Indian Bobbleheads – I’m still laughing about this cultural phenomenon, this ‘head wagging.’ It’s hilarious when you see heads wobble during conversations. Doctors bob to each other during surgery. Nurses bob to their superiors. Doctors bob to patients. Rickshaw drivers, servers, caretakers, conductors, … it’s everywhere. People essentially have speak dialogues with their heads. Indians bob their heads with so much energy that I wonder if their brains are getting banged up. Indians wag their heads so much I imagine their heads are unstable and will fall off if they make another move. For an outsider, it was a titillating spectacle. By the end of July, I felt my head instinctively shake in affirmation.
It certainly gets confusing. Is the side-to-side head shake a yes, no, or maybe? Most times, I did not know how to take it. “Yes, no, maybe, I don’t know…” (lyrics from Malcolm in the Middle intro song)… What’s a ‘No’ then? A head nod up and down? When I talked to people there, I would start nodding my head up and down, since that’s a “yes” in America. I’m sure I confused the hell out of Indians there. Who knows, their “No” nod is the American “Yes” nod.
Geez, for the first few weeks, I was getting used to the head bobbing phenomenon. For a while, I was trying hard to suppress my giggles. Good thing I had a surgical mask on to hide my smile. Seeing the surgeons and residents acknowledge each other and speak through head bobs was too funny a performance!
Indians bob their heads constantly and enthusiastically. Add in a creepy smile and thick accent, you can make your own Indian bobble head toy! Witnessing the head bob actions gets dizzying. Yes, dizzying, especially when you are observing multiple parties bob to each other in casual conversation.
The Indian Accent – Hey, even Russell Peters made fun of it! Whenever my friend toyed with the Indian accent, it never failed to send me through a fit of giggles. It is thick, strong, and difficult to understand. It’s a mutual thing – Indians don’t understand my Americanized English and I don’t understand their accented English. For instance, when I said I lived off Pattom Road, the doctors were clueless. I said it like “bottom” with an ‘A.’ But whenever my friend said “Pattom” with the right pronunciation and accent, people understood him completely. On multiple occasions, Indian people had trouble interpreting my American English and for some reason when my friend spoke, everything was crystal clear, though it sounded the same to me.
I had great difficulty interpreting their English. Hey, it was better than dumbing down my semantics and using my hands, but still a challenge. Sometimes I had my brown friend repeat what I said to overcome the language barrier. Other times, I nodded along, still unsure of what I was affirming to. A small percentage of the time, I understood. I felt myself straining my ears and craning my neck like a pigeon to hear better. I used much more body language to communicate, like talking with my hands. I had to compensate heavily for the major language barrier by acting out “sleeping,” “leaving,” and “eating.” I kind of felt like a monkey, but I tried my best with what I felt comfortable doing.
I also tried using simpler words and sentences, I slowed down my speech to make sure I was clear. I enunciated and spoke loudly, sometimes a little too loud that it was startling. For example, I walked back to the GI clinic at the hospital to retrieve my agenda book and startled the patients. At times, I accidentally fell in the habit of using colloquial language, like “heading out” and “drilling the head,” which was completely lost in translation. Throughout my trip, I had to eliminate my slang and humor and substitute with common and simple vocabulary. Since my young days, I have been an avid reader and vocabulary junkie. To stop using my decade-worth of SAT words and idioms left me almost in shambles =/