Language and Laughter

A few weeks ago I began taking Telugu lessons. In some ways I could say that it’s not a very practical thing to do at this point: I’m only taking one lesson per week, I’ll miss several while traveling later this month, then I will leave at the beginning of February, and I highly doubt I’ll live in a Telugu-speaking place (i.e. Andhra Pradesh, India) again. YET. Efficiency and productive output are not the only reasons to do something, and I love learning languages…

Telugu is the fourth language I’ve taken classes in, and yet I’m only fluent in English. I hate that. Sometimes my interest and excitement about such a range of topics, including languages, can be a mixed blessing. It means I succeeded at any subject in school and that it’s difficult for me to be bored. Yet the competition between interesting topics can distract me. I may wake up thinking that I should become a psychologist and before the day is over I’ll have also thought that what I really want to do is study biology, write children’s books, get back into theater, become an astronaut, or 2.3 million other things. And thus, I’m studying Telugu though the likelihood of me learning it to a usable degree is very slim.

This morning my Telugu teacher, Babu, who is around my age, sang a song to me in Telugu. When he asked how it was, I declared “Chala bagundi!” (very beautiful!) in a tone that means I’m being semi-ironic about my enthusiasm but do actually mean what I’m saying. If you know me, you should know this tone. Seeing me smile, Babu told me that I was open and friendly now, but in previous classes I hadn’t been. He proceeded to mimic me as a student: sitting rigidly, focused on my paper, asking him to repeat in a flat tone of voice, etc. He continued with this routine for over a minute and made me laugh a lot. I think that mimicry is a common form of humor here, though my evidence for that belief comes only the small fragments of miscellaneous interactions. Usually when I’m around Hyderabadis laughing (students or adults), the jokes are happening in Telugu or Hindi.

Railway girls in their ribbons and braids

On the occasions when I’ve managed to get some explanation for their laughter, the humor is lost in translation. For instance, the Railway girls and even other teachers were very amused one day when Ilana wore her hair in a braid with a ribbon at the end. The girls, too, wear their hair in braids with ribbons, so that was the joke…I guess. It works in reverse, too. There are many things that amuse Ilana and myself that nobody around us finds funny. And there are humorous moments absent of spoken words that we can all share. I’ve noticed that if people trip getting onto the bus—or get elbowed wickedly by an old woman—they usually laugh it off. Living in a city as hectic as Hyderabad demands a sense of humor for survival. I first learned that lesson in Cairo.

Before Babu left this morning he reminded me again how serious I’d been in our first class. Ilana had participated in that class, too. At one point while she was speaking, he turned and asked why I wasn’t talking (my kindergarten teacher asked my mom the same question about me). Today he assured me that the recent change in my demeanor is an improvement. He parted with a cultural tip: “Indians like people who are friendly.”

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