would visit us, my mom taught me to check if they had eaten, would want some water and offer some snacks, at the very least. These were the basics of being a good host. As a guest, it was one’s duty to refuse anything that was offered, and it was the duty of the host to force them to change their mind. This seems to be a nuanced cultural game that Indians learn to play, at an early age. Eventually, one of the parties wins. Either the host wins and the guest ends up eating, drinking or staying for longer than they anticipated, or the guest wins and leaves.

At the root of this persuasive behavior seems to be the need to please the other, and for the host to feel that they are indeed generous. At the risk of generalizing, I would claim that this is common across various cultures and religious traditions in India. I have been to very few homes in many parts of India where this isn’t true. Of course, with changing societal norms, people are becoming less generous with their time and other resources. But what about Indians living in the U.S.?

Indian-Americans live a schizophrenic life. This roughly translates into living ‘American lives’ but being expected to behave like ‘Indians in India.’ This means attempting to follow much of the same rules of hospitality as one does, in India. Many India-Americans I know are incredibly generous people, who try to uphold their traditions of hospitality, but at the same time; are aware of their own sense of freedom and time-commitments. They would not offer the same kind of attention, time or resources to a host that an average Indian host would. Again, this is based on anecdotal evidence and I don’t intend to generalize.

I am reminded of another incident, where a group of visiting bureaucrats from India were hosted at Syracuse University. I was helping with the program management of this particular group and spent some time with the 30 plus group of officers. One of the complaints I heard from them during their two week stay was “Why aren’t the professors inviting us to their home.” This expectation that they would be invited to the ‘hosts’ home is quite natural, in an Indian setting, but for an American to invite you home for dinner, you’d have to be someone special, and not just a regular trainee in a two-week program, who one’d just met. So, there was a matter of being lost in cultural translation.

As generous as Indians are expected to be, there is also wisdom in curtailing over-staying guests. As much as some traditions can be burdensome, there are others that check this behavior, as well. This saying, which is quite popular in India, captures the spirit:  “On the first day, the guest is bhagvan (God), the second day, the guest is insaan (human) and on the third, the guest is Shaytaan (devil),” reminds us that the hosts should be mindful of not over-staying. Finally, my professor friend reminded me that, growing up in India, he noticed a peculiar custom: Of the host offering to pay the return ticket to the visiting guest, once they had stayed for a few days. “This  was, perhaps a way of telling the guest that it is time to leave,” he pointed out. Some wisdom in that generosity, indeed!

How to tell someone they are wrong

I got  into an argument with a friend just yesterday. The topic was U.S. Foreign policy in the Middle East. While I do have strong ideas about this issue, so did my friend – who is a Veteran. We had a few strong exchanges and clarified our positions, in no uncertain terms. But after my friend said something along the lines of ‘You didn’t have to be so condescending,’ it occurred to me that I was  perhaps coming across as such, while not meaning to.

For those who know me, know that I tend to refer a few books in every ‘informed,’ conversation I have. It is an old habit and I believe it is better to base arguments in facts, opinions and ideas that have been well thought out, and often books have such reservoir of ideas. So, I make liberal use in referencing them. It helps that I enjoy reading and often have read a book that is at least tangentially related to any discussion at hand. Also, I realize that some people don’t take to this too kindly, thinking that either :

a. I am showing off that I have read these books

b. Pretending to know more than them

c. Being a pretentious SOB, just for the heck of it

In any case, it doesn’t help my cause. If my intention is to win an argument, then perhaps I had already won it. But the point of having informed discussions isn’t just winning arguments. It is also about genuinely reaching an understanding and helping the ‘other’ see one’s viewpoint. Towards this, I have often learnt that the best thing to do is to stop arguing.

In some cases, I have drawn back the aggressiveness and appealed to the person’s reason or higher intellect – assuming it exists.

When people are angry, defensive or plan excited, they don’t listen. And similar to yesterday’s experience, I have been in far too many situations where I have learnt that even if I win an argument, I may lose the person’s attention. So, better to tone down and try to reason, while keeping the other persons’ perspective in mind. IN other words, trying to be more empathetic.

So, that seems to be the lesson I learnt yesterday: The best way to tell someone they are wrong is not to tell them that. Rather, it is better to help them think through their position with more care and attention. For this, they must be empathetic to your viewpoint. For this to happen, you must tone down, relax and let them reach out to you, at their pace. Empathy is the name of the game.

I am still learning.