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My Turn: Lost in Translation

April 2007
My Turn: Lost in Translation

Author Sherry Agarwal and husband, Sundeep, are learning a whole new set of meanings to words, phrases and gestures they thought they knew.

SHERRY AGARWAL, an American born and bred, muses about the fond frustrations of cross-cultural communication hurdles with her Indian-born husband.

"Sandeep, do you want some tea?" I ask my husband. He shrugs and slightly tips his head. In his mind, that gesture is a "yes." The exact same gesture though, most commonly meant a "no" where I grew up.

Think we have a spicy marriage? You bet we do. Most couples have their work cut out with everyday misunderstandings and mixed signals. There are the age old potent landmines such as the question, "Honey, do I look fat in this outfit?" In our case, we have had the added hurdles of communicating in a cross-cultural biracial marriage. Some of the cultural differences were blatant at first, but some crept up on us slowly.

As in the above example, in the United States, when a person shrugs his shoulders and nods his head slightly sideways, it means "maybe, possibly." Overall, the impression conveyed by this gesture is that you do not really care about the decision. However, to a man from India, this same expression means an unqualified, yes.

Then there is this vastly differing approach to the common courtesies and pleasantries such as "Thank you" and "please". In the U.S., these are an integral part of daily communication. Americans feel strongly about them and are likely to be offended when such a courtesy is not offered when due. Indians, on the other hand, feel that gratitude amidst family is a given and hence need not be expressed at every turn. In the beginning, as you can imagine, we were both peeved. I felt unappreciated. He felt that such formalities create distance, and were therefore not needed between a husband and a wife.

Same was the case with the much more emotional phrase, "I love you." Amidst Americans, this is a staple in most personal relationships that are thriving. It is considered vital in a loving relationship. But again, the Indian psyche does not feel the need for such expressions. The Indian feels saying it does not make it so. And if it is indeed so, why the need to say so?

It gets more hairy when the same word implies entirely opposite meanings. Did you know there is an American "okay" and an Indian "okay"? How can the same word differ so much from culture to culture? When I say okay, it means "yes, I am fine," and that I assent to what the okay was said for. Whereas in Sundeep's case, okay is often a non sequitur to diffuse or avoid conflict. It's an okay that seems to say, "quit bugging me at this time." It doesn't necessarily mean agreement, or that the okay carries any weight of commitment or follow-through.

Though, I am smarting up. Sometimes when my husband is bugging me, I offer him an Indian okay to pacify him, while having no intention of following through on my okay. So now we have learnt to clarify. The other day he asked me if it was an "Indian okay" or an "American okay!"

In the United States where people of so many different backgrounds live together, it becomes particularly important to be cognizant of such differences. So next time you get mad at somebody for a seemingly harmful remark, stop and think: What is the motivation behind that remark? Was it intended to hurt? Or was it stated innocently, given the person's background, culture, and sense of humor?

As for me, I've learned to appreciate the differences. Recently, for my husband's birthday, I was baking a German chocolate cake (his favorite) and making a spicy Indian feast for him at the same time. I had chocolate icing on one arm from the mixer and chili powder on the other. And I thought to myself, "Is not that just like the two cultures? Chocolate icing on one side and chili powder on the other—sweet and spicy together?"


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