Friday, November 23, 2007

Discomfort Zone

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

Lessons Learned

Comfort is not the best teacher, I've been reminded during this assignment. Discomfort is.

Months ago, I deleted the only blog entry I've ever deleted because I worried that it might alienate people here who read it. It talked of my discovery: that I'm especially open and hospitable to other cultures when I feel in the position of largess, that is, when I'm in my native country and people are visiting it from other countries. By comparison, I worried that I'm less open when I'm away from my immediate community and support infrastructure.

Today, I'm not worried about alienating any local readers because I have more perspective; I realize the reasonable truth in my discovery and also, that I'm still far more open and curious about cultures that are different than my own than many people I've met over my lifetime. Thank God. I'd have missed so much of life's most interesting lessons otherwise.

Time away from my homeland has affirmed that I don't need to relate to cultural differences to appreciate them at best and at worst, simply to observe and acknowledge them. I've reached a maturity-level, where I'm paradoxically grateful for the short-term discomfort I feel when I cannot directly relate, since it yields life-long learning and phenomenally richer self-awareness...I'm not yet so mature that I necessarily have the appreciation while I'm uncomfortable....

I need to qualify all of this with an obvious example: I don't need to relate directly to being Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Muslim or Catholic to appreciate the devotion that many of my colleagues feel for these religions, and to recognize that what they have in common with my passion for Judaism is the need for faith in something(s) much bigger than myself alone.

Language Lubrication

Recently, I made another discovery that I haven't yet posted about. Living in Israel for 12 months 20 years ago -- pre-cell phones, e-mail and blogs -- still was easier than living in India for six months because when I lived in Israel, I was fluent in Hebrew, one of the native languages.

For months here, I thought that Jerusalem was easier than Bangalore because I was in college, rather than needing to perform at work, and maybe that was some of it, but I really do think that knowing a key language of the country where I'm living is fairly essential to thriving there. Now, I did speak Hebrew with a hopelessly American accent, but still, felt tremendous confidence in my ability to express myself in a way that people could listen to relatively comfortably.

There were also expressions I learned that don't really have any equivalent in English, like "Teetchadshi/Teetchadaysh," (the first version is the feminine and the second, masculine) which we'd say to people, who had bought something for pleasure's sake, like new shoes. Its root was simply the word, "chadash" or "new" and it was just an acknowledgment of the newness, and a good wish for them to celebrate the newest thing that had come into their lives.

Today, I still say, "Teetchadshi" to Pat -- who reads, but doesn't speak, Hebrew, and so I taught her the expression -- whenever she purchases something she's been wanting...and there's no equivalent expression in English.

What major insight does such an expression reveal about Israeli culture? I'm not sure, and it doesn't really matter; I just know that it's distinct from American culture in that way, i.e., Americans, and people from other cultures, certainly purchase things they desire, but where's the communal celebration in it?

"Shalom bayit" is another great expression. So much of Hebrew has religious roots, since Ancient Hebrew was the language of the Bible and then Modern Hebrew uses it as its base, and since mostly, Hebrew is spoken by Jews. "Shalom bayit" comes from our rabbinic literature, I think, and means "peace at home." Specifically, it refers to peace at home between a husband and wife, but of course, I've necessarily re-appropriated it to apply to my family-structure.

I use the expression, i.e., that I'm behaving in a certain way for the sake of shalom bayit." Here's an example:

Let's say that my partner Pat buys a "Deadwood" TV show T-shirt online and I can't necessarily relate to why she'd wish to own the item. Nonetheless, for the sake of shalom bayit, I'd respond simply and enthusiastically, "Teetchadshi!"

My Command of Hindi, or Not

Britain's 200 years of colonization of India was tragic...and my saving grace, since it left behind English as a common language here. I know I'd be even more successful if I knew at least conversational Hindi or Kannada (the language of the state in which we live). I remember thinking about that prior to coming, and simply abdicating, figuring that my adult brain is too adult at this point to absorb a new language -- at least, I've read that it becomes much harder to learn a new language the older we get....

After nearly five months in India, here is all of the Hindi vocabulary I've managed to pick up, and unfortunately, I've not yet learned one word of Kannada:

  • Hum hain (We are here for you -- learned during an IBM conference of managers)
  • Sapna (Dream, and used as a woman's name; an Indian MTV trailer of the popular movie, "Apna Sapna Money Money" is where I first heard it)
  • Shukriya (Thank you -- learned that prior to coming, and easy to remember, as it sounds like the Arabic way to say thank you, which is "Shukran..." the word for which I learned consciously prior to living in Israel)
  • Namaste (I bow to you -- also, learned before I left, and I contradict myself a bit when saying it, as I'll clasp my hands together, but will not bow, since Judaism forbids prostrating myself to anyone other than God)
  • Raja (King, and the name of my driver, Channa's, dog)
  • Bhagwan kenam pe le le (For God's sake, please give me)
  • Bhagwan kenam pe de de (For God's sake, please take from me; my first driver, John -- before he got a promotion to drive a larger car and a VIP -- taught them to me, as there was a chocolate bar commercial in Hindi on the radio constantly when I first got here, which was all about how the candy was the opposite of what you'd expect, i.e., the cream was on the outside or something; in any case, the commercial was trying to illustrate the concept by having a beggar say, "Bhagwan kenam pe de de," the opposite of his or her typical request, John explained.)
  • I don't recall how to say this in Hindi, but when I asked the way to say hello other than "Namaste," a colleague told me there's no such word per se; rather, whenever someone sees you, he or she asks, "Have you eaten yet?" I love that. It's meant to express hospitality, i.e., if the person hasn't, then I inferred that it suggests that the greeter is prepared to feed him or her...or perhaps, it's not literal, but the sentiment is terrific.
  • Jalti chollo ("Let's go already," is how I understand it, and it reminds me of "Nu kvar," which is Hebrew for what has always meant to me, "C'mon already. [Get to the point/what's taking so long?], which "Jalti chollo" isn't; rather, it might be used to remind people that the designated time is up.)
  • Tike ("OK," and it is the most often used expression I've heard, and reminds me of what I heard all the time when I was in China on business for three weeks a couple of years ago, "Chige" and "Nige;" I don't even recall what they mean -- perhaps "this" and "that," but Chinese people that I heard speaking Mandarin used them as bridges in conversation continually.)
  • Jayanthi (birthday, e.g., "Gandhi Jayanthi," the national holiday, celebrating Mahatma Gandhi's birth)
  • murgh shorba (chicken soup)
  • gobi (cauliflower)
  • Dal Makni (black-lentil-and-kidney-bean stew)
  • Dahi (yogurt).

In addition, I learned two more expressions that I like:

I didn't learn the way to say this in Hindi, but there's an expression about hypocrisy: "The elephant has two sets of teeth" [the ones it shows, i.e., the aesthetic tusks, and the ones it chews with.] The expression is used when someone is trying to appear a certain way, but the appearance is false.

Finally, from Sanskrit, "Nindak naede rakhiye" ("Keep your critics closest to you" [as you have the most to learn from them]. The context: A colleague was facilitating a a leadership development program for new managers, and she was illustrating the value of feedback.)

Spending the start of my Saturday, considering how language-knowledge enriches my understanding of cultures makes me wish I were more naturally gifted at picking up new languages. Now, though, I must return to working on my final paper for my independent study; tike, jalti chollo!

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