Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Phallocentrism of Hindi

Well, two years in India have passed and now my adventures in Hindi classes have come to an end.

Full disclosure: I am terrible at Hindi. It's a very difficult language. I've picked some up, but not as much as I probably should have. I don't really study like I should and I didn't make much of an effort to practice, so my lack of progress is not really surprising

The one thing I noticed though, during these two years of classes is that everything centers around men. Seriously. Everything. It can be absolutely infuriating.

You probably think I'm exaggerating. Or that I'm pulling some crazy feminist bullshit. Ok, Derrida, you're probably thinking, How can a language be male? This is just more of that feminist, deconstructionist, postmodern, critical theory crap. Next you'll be telling me a wall isn't really a wall.

First of all, no, I will not be telling you a wall isn't a wall. Second, I'm not even going to get into all stuff about gendered nouns and how masculine nouns are big things and feminine nouns are small things. I'm not quibbling about the insidiousness of words like "history" or "woman" or whatever. I'm talking about the blatant things that make me go, "Really?"

I suppose before I really start complaining I should acknowledge that the context probably plays a role in my frustration. If I were learning Hindi in a university class, perhaps I would not get so agitated. I think it's the situation in the classroom that bothers me. I studied other languages in college and never felt oppressed by The Man. (Okay, I don't feel oppressed per se.) But Spanish, Italian, and French (all languages I studied academically) are very gendered and I imagine the feminist/deconstructionist crowd would say they are all "utterly and irredeemably male-engendered, male-constituted, and male-dominated in all their features." While I can see that argument, I didn't particularly feel it. Except for the primacy of masculine adjectives for mixed gendered groups. Like, if you have ten people and 9 are women and 1 is a man, all the adjectives describing the group will be masculine because, you know, despite the fact that 90% of the group is feminine, the guys are more better and more important-er or something. I remember feminist buttons being mildly poked by that in eighth grade.

So, as I was saying, context.

Well, first of all our Hindi class is just me and Mr. ATK and a (male) teacher. Everyday, as we wait for the class before us to end, Mr. ATK and I sit in a little lobby area outside the classroom. And everyday after he dismisses the class that precedes ours, he says, "Namaste*, Mr. ATK-ji.** Please come into class." Now do you see anything missing from that greeting? Because I do. I am missing from that greeting. Yes, 95% of the time when the teacher greets us and invites us into class, he does not address me. At first I thought it was an oversight. But then it kept happening. Of course, Mr. ATK did not notice. One day I mentioned it to him and muttered, "One of these days I'm just going to stay sitting out here until he invites me into class too." And Mr. ATK looked at me like I was nuts. Then sure enough, the teacher comes out and does the whole, "Namaste, Mr. ATK-ji" routine.  I can only assume it's because I am simply an appendage of Mr. ATK, being his wife and all. As such, it is not offensive because by addressing Mr. ATK he is also addressing me, because I am a subsidiary of Mr. ATK. You know, woman--cleaved from man's rib and all that jazz. I can only assume that's his logic. Either that or he is being blatantly rude. Or both. I suppose they are not mutually exclusive.

The second issue that chafes me is the aap/tum distinction. Like many languages (all the romance languages for example) Hindi has two different words for the pronoun "you." Aap is formal and tum is informal. So you should use aap when addressing people older than you, people in a higher position than you, strangers (for the most part). And apparently husbands. Tum works for addressing peers, children, friends, people younger than you. And apparently wives. You can probably see where this is going. Every time I address Mr. ATK in class using tum instead of aap, I get corrected. Even when I refer to Mr. ATK in the third person (i.e. talking about him instead of to him) I get corrected if I don't use formal language. That's just to refer to him. Of course, he is allowed to call me tum all he wants. He doesn't get corrected. I would also like to point out that I'm older than Mr. ATK. Respect your elders! I've decided that I am no longer going to call him aap. I said, "Listen, I love you and respect you, but this is bullshit." Fight the power!*

The third thing that really riled me up was when we were learning the vocabulary for family the teacher would only ask questions about Mr. ATK's family. Like, okay, we are married so they are my family, too, (and a wonderful family they are! Hi MamaTK-in-law!) but it's really weird to be only asked questions about your in-laws. Class would go something like this, "Mr. ATK-ji, tell me about your father." Mr. ATK would oblige. Then he'd turn to me and say, "ATK, tell me about your mother-in-law."  Um, okay. Then I'd say glowing things about MamaTK-in-law (Hi!)  Then he'd turn back to Mr. ATK and ask about his brother or mother or father's older brother or something. Then he'd ask me about my in-laws some more.

Him: "Tell me about your brother-in-law."

Me: "I haven't met my brother-in-law."

Him: "Well, tell me something you know about him."

Me: "He lives in Texas."

Him: "Tell me about your sister-in-law."

Me: "I've never met her, either. I have a cousin I could talk about."

Him: "Well, just tell me something."

Me: "She's a teacher."

Him: "Tell me about your mother-in-law."

Me: "You already asked me about my mother-in-law! Why don't you ask me about my actual mother?"

Him: "Because once a girl gets married her mother-in-law is the most important person in her life. Her own mother is not important any more."

Me: Massive eye roll

Him: "Okay. Well tell me about your mother's older brother."

Me: "My mother doesn't have an older brother. She has a younger sister, though."

