Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Fluency in English is the White Privilege of India

English privilege. We grew up with it. With a much-coveted Convent education, jokes mocking those who spoke ‘broken’ English were too common. ‘On the light’ Ha ha! That’s ‘PUT on the light, or SWITCH on the light!’ ‘I’ll tell to Miss that you are teasing me!” “That’s ‘I’ll TELL Miss’, not ‘tell TO’! Gosh!” But practically everyone in school spoke ‘broken’ English at the beginning, because it was their second language. They came as little four year olds from homes where Marathi or Hindi was spoken, and were whipped (not literally) into English fluency through twelve years at an English medium school.

But I grew up in a home where English WAS our first language, and we prided ourselves on speaking English as well as (or better than) the British. It was a very desired skill. In a culture of humiliation, there was always something for fellow students to put others (and teachers too) down for, accents, ignorance, body size and shape, but mockery for imperfect English was pretty common. I don’t remember any incidents very clearly, but I know I subconsciously felt I was better than other people because I spoke better English, because that was the message I received from the world.

As I grew up I realized it wasn’t just school. Being fluent in English changed everything, opened doors that would have otherwise remained closed, gave us opportunities that most people didn’t have. Fluent English speakers have an edge on the job market, can grasp study material easily, present themselves better, and sound more intelligent and educated. Even socially, fluent English-speakers often band together, and often exclude people who didn't fit in that narrow social class. I've often heard young people talk about 'the wrong kind of crowd', and they're not talking about their morals, but their social class, their culture, and yes, their English. I've seen the divide even in our church community.

I realized as I worked with the underprivileged that the things that came so easily to me didn’t come as easily to everyone else. I could walk into a church or school office, approach someone in authority, and quickly win trust or at least lessen suspicion, and often get the help I needed by fluently and convincingly explaining myself. Even if I wore clothes that were not expensive or ‘upper class’, (in fact I more often look like a college student, with jeans and backpack), my English would convince people that I was someone of importance, someone they probably shouldn’t ignore. Basically, English has snob value.

Of course now there are a lot of people in India who have felt the sting for too long, and are turning the tables, with anger against anyone who is not fluent with the local language. English is simultaneously connected with snob value and an inferiority complex, not surprisingly since it came with the British and their class system and superior attitude towards the ‘natives’.

Still, 70 years later, fluency in English in India is usually equated with intelligence, education, ability, position, trustworthiness, status and often value. I only re-examined these assumptions as an adult, and realized that they were faulty. Slowly over the years I have tried to root out these lies and re-align my mind and behaviour with the truth. What is the truth?

1. English is just a language, a skill. It does not reflect character, intelligence or value.

2. As a language, it is for communication, not a status symbol. If someone with ‘broken’ English can communicate a thought, instruction or idea, then they have successfully used the language as a means to an end.

3. Someone who speaks several languages imperfectly is far more skilled and laudable than someone who speaks ONLY English perfectly (for example, I).

4. But a person’s skills in language or lack thereof can never detract or add to his or her value. Everyone deserves to be treated with the same respect and consideration.

5. Because society at large gives me a privilege and advantage that I don’t deserve, I am responsible for using that privilege for the sake of those who have been deprived of it. ‘From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.’

6. English DOES open doors, especially in getting jobs, and a higher education, so whenever possible I should help people pick up that skill.

7. Reading books, articles and blogs, and watching movies and documentaries in English have given me a glimpse of a world outside of my small world, and that is a good thing. Once again, it is a good reason to help especially students with English.

8. The class (and caste) system is so ingrained in people’s minds, that I need to go out of my way to show and remind people that we are equal, that we are brothers and sisters, no matter our background, privilege or social status. Whenever possible, I need to choose the discomfort of speaking the language I am uncomfortable with in order to allow others to speak the language they are comfortable with.

This is one of the most beautiful and enlightening aspects of Christianity. Unfortunately too many Christians have ignored the truth and teachings of Christ and stuck to the status quo, because it protects their privilege. It’s time for us to make a change.

The Chilling Last Scene of The Prestige

Have you watched ‘The Prestige’? I watched it years ago, but it made a strong impression on my mind and heart, and for a while I couldn’t pinpoint why. SPOILER ALERT SERIOUSLY IF YOU ARE PLANNING TO WATCH THIS MOVIE DON’T READ ON. In brief, it was about the rivalry between two stage magicians. One is apparently the protagonist, and you begin to see how he one-ups the antagonist with his tricks, unexplained to us, the audience. You keep waiting for the secret of how he did what he did, but when you reach the end, everything changes in a chilling way, as you realize that the person you thought was the protagonist was actually the villain (sort of). Excellent story-telling.

But here’s the secret of his amazing disappearances and re-appearances. He had once found a way to tap into some mysterious way of cloning himself. (I’m a little hazy on the details of how he did it- using some electrical energy?) Anyway, the chilling part is when you realized that he would clone himself, and mysteriously appear in a different spot, to the wonder of his audience, while he KILLED his original self by dropping into an upright coffin size locked tank of water where he would drown himself. The movie ends with a view of a big room filled with rows and rows of tanks of water with a corpse in each one. Brr.

