Recently, a reader wrote to me upset over the way her Indian boyfriend’s family communicated. She was particularly bothered by how her boyfriend and his family continue to speak in their own language, which she can’t understand, in front of her. She wanted to know how I coped with something like that, and suggested I write a blog post about it.
Here’s a summary of my complicated situation. While my husband’s parents can’t speak English, his siblings all can. The family also speaks their native language, Oriya. This gives rise to all of the following happening when I’m present. My mother in law will usually speak to her children in Oriya and to me in Hindi. A conversation where everyone is involved will usually be in Hindi. The children (my husband and his siblings) will usually speak amongst themselves in Hindi. Everyone who speaks English will usually speak to me in English. My father in law did attempt to speak to me in English once, and my sister in law laughed at him when he got it all wrong.
As you can probably imagine, it gets very confusing for me. It’s a big family, and when everyone gets together there’s a lot of talking going on all at once. Sometimes I just sit back in a daze.
Something that it’s made me realise, is how much we unconsciously rely on understanding what’s being said and what’s going on around us in order to feel comfortable. There can be conversations taking place that I know don’t involve me, and are irrelevant to me, but I want to understand them anyway. The fact that I don’t understand them makes me feel kind of left out at times — and even a bit paranoid.
Nevertheless, I don’t really resent anyone for talking in their own language when they could talk in English.
The reason is because I’m also “guilty” of doing exactly the same thing. I talk in English to my husband, even when my parents in law are present, when I could talk in Hindi. I do it because it’s easier to express myself properly and it’s habit. The words flow, and it feels normal to speak in English. Sometimes I become aware that my mother in law wants to understand what we’re saying and then I feel bad, even though we’re only talking about something trivial that wouldn’t interest her.
All this has also made me realise that it’s natural to talk in the language that you’re most comfortable with. And that it’s easy to overlook that others might be feeling excluded, even if you’re talking about something irrelevant.
The fact that I can’t converse deeply with my parents in law because of the language barrier has its good and bad points. I realise it probably helped me escape from the usual “Indian interrogation” when I first met them. Instead of asking me millions of questions, my mother in law simply got out the family photo for me to look at.
Yet, it left me at a major loss as to how to establish a rapport with them. Usually this is done through conversation, but I had to rely mostly on gestures and mundane Hindi. My mother law and I did bond in the kitchen, and I must’ve done somethings right because my inlaws always want me to visit. They think it’s fun when I’m around and everyone is laughing.
It makes me sad though, that I can’t have an in depth conversation with parents in law. And I get frustrated when I want to tell them things but don’t know how. There are so many questions I’d love to ask them, so many things I’d love to find out their thoughts about. There will always be that level of mystery between us. But as my husband says, maybe it’s for the best! I can be blissfully ignorant and untroubled by so many things.