Him: "Oh. Well, tell me about your grandfather-in-law then."

Me: Head explodes

The primacy of the male relatives is just astounding. Even when he asked about my blood relatives--which I basically forced him to do--he would only ask about men. Preferably men on my father's side. And when he would ask about a relation that didn't exist--father's older brother, for example; I don't have one of those--if I said, "Oh my dad doesn't have an older brother, he has an older sister." He would totally change the question to ask about some other male family member, instead of doing the normal thing which would be to say, "Oh, well then tell me about your father's older sister."  He did this to Mr. ATK, too. "Tell me about your mother's older brother." Mr. ATK would reply, "My mother doesn't have any brothers. She has two older sisters." And then he would be like, "Well then tell me about your brother." For the 800th time. Seriously, what the eff is up with that? Is it not important to learn vocabulary to describe female family members?

The thing is, is that my family is kinda female-centric. I like to call them the coven. There aren't a lot of guys. There are some, but there are also lots of divorced women. And it's great, I love them all to pieces and, you know, they do their own thing. Good for them. But it's really annoying to basically be excluded from a class discussion because you can't discuss the specific relations the teacher is asking about. And when you try to offer up a suggestion of a person you could talk about, he's like, "Ew, I can't even pretend to feign interest in anything you could possibly tell me about those people. You know I heard their periods attract bears."

Anyways, so we went through this for a few days. He'd say, "Tell me about your father's older brother." I'd say, "My dad doesn't have an older brother; he has an older sister. He has a younger brother though." and then he'd say, "Tell me about your dad's younger brother." And I'd say, "WHY DON'T YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT MY DAD'S OLDER SISTER?! HER NAME IS ALICE AND SHE IS AWESOME!" So frustrating.

Here's the interesting thing about family vocabulary in Hindi--they have a different word for every single relationship. In English we have grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew... you know, the words we use to describe family members. But they are generic terms, really. In Hindi, every person has a different word. For example, let's go with uncle. Your father's brothers (both older and younger) are your uncles. Your mother's brothers (again, both older and younger) are also your uncles. Your parents' sisters husbands are your uncles, too. In Hindi, they use different words to describe each of those relationships. In my opinion, it seems like a lot of extraneous words to remember, but on the other hand, you don't need to use clarifying language ever to explain how someone is related to you. Native Hindi speakers will also point out how in English we use the same words to describe completely different relationships. For example, your sister-in-law could be your brother's wife, or your spouse's sister. The relationships are really totally different. I guess. That's what they say, anyways.

It's also interesting because there are more words to describe male relatives than female ones, especially when you are talking about your husband's relatives (in-laws) and paternal relatives. So there is a word for father's older brother (tau) and father's younger brother (chacha), but only one word for father's sister (bua/phhuphi). I guess we don't care if women are younger or older than men in Hindi. On the maternal side, there is a word for mother's brother (mama--that one gets confusing!) but no distinction between older or younger brother. Only one word for mother's sister, too. I honestly can't get into all these words. It's pretty intense. Check out this page and scroll down to where it talks about aunts and uncles. Husband's elder brother's son? That's its own special word! Bananas, I tells ya. Absolute bananas!

But, you know, they say the Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow and the Japanese have a hundred different words for love, so why not have five different words for uncle? No one will never need to follow up with the old, "How is he your uncle?" question. And I think it just shows how important family, the whole gigantic collective family, not just the nuclear family, is in Indian culture. 

I suppose upon reflect, my main issues with Hindi were with my misogynist teacher more so than the language. Though the thing with the male family members vis a vis female family members is fascinating to me. Can a language be inherently sexist? Or is it the way we use the language that makes it sexist? Or is language just a reflection of cultural values and changes along side them? Mind. Blown. Right? So many deep questions to ponder.  I do think there is something to the family vocabulary. I find it really interesting that hierarchical male familial relationships are really important. Who the oldest brother is is pretty important. The teacher would make these blanket statements like, "The wife and husband's youngest brother relationship is a very special relationship." I don't know if he was just making stuff up or oversimplifying or what, but that seems incredibly particular. Granted, Mr. ATK doesn't have a little brother so I will never be able to experience this relationship to see if, in fact, it is very special.  I don't see why it would inherently be more special. Maybe in the Indian context, but not in my world. Perhaps I should ask both my husband and my sister-in-law to see where their relationship lands on the "special meter."

*Addendum: Interesting follow up to add to this--So Russian also has formal/informal "you" (Вы/Ты) and in Russian class we use the formal you (Вы) about 90% of the time, because, you know, we are professional colleagues (or the people that actually work for the State Department are professional colleagues), and it is customary to address teachers with the formal you.  Also, if you are going to get into a habit of only using one form of "you," it's always better to be overly formal than offend someone by being informal.  Anyways, I would talk about Mr. ATK and when relaying our conversations I would instinctively use Вы because it is simply the form I am more comfortable using. Well, hilariously (to me anyway) unlike Hindi, my Russian teachers would correct me because why would you use formal language to address your husband? That's silly. Then I would laugh and relay to them my struggles with aap and tum and how the teacher always corrected me when I addressed my husband informally and how angry it made me.  They thought it was bizarre and though it is a completely different culture and language, I felt strangely vindicated by that.

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