‘You gotta be kidding me,’ exclaimed the police officer at the Chicago immigration, and that meant she was about to reject my reasons, and put me on a plane back to India. My fears were cooled only by the familiarity of her phrase. In fact, everything looked familiar from that point on: being escorted away by two uniformed officers, asked some questions, then being pulled up by a senior cop into her cabin, for more questions, and finally let in. As if I’d slipped into America through an 80’s police show.
Watching re-runs of American TV shows was the greatest English-language entertainment in a Middle Eastern desert where I grew up. And my friends, unlike the Indians back home, used words like ‘awesome’ and ‘cool,’ whose meanings I picked up from context. For instance, you could never ask anyone the meaning of ‘cool’ without appearing un-cool. I rarely tried to talk the way they did, though. I had ‘proper English’ filters fitted on pretty early in life.
‘American English is lazy,’ my grandfather had always warned me. A lawyer schooled in British India, and expelled from university for opposing colonial rule, he studiously upheld standards of the Queen’s English. Colonialism sure was a love-hate affair. ‘Don’t imitate the Americans,’ I was instructed, ‘always spell colour with a ‘U’.’ I took this to heart and double-barrelled my L’s. And, although I loved ‘Z’ and the sound it made, I carefully used ‘S’ in realise, and made sure the ‘R’ came first in centres and metres.
But returning briefly from the Middle East for a stint of schooling in India, I was put in place by a teacher for an innocuous strain of American English.
“So, you are the new student?”
“Do you like India?”
“What is this yeah, yeah? Are you disrespecting me?! Say yes. Do you understand?”
Laughter all around. I understand nothing.
“Yeah… yes Miss.”
Years later, I would come to think that ‘yeah’ was such an easy, open sound, freeing us from the stitched limits of ‘yes’. You never felt too polite or submissive in agreement. You could express unbridled enthusiasm by happily screaming through the vowel end of ‘yeah.’ Like many phrases made popular by Americans, it had an air of disrespect for authority, a casual disregard for rules, perhaps carried over from defying the British. And when I eventually tried speaking like an American in America, I felt strangely free, as if I’d won some kind of personal freedom from British rule – in a way my grandfather never imagined. American English had a refreshing sense of directness and practicality. As they say, ‘whatever works.’
But sometimes, it didn’t work. Requested to volunteer for an activity in downtown Gainesville, Florida, my friends raised limp, careless hands, ‘I’m down with it’ they said, one by one, ‘I’m down.’ Perplexed that they were voting against going, I said, ‘I’m up for it, anyway.’ To nobody’s surprise, they all came along, while I shared my annoyance at their confusing the senses of up and down. ‘Down with,’ I prodded them further, ‘is usually used for a fever, or something undesirable, like a bad government.’ But they were too cool to care for any of that.
Within a few months in Florida, my good old English filters collected quite a bit of American fuzz. The stickiest was the phrase ‘a bunch of’. You found it everywhere. A bunch of money, a bunch of books, a bunch of enemies, a bunch of beer, a bunch of time, a bunch of verbal atrocities. I wondered how they’d describe Mount Rushmore: a bunch of Presidents?
After some time, I began to feel like the Prince of Wales visiting the American South. When I asked for bananas, I was given puzzled looks, until they pointed to ‘banaaeenas’ and told me I spoke in a rather dignified manner. And since I couldn’t find the wash basin in a museum, I was courteously led to the ‘sink’ and asked where I was from, since I sounded rather quaint. As if they’d be happy to exhibit me there.
Conversely, when applying for a course in writing at an American university, I was asked to take a Test of English as Foreign Language. When I protested that English wasn’t a foreign language to me, I was told the exemption was only for people from ‘English-speaking countries’ like Australia, Canada, and Ireland. A bunch of countries widely known for their masterful English.
‘But your English is very good,’ remarked my Latin American flatmate, who was trying hard to make it in the United States, ‘did you spend a lot of time in Britain?’
‘I’ve never been to Britain,’ I said, ‘but Britain spent a lot of time in India.’