As an immigrant many moons ago from India, it would not be a stretch to say that it took a while to both understand the firangi (read American) accent and become an active contributor to the same linguistic style.
And I falsely believed that I could turn on the “fake accent” during the work-week and lapse into the “desi” accent on weekends and evenings. Until our daughter hit adolescence and started rattling out the myriad mistakes we were making!
At the same time, coincidentally, the word “extreme vetting” as phrased by President Trump was heard. I was perplexed and did not know what it meant. But putting two and two together, this is what it might look like.
A desi makes his way to the immigration counter at San Francisco International airport.
Officer: What is the purpose of your visit?
Desi Boy: I work for Patel Consulting Company and I’m here on deputation for three months at a client’s site.
Officer (looking up suspiciously): What client are you going to be working for?
Desi Boy (unintelligible mumbling):
Officer (whips out an ace from under his sleeve): Ok, how do you pronounce Indianapolis?
Desi Boy (without hesitation): IndiaanAAhpolice
That, my friends, is “extreme vetting”—desi shtyle!
After doing some extensive research (in my own head), I think I have found the cause for the plague that is engulfing us desi migrants. Words with two or more dissimilar vowels are the bane of our existence. What is it with these words that completely stumps us desis? ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis) seem to have mastered the art of the same and revel in correcting their parents (yours truly) whenever a faux pas happens!
Let’s take the word “coyote.” Unless “coyote” is pronounced like “ka-yoh-tee,” you will be met with a puzzled stare; especially if you venture down the death spiral of calling it “ko-yote” or “kaa-h-yote.”
For an even greater challenge try the word “caricature.” #Egad—here’s a word with four vowels and three unique ones to boot. Unless it is pronounced “kari-ke-choor,” you are doomed. It wasn’t like this back in India. If we attempted to pronounce a word half-correctly, the listener would surmise what we meant and life would go on—heck with three vowels in a six-letter word, desis can make all kinds of permutations work, but unfortunately only one of them will resound with an American and until that resonance happens, you might as well be doing handstands and the listener will be nonplussed.
Looking back, I studied at Warangal, and one of our favorite coastal destinations was the city of Vijayawada. I never had any trouble getting anyone to understand where we were headed whether we called it Biijoybada (courtesy our Bangla friends) or Veejayvada (our Tamilian brethren—yours truly included). All this sanity disappeared in America, with the rude awakening of what a misplaced ‘v’ and ‘w’ could result in! When asking for a veggie (pronounced Wedgie using a FOB—fresh off the boat accent) sandwich for the first time, I received curious stares until a kind onlooker explained what a “wedgie” meant. Needless to say, I beat a hasty retreat to work on the ‘V’ ‘W’ accent! Are things better today? Maybe—but, I am still living on the ‘VW’ edge.
And if you think that desis are particularly afflicted with Monday morning blues you are right. Hey, we must get through five business days of this “extreme vetting” by customers, colleagues and partners. And we must get through it all with nothing more than a bruised ego. Come Saturday and Sunday we can let our hair down (or what is left of it in my case)—exception being any social event where non-desis outnumber the desis; if so the vowel police will be on the lookout and we need to be on our best behavior—I dread those weekends.
And for those of us first generation Americans who think they have mastered the vowel minefield, think again! You are a hair’s breadth away from being exposed. Case in point was this past weekend, when the question of colleges came up (a rising senior in the house and this topic can dominate discussions) and Dartmouth was being discussed. Any self-respecting desi knows what “dart” and “mouth” is and we can pronounce that in our sleep and Dartmouth should be just juxtaposing the two words. #Wrong as my daughter shouted out. It’s pronounced “Dart-muth”—#Really? Come on—bring me some strong sambar to drown my vowels.
Wait—we are in America—we really need to try the Worcestershire sauce. You know that is a trick question, right? How does one pronounce Worcestershire? How about “Woo-s-ter-sher?” If any first generation desis got this one right, please instant message me right now. We all need to put you on a pedestal and learn from you, Madam (or Sir). For the rest of us who tried “Wor-cester-shire” or “Wo-cest-er-shiiire” you really need some remedial training. And it’s not coming from me for sure. So where do we go from here? Its ok to call out our failings but we need a path forward right? Absolutely.
My trick—one day at a time. Never stop learning. Having the constant “vowel police” at home is the best remedy. Use as many multi-vowel words as possible and actively learn when the vowel police sound an alarm.
It’s hard, believe me—and sometimes it makes me wonder how anyone ever understands what I say—but it will get better I promise. And never get lulled into complacency just because many weeks of error free multi-vowel words happened. The trap will be sprung and be ready to say mea culpa, learn and move on. But what about the butchering of names—the desi and firangi ones—that is a topic for another day! Until then #KeepVoweling.
An Indian origin ‘desi-implant’ in America over two decades ago, Ashwin has been in the same geographic boundary of Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and San Jose for work and life, yet claims (delusional perhaps) to be a renegade, creative thinker and humorist. He has a cybersecurity background, is a Dummies’ book author and is a father and a husband to boot.