HOW MAY I HELP YOU?

Years of perfecting my English accent didn’t prepare me for what America thought of it: trash

Quartz india
Quartz india

I wanted to talk with Ron and get to know him, but he didn’t seem to care. One evening we were working together, and after a few awkward moments of silence, I said, “How long have you been working here?” “Three months in this store, but I have a lot of sales experience.” “What did you do before this?” “Lots of things, I don’t even know where to start.”

I waited for him to say more.

“I was in the military for a while, and traveled to a lot of places around the world.” “Have you been to India?” “Oh, no. I don’t trust the middle east.” I didn’t understand why he had brought up the Middle East. Before I could tell him India was in south Asia, not the middle east, he said, “I got two diplomas and several certifications and I am training to be a manager.” I nodded. He was the oldest worker in the store and talked like he knew what he was talking about. I asked him for some advice.

 “I’ve noticed you struggle to understand what customers are sayin’.” “What do you think I should do in order to do well in this job?” Ron made a study of me. “See, the problem witchu is that you don’t speak English. So, first of all, you need to learn the language to survive in America. Then everything depends on you. If you wanna do well, you can do it, but it depends on you. You. Just you.” He pointed his index finger at my chest. “What do you mean, I should learn English? Can’t you understand me?” I said. “Not very well. I’ve noticed you struggle to understand what customers are sayin’. They don’t understand what you say, either. This is between you and me: Cindy wouldn’t have hired you if she’d had her way.”

I was surprised to hear this, and asked what made him think so. “I don’t know, but that’s what she said to me. Again, this is between you and me. You know, she has trouble understanding you too.” He walked toward the door to greet a customer. I stayed at my place.

All that effort

English was a delicate subject in my household in India. For my mother’s family while she was growing up, English was a hangover from the British colonial past. My grandfather was very English in his mannerisms. English was his first language, and for a long time his only language. Growing up, I had spent most of my time with my mother’s side of the family. It was a household in which people who didn’t speak English were ridiculed. Anyone with less or no knowledge of English was thought to be less intelligent. My father didn’t speak English very well. When he tried, my mother’s father and her brothers made fun of his pronunciation. Although my father had a master’s degree and a good job, he lacked confidence. He would hesitate to talk to my class teacher during parent-teacher conferences. Generally, he was hesitant to talk to anyone who might talk with him in English. My father  It was a household in which people who didn’t speak English were ridiculed. wanted to be able to speak English so badly that he abhorred everything associated with the language.

While English was the bane of his existence, my mother was very adamant about sending her kids to schools where they could learn to speak English. I was a little chubby as a kid. Not fat, but I had some extra weight on my body, enough for my scrawny classmates to pick on me. They called me motu, the equivalent of being called fatso. I took it in my stride while I was still a kid, but when I moved into my teens, I didn’t take the abuse very well, especially when they called me fat in front of the girls in my class. I am not sure if the bullying at school was the sole reason for it, but it was around that age that I started spending a lot of time in the British Council Library in my hometown.

I would read and listen to English audio cassettes. I wanted to speak English like an Englishman, just like my grandfather, who spoke with a posh British accent. The English language became my tool to fight back in class and in general. I started reading the English dictionary and would write down the meanings of big words. Then I’d go to school and use at least five big words to show off in my English essay. My teacher would give me the look that said, “You didn’t write this, did you?” But I knew the meaning of all the words I had used, and I was ready to answer her questions. I became the kid with good English, and a favorite of my English teacher. In my high school, you could fail any other subject and still advance to the next grade, but if you failed in English you’d have to repeat the year. My friends became jealous of me. They stopped calling me names.

“Shut up, you son of an Englishman”

Around the same time, I became obsessed with the British accent. I discovered the Beatles. When I was not listening to The Goon Show in the library, I was enjoying Paul McCartney on an audio cassette. I rode my bicycle amid scooters, motorcycles, jeeps, and cars on the busy streets of Lucknow. When I found myself next to a loud truck, I would sing Don’t let me down! at the top of my voice. I might have embarrassed myself, screaming out the lyrics with my eyes closed, but I didn’t care. When I opened them, the truck was usually gone.

People would yell at me, “Chup angrez ki aulad!” It literally meant, “Shut up you son of an Englishman,” but what it really meant was, “Shut up you son of a bitch.” My friends and some of my relatives, too, had started calling me by that name, angrez. They thought it was odd that I only listened to, and sang, English music. I got hold of a Hohner’s Marine Band harmonica. I had been playing harmonica since I was eight, but that ten-hole blues harp fed into the English-crazed phase of my life. I carried it in my back pocket and tried to mimic the tune of the Beatles’ Let It Be.

In Lucknow, which is where the first Indian revolt against the British took place, in 1857, there is a historical monument called the British Residency. The ruins are surrounded by several acres of lush green lawns. It was my  But in the United States, my English declassed me. little England. For a five-rupee ticket, I could spend the entire day there. I would walk in and around the main residence, imagining what it would be like if the British were still there. Every once in a while, I would encounter an English tourist. I would talk to him and felt elated when he’d refuse to believe that I hadn’t grown up in England. “Mate, I can’t get over your English,” he’d say. In India I had thrived by speaking English. But in the United States, my English declassed me. When Ron told me I needed to learn to speak English, speaking to me in what seemed like a demeaning tone, I wondered if he was trying to feel good about himself. At the time I felt mostly hurt and confused, but looking at it later, I could see that perhaps, as a working-class black man, he was trying to restore some of his own honor by stepping on me, a newly arrived, powerless immigrant—one marginalized community member oppressing the other.

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House from How May I Help You? An Immigrants Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage by Deepak Singh. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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