Sunday, April 03, 2005

hamro setho saathi

Lately I've noticed a contrast between French speakers and Nepali speakers regarding their confidence in my ability to understand them when they speak their own languages.

At work some of our Congolese and Togolese clients have decided that it's more efficient for them to try and speak to me in French than in English. This says much more about their English ability than my French abibility. I can often get the general gist but my listening skills are usually overestimated. An running joke in our centre is that it's dangerous to say anything confidentional in French if Mr Joe is within hearing range. I often wonder if this is because I am white like the average French person.

The opposite is true with Nepalese people's confidence in my ability to understand Nepali. Even after learning that I understand some Nepali, people will go on speaking in front of me and then get shocked when I let on that I am following their conversation. I have also found that my comprehensions skills in any language increase several fold when people are talking about me, as happened today when I went for lunch at the local Nepali restaurant:

From the counter: One set meal and one lassi
From the kitchen: Eat here or take away?
From the counter: Eat here
From the kitchen: Who is it for?
From the counter: Our white friend (hamro setho sathi)

It wasn't a very insulting reference but it was quite funny and the rest of the customers burst out laughing. Maybe it was the alliteration. When I started laughing too the counter guy looked shocked and asked what I was laughing at. 'setho sathi' I told him and he immediately demanded to know what I thought it meant. 'setho is safed, right?' I asked, since he already knew that I speak Hindi.

If there was a lesson to be learnt from this it didn't sink in. When I went to the counter to pay, the guy yelled in Nepali to the kitchen again, 'how much do we usually charge this guy, thirty?'. 'Thirty', I answered, shocked to see the same look of surprise on his face. 'You know 'tis'(thirty)?' he asked. 'A little more than that' I said, repeating his previous question about the price, 'you should be more careful'.

'No, no need to be careful because nothing wrong', he joked. 'Yes, not yet', I smiled, 'that's why you should be careful'.

Anyway, I like surprising people in this way. It reminds me of an experience I once had on a train in India. I was travelling in a compartment with five others and they did almost nothing except talk about me for the whole journey. They commented on my looks, speculated about what kind of person I was and aired their views on Westerners in general.

One lady even gave a running commentary on everything that I did, 'look, he's getting a book out of his bag. Now he's eating some namkeen, look at that piece he dropped on his leg!'. It was like being a zoo animal! When we stopped at a station close to my destination I ordered a cup of chai through the window from a chaiwala on the platform. The order ensued in a short conversation and the result in our compartment was deathly silence for the rest of the journey.

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