Namaskar Amigos

By Shyama Parui

You can blame it on my sweet tooth! On a recent trip to the gorgeous tropical island of Dominican Republic, which is primarily Spanish speaking, I found myself struggling to communicate simple things. I had heard a rumor that sugarcane juice was available at the breakfast buffet and all I wanted was to taste a glass of the refreshing drink and introduce it to my children. Small juice stands were common at street corners in Mumbai, where you could see the long canes being crushed and the juice extracted with the help of iron rollers moving to a rhythmic beat against the unrelenting noise of traffic. A glass of iced sugarcane juice topped with a sprinkle of ginger and rock salt was a divine remedy against the soaring heat of summer. Trying to recreate that experience for my kids was harder than I imagined.

When we inquired where the sugarcane juice was served, the hostess at the restaurant looked confused. I tried again using the sugar sachet from the table as a visual aid. She smiled and nodded much to my satisfaction and brought to the table, a plate full of sugar cane, peeled and cut into bite size pieces. It was our turn to be confused. We put our teeth to work, crushing and grinding the canes to savor the juice, but it was not the same. After a family brainstorming session, we decided it was time to inaugurate the use of a translator app. Finally, we were able to explain to the server that we were looking for jugo de caña. Alas, it ended up being a fruitless exercise as the object of desire was not available.

Traversing to a country where we didn't speak the language was a novel experience, but also timely. It provided the perfect opportunity to break out of our comfort zones. In a way, it was also humbling to recognize that we belong to a smaller pool of people who speak English. Based on information from, Chinese is the most spoken language in the world with almost 1.3 billion native speakers, followed by Spanish and then English. Hindi comes in fifth with Bengali close behind it. Surprisingly French and German although popular, are not as widely used. A tourist's lack of fluency in the local tongue is one thing but moving to such a country for an extended period is a different challenge. A few years ago, I found myself at a crossroad when I was offered an exciting career opportunity in Belgium. While the possibility of living in an amazing city was alluring, I was terrified at the thought of leaving my toddlers in the care of someone I couldn't communicate with.

I have deep admiration for people who have relocated from their native lands to other parts of their country or the world, where they have little or no knowledge of the local language. My parents for example, grew up in rural Bengal with very little exposure to Hindi and zero awareness of Marathi. I can only imagine how hard it must have been when they first moved to Mumbai. How foreign everything must have sounded! It must have been a struggle to ask simple questions like, “What is the price of one kilo of potatoes?" or “Can I see the black and gold saree displayed at the window?" My mother may have had the hardest time haggling over prices to make sure she got a good bargain. Day to day activities such as conducting business, dealing with clients, and making small talk with neighbors may have taken a lot more effort even though they were in the same country. For the average person, the multitude of India's dialects adds pride as well as complexity. In time my parents became more proficient, although conversing in a Bangla-Hindi mish mash became their unique style. As kids we would giggle over their Hindi as they frequently mixed up karta hai/ karti hai.

Since Bengali is a natural gender language like English, their translation from Bengali to Hindi was far from perfect. My children, who currently learn Spanish in school, have the same struggle. How on earth does one determine if a table is masculine or feminine? Interestingly, a little digging up on revealed that until the 1200s English also had grammatical gender. Experts are not sure how or why the change occurred but personally, I am glad it did. One could get muddled up trying to remember that the sun was feminine in English (as it was in ancient practice) but masculine in Hindi. I guess we would have to reconcile it as the English Yin to the Hindi Yang.

Gaffes are almost impossible to avoid when you are a beginner in any language. Going back to our trip, a restaurant server introduced himself in Spanish, since I didn't hear the name I asked, “Cómo te llamas?", and was puzzled when I saw my friend chuckling from across the table. As soon as the server left, she told me that I may have unknowingly declared my love to him because “te amo" meant “I love you" in Spanish. With the similarity of the sounds, I am sure many tourists have innocently professed their affection to strangers when all they wanted to know was a name.

A potential benefit, however, is being oblivious to harsh words that might be said or having a secret code to communicate with your family or friends that others won't comprehend. But don't underestimate the power of non-verbal expression. Experts often say that humans communicate more non-verbally than verbally. The ability to be adept at reading body language will set you apart whether you want to be a master negotiator or realtor.

Ancient Chinese wisdom reminds us that learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere. Inspired by that I am going to continue to learn Spanish determined to expand my vocabulary which is now only a fistful of sand picked up from a vast desert. I am also grateful to everyone who taught me what little I know. The list includes my kids, Spanish speaking friends, the friendly people of the Dominican Republic, translation sites and apps, and Dora, The Explorer. Adios.


Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: