When I was little, I was always slightly jealous of other Indian girls because they had names like Lakshmi and Priya and Arundhati, names that shimmered with mystery and enchantment, while I just had Karen. It was nice enough, but not exactly magical.
As I got older, it also occurred to me that I also didn't speak any Indian languages. Like many immigrants, my parents had been told that speaking anything but English at home might hinder my ability to assimilate fully into American culture. Having weathered the sting of racism when they first arrived in Boston in the '70s, they wanted me to have an edge fitting in. They wanted me to be American in ways they feared they never could. So they never spoke to me in the language of their ancestors.
For years, I thought this was a rather misguided, antiquated notion. I longed to have a second language thriving in my brain instead of laboriously trying to learn one. Being multilingual from day one seemed like a huge advantage I had missed out on.
Now that I'm all grown up and have a toddler of my own to watch over, I see that the issues of language and cultural cohesion are far more complicated than I had ever imagined. Indeed, where we live in Fremont right now has so many foreign languages spoken on the playground that English can seem like the least useful of all. On any given day, you hear smatterings of Russian and Mandarin and Hindi spoken over juice boxes and cheese sticks. It sometimes feels like everybody on the monkey bars is multilingual but us.
This once-sleepy suburb is now an international tech hub. Many families fly back and forth from their native countries, speak the languages of their birth and feel no pressure to identify as American. Many of my daughter's toddler friends spend the holidays abroad and the school year here. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and Chinese New Year now are celebrated in Tiny Tots class alongside Christmas and Halloween.
The diversity in our little suburban melting pot is mind-boggling, even to someone who lived in San Francisco and Berkeley for years. This is the brave new world of global living, a universe in which the notion of cultural assimilation can seem rather provincial, like writing a letter instead of texting. English is no longer the dominant tongue. Many in this new wave of immigrants are also quite affluent, with houses here and back home, so there is none of the pressure my folks felt to make it or break it in the United States.
Of course, all change comes with challenges. Some of our preschool teachers don't speak English fluently, which seems charming at first -- but then it makes you worry if the children will be able to hear the difference. It seems like bad form to correct your kid's teachers, especially when they are so loving and kind and wise, but it's hard to fight that urge if you make your living as a wordsmith. And, of course, there are more important lessons to learn than grammar, such as the importance of sharing.
On the other hand, it is possible I am just behind the times. True confession: I have also never really warmed to the droves of Indian pizza joints around town. Don't get me wrong, I love butter chicken and palak paneer, regarding them as right up there with split pea soup and mac and cheese in the comfort food genre, but I still don't want them anywhere near my pizza.
Am I a dinosaur? Perhaps. Certainly, I have begun to wonder if all the old rules about grammar will continue to matter in a truly global world. Maybe I need to get over it. Maybe the world, and the nature of language, is moving faster than anything dreamed of by Strunk & White.
Sometimes my 3-year-old Daphne bounces up to a child on the playground to invite them to play tea party, only to realize that they don't speak English and she doesn't speak anything else (at least not yet), so the game is a lot like charades. It's a little snapshot of a changing cultural landscape that reflects this brave new global world.
To be completely honest, every once in a while I feel a tiny ping of nostalgia for a time when that wasn't the case. There is something truly beautiful about having a shared language with your community and that understanding gives me a new perspective on why my parents made the choice they did. But it looks like I will have to spend a ridiculous amount of money on Rosetta Stone software trying to catch up. It also means that Daphne is growing up only speaking English in a multilingual world. I wonder if they teach Mandarin to toddlers?