OK, let’s start this post with a confession – and believe you me, I’m not proud of that : I have not learned to speak Hindi (or Telugu, or Urdu, or Sanskrit). I have some excuses, I suppose. Never did we imagine we’d end up spending six years in India, and counting. Also, when we first arrived, I had a six-weeks old baby, so on top of all the adjustments of the first year’s culture shock, not to mention work, and writing, I was kind of busy with the little one, and with the big one, who also had to adjust to living in a new country, going to a new school, etc, AND having a new, very noisy, and demanding little person in the family. Plus, which one of the above-mentioned languages to learn ?
Of course, after all this time, I’ve actually integrated a lot of everyday words into my vocabulary. I no longer ask for flour, I ask for maida. I don’t use a broom, I use a jhaadu, etc. But I’ll be honest : that’s about it.
One thing I’ve learned, though, is the South Indian body language. So much so that before going home, last summer, I imagined my friends and family would laugh themselves silly just looking at me.
One of the things that strike foreigners when they arrive in this part of the world is the way people use their head. Nodding to say “yes,” and head-shaking to say “no” is pretty universal. But Indians have invented a third way, with the head wobbling from right to left, the right ear going a bit closer to the right shoulder, and then the left ear closer to the left shoulder, to be repeated once or twice. What does it mean? Well, it depends. Basically, that the person agrees with you. But, you see, as it is considered rude to say “no” in India, people have come up with the solution of not saying “no” or “maybe” or “highly unlikely, but who knows? ” without officially saying “yes.” Brilliant, right ?
Yesterday, I parked the car to go to an ATM machine, but as I went up the steps to the small room next to the bank, I saw that the metal shutter was halfway down. I looked at the security guard sitting on a chair outside the door and rotated my hand from right to left, palm open, fingers spread, as if to say “not open?” The man said “Close,” and we both wobbled our heads, secure in the fact that even though we do not speak a common language, we understood each other perfectly. If you see me going to the shops, or talking to people (locals or expats) in India, you’ll see me doing the head-wobbling thing, and lots of hand gestures. But the funny thing is, as soon as I land in another country, or deal with people who have nothing to do with India, the head-wobbling, and hand-rotating stop, and I go back to my boring pre-India body language. I guess it’s a similar process to the one that made my children know, practically from the moment they could speak a few words, that I, their father, or the family in France or Haiti were to be spoken to in French, and everyone else around in English.
Here is a short video to illustrate the Yes or No head-wobbling dilemma that foreigners encounter when they first arrive in India. And just to put that poor guy’s mind at rest : the young man is saying “yes,” but that doesn’t mean it will not turn out to have been a “no” all along.