On -isms: Keep Your Ears Open

By | Thursday, June 12, 2014 Leave a Comment
I'm on a business trip this week, and went out to dinner last night with some of the folks I'm working with. Two of them were born and raised in India, and have only been in the U.S. for about five years. It was the first time they had really met and got a chance to talk, so they were having a great time making comparisons between life in India versus life in the States. And, not infrequently, they would have to check themselves, realizing that neither myself or the fourth co-worker had ever visited their home country, and provide a little more context. Cultural mores, legal regulations, historical perspective, etc.

Some of it I did have an inkling about, but much of it was new to me. Certainly, they regularly went into more detail than I was aware of. But I tried to absorb as much of it as I could. And I noticed that they both seemed to direct their discussion towards me. (Possible ego-based bias here, I know. While I didn't count the actual seconds they were focused on me over my co-worker, I did try to be as objective about it as I could.)

A couple of things I noticed from that co-worker eventually caught up with me as well. First, she was clearly having more trouble with their accents than I was and had to ask them to repeat themselves with some regularity. I'm sure this wasn't a volume/hearing issue because A) she didn't ask for a repeat on what were notably lower volume comments, and B) some of what she was asking about were phrases that I'll admit to having to take an extra moment to process. Second, she rarely seemed to acknowledge that she was hearing/understanding them. I was peppering their explanations with, "M-hmm"s and "Right"s and various other basic acknowledgements that I was following along. She offered very few instances of that behavior. In fact, in glancing over at her on occasion, it looked to me as if she were paying little attention and was instead just generally staring blankly in the direction of whoever was speaking.

Now, maybe that's typical for her. Maybe she doesn't usually respond as people are talking, and wears a somewhat vacant expression. Maybe she's just not very comfortable in social situations like that. Maybe she was concentrating so intently on getting past their accents that it was all she could do to keep up. Frankly, I don't know her that well. Regardless, she was conveying an attitude of polite disinterest, and I think our two Indian colleagues picked up on that.

Would they have continued the discussion if I weren't expressing an interest? Would either of them talked about their homeland at all if they were outnumbered by Caucasians?

At one point, one of them noted that the notion of arranged marriages must seem anathema to us Americans, and there was an implication that we must see it as very weird and strange. I responded by saying that no, that idea is pretty much never even considered an option here but that's largely due to a different cultural background. Where they come from, it's embedded as part of how society works, and it's just different here.

What does this have to do with comics? Nothing directly. But I have to wonder how my experience tonight compared to my co-worker's. The one who didn't seem to be catching more than every fourth or fifth word. I don't know if it's that I have a better ear for language, or if I've spent more time around Indian-accented individuals, or what but it seems like I was able to walk away from the evening with not only a fine meal (I had the Melagu Kozhi Chettinadu; they took us to a local Indian restaurant) but also a better understanding of life in India (Bangalore, primarily). And that is something that I can bring with me when I read Indian comics (having recently completed a book detailing the history of publisher Amar Chitra Katha, I'm particularly interested in getting a hold of some of these comics) and it's something that a comic author can bring with them when they write a story featuring an Indian character.

My point is that keeping your eyes and ears open, particularly when someone is willingly sharing their culture with you, is a great way to help step beyond the rut of reading/creating the same comics day in and day out. That they have a different culture almost invariably points to a different type of comics creation, and a different type of storytelling. Which can provide further insights into both the medium, and the culture they came from.
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