Like 24% of children in the United States, I grew up in a bilingual household and English was not my first language. The first language I learned was Tamil. But when we first moved to the United States, I felt lonely because I couldn’t talk and play with the other four-year-olds in my apartment complex. I determinedly glued myself to the TV until Barney & Friends helped me replace all my Tamil with English. While this helped me assimilate to America, it also severed my connection with my native tongue.
My parents made an active effort to keep Tamil a part of mine and my sister’s lives. They spoke to us in it often, though I mostly responded in English. We watched Tamil films and listened to Tamil music on long car rides. We were promptly enrolled in Tamil school when one opened in our neighborhood. 15 years later, returning to live and work in a Tamil-speaking region has been a vindication of my parent’s efforts to keep me connected with my mother tongue. For me, it has been a redemption of my efforts to be enough in it.
Despite being inundated with the language, I was never very good at Tamil. I once spent an entire miserable Saturday practicing a single word of a children’s poem which I had to recite at Tamil school the next day. But no matter how much my dad tried to teach me, I just couldn’t pronounce the ra or zha sounds quite right. It didn’t help that whenever I mis-conjugated a verb or my American accent creeped into pronunciation, my family members would promptly mock and laugh at me. I eventually relegated Tamil to using only when I had to stumble through conversations with my grandparents, keeping them safely succinct and repetitive.
I realize only now how uncommon of a neighborhood mine was, one where Tamil Sunday school was a wildly successful enterprise. I am lucky that my American childhood including being surrounded by families who looked like mine, to have friends find the smells and sounds in my house familiar and not peculiar. Unlike many first generation Indian-Americans, I did not feel embarrassed that a language like Tamil was spoken in my home. On the contrary, I felt ashamed that I could not speak it very well.
Though I’m not great in Tamil, I am still a lot better at it than Hindi or any other Indian language. When starting the Fellowship, I was hesitant to work in a Tamil-speaking region, but I knew it was my best chance to really integrate in the community I worked in. I had learned the hard way that it can be especially challenging and unforgiving to look Indian in India and not speak even a little of the local language.
Every time I met a new person in Puducherry, I’d begin by apologizing for my bad Tamil. I tried to finagle a system where my coworkers spoke to me in Tamil and I responded back in English. This plan quickly derailed because human instinct kept forcing one of us, usually the other person, to respond in the language they were being spoken to. Sometimes, my reputation preceded me, and someone would say “you know Tamil, right?” (I later discovered that word had spread quickly in my office about “that new American girl who speaks Tamil.”)
I hesitantly gave in and began speaking in Tamil more often. To my surprise, everyone more or less understood me. In fact, no one really commented on it at all. This was actually what I found most remarkable. For the first time in my life, no one applauded me when I spoke Tamil well nor denigrated me when I messed up. I thought I wanted validation that my Tamil was good enough after enduring years of being laughed at for it, but compliments too made me feel self-conscious. All I really wanted was my words to matter more than the accent they were said in.
I came to Puducherry with two suitcases and a whole lot excess identity baggage. But at least with regard to the Tamil language, I found that sometimes the best way to get rid of baggage is just set it aside. The question “you speak Tamil, don’t you?” was a loaded one for me, but it was not for the people I encountered there. It turns out there isn’t, as I had long perceived, some objective measure of how well you have to know your native tongue to be considered Indian enough.
What’s in a language? For me, the answer is complicated. Tamil offered me a peek into the world of linguistics. It sometimes suppressed my opinions, or swallowed up my questions in the perplexity of translation. It also became a tool to color and define my professional purpose in India. Tamil is an ancient, rich, proud culture I am eagerly excavating. It reminds me I don’t know much about my ancestry, because I never had the words to ask about our family history. It unearths memories of being rendered silent in my home, a confrontation with deep-seated shame.
For me, the Tamil language has been embarrassing and empowering, academic and personal all at once. It is a manifestation of the first-generation immigrant’s perpetual conflict: how to be enough, to be wholly represented in more than one community, or accepted by any at all. I am still figuring out everything I have to say about it, and what language I can be best say it in.