Sita Anantha Raman

Speaking the Lingo

An Indian Immigrant's Dilemma

In late 1953, my family sailed for Washington, D.C. where my father took up a post in the Indian embassy, six years after his country's freedom from British rule. Our parents were excited over their children's educational prospects in America. They had been reassured by the teachers at our New Delhi school that we would adapt easily to the new environment, as we were fluent in English. Indians speak different regional languages, and also a unique form of Indian English that is inflected with the lilt of their mother tongues, and so, we were sure we would understand the American lingo with ease. Yet, when we landed in New York, we were completely stumped by the first words uttered by the customs official! I remember thinking that if he would only speak a bit more slowly, less through his nose, and more with his lips, we would know just what he said.

Unfortunately, everyone at school spoke English just like him. I was painfully lonely during those first months after January, and I shyly immersed myself in my new books, encouraged only by the teacher's kind smile. I was in a mixed 5th - 6th grade class, and one day in early March, a girl whispered, 'The teacher wants to tell you something. Go to the front of the class.' I did as she told me, sat with the other 6th graders, and listened to the teacher speak at length –it seemed to be about clothes, of all things! I returned to my seat, as much in the dark as before. Things got better by June, but not a lot. Suddenly, it was time for our elementary school graduation. As my sister was then graduating from junior high, my mother bought each of us a party dress, hers was white, mine was a pale, pretty blue. On graduation day, I came proudly to school in my blue dress and black shoes, long, heavy black braids looped up, my shiny brown face beaming. At last, I was finally done with this school where I had no friends! For once, I would be like everyone else! To my utter shock, all the others were dressed in white, and they laughed at my oddity. They simpered, "Didn't you know that the teacher told us to wear white that day when she called us to the front of the class? "We all spoke English, but I had not understood a word! I had discovered that English isn't one language, after all, and no one is just like everyone else! Luckily, I had a sense of humor, or I might have been in therapy as an unhappy child!

Sita Anantha Raman
Professor Emerita, History
Santa Clara University, CA

Last updated: January 19, 2017