But what it made me think of was the morality of his action (yup, back to the Catholic INTJ’s mind)- since it was a clone of himself, did he have the right to kill it? Since he created it, couldn’t he also dispose of it?

And of course that comes back to the pro-choice argument- my body, my choice. Of course it’s more complicated in The Prestige, because it seems like almost suicide. Which is of course, the perfect example of ‘my body, my choice’, and which is becoming legal in some places.

For suicide in general, the reason why Catholics do NOT believe it is a valid moral choice is because your life is not really your own. You DIDN’T create yourself, life is a gift loaned to you, and you are not the final arbiter of your own life or death (or anyone else’s). Obviously for many people who do commit suicide, it happened under great mental strain, sometimes brought on by a long struggle with depression. The Church entrusts those people to the Lord, knowing that HE knows. BUT we believe that where there is life there is hope, and no matter how much suffering a person is going through, life is never to be thrown away.

Which brings us to The Prestige and pre-born babies. If it was my act that caused this life to exist in the womb, then is it not my right to dispose of it as I wish? But of course, that comes from a warped idea of personhood, or seeing other persons merely as a means to some kind of end, or their value only connected to the way they affect one’s own life. The Prestige protagonist created life and destroyed life (even his own) just as if human life was any other kind of resource.

But the Catholic perspective is that there IS something different about a human life. We are not just resources. Every life is precious, valuable, whether or not it is ‘wanted’ by the co-creators, which is all parents really are. Every ugly and cruel society comes from forgetting this basic truth. Think of the Holocaust, or any other genocide, the child soldiers of Africa, sex slavery, even colonialism. It comes from the evil of forgetting the worth, the unrepeatable value of every human being, and choosing to use them, abuse them or dispose of them, according to the perceived way they affect one’s own life.
The Prestige reminded me of how common that worldview is, and how chilling.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Day I Realized I Was Old

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t mention my age to someone. Thirty-one is significant enough that it seems to warrant a great many mentions. And yet, with my lucky genes that make me look about ten years younger, I JOKE about old age, but quite comfortably feel young, dress young, and assume most people think I’m young.

But the moment of truth unhappily arrived two days ago. I was on my annual family vacation in the hills, and the mango tree of my childhood called temptingly to both my very energetic nieces.  With a loop of rope attached to a branch, a hoist up by a ten year old second cousin, and they very smoothly swung themselves on to it. They were regularly spotted perched up in the tree.

“Ah, tree-climbing is the best! I think I might try it again.” I’ve been a tree-climber from the age of five, and have spent many happy hours up a tree. I had climbed trees as an adult too, and was quite pleased with myself when other people oohed and aahed at my skill. I had climbed the selfsame mango tree not long before, I thought. Maybe a couple of years ago? Or perhaps five or six years ago? I don’t really remember, I’ve been an adult so long, the years roll into each other.

I approached the tree confidently as the children welcomed me. But something seemed wrong. I feel like the tree seemed larger than it did a few years ago. Wasn’t it supposed to work the other way round? “I’ve done this heaps of times. Piece o’ cake.” But where do I put my foot? There seemed to be no foothold anywhere close by.

My ten-year-old second cousin, a solid little boy, offered me a foothold of his looped hands. Eh, that should work. I’m pretty light. Just hold still, Mikey.

Crash! I brought him down with my tiny frame. Okay, maybe not. Now what? I gazed at the tree, not wanting to give up that easily. Perhaps I could grab the rope and swing my legs up like my niece had?
There are some things in life one just KNOWS. And I KNEW that I did not have the arm strength, body strength, or general flexibility to pull that off. I have never regularly exercised in my life, never lifted weights, and yet have managed most physical exertion fairly easily. I knew I wasn’t fit, but I never felt really UNFIT until that day. (Apart from being winded the other day after just two dances at a wedding.)

My younger brother decided to cheer me on and tell me I could do it. He just couldn’t understand my SURENESS about what I could not do. Probably because he is a mere 25 years of age. He finally gave me a hoist up. I grabbed the branch, and clung for dear life to it. “Aah! I can’t do it! I can’t do this! I’m stuck!” “Are you joking? You’re joking, right?” asked my brother. That’s the problem with regularly being over-dramatic about everything.  I assured him about my seriousness about my dilemma by continuing to scream. He finally pushed me up. Not the most graceful moment for someone who tries to avoid awkward situations.

Somehow I got my legs up. Is the same body I’ve owned my entire life? Why won’t it do what I want it to do? I enjoyed my brief moment of glory up in the tree, but couldn’t get any higher than the first fork in the branches. “Angle the camera so I look like I’m higher up!” And then of course, I had to face the descent. How bad could that be? I’m 5’4” and it was probably only a foot more than that. But once again, I was immobilized by fear. I just knew that hanging from the branch by my arms and then dropping was going to be useless because of the aforesaid lack of arm strength. But I had no option. After playing it all out in my head several times, I finally did it, scratched my hands and landed on the ground safely.

I suppose now is when I should seriously start thinking of Couch to 5k, or Zumba, or not sitting on my butt all the time. Or I could just blog about my deteriorating strength. I guess you know which option I’ve chosen today. Welcome, old age.