Learning Hindi in India
I never really knew what I would choose if it came down to a superpower. As a kid, that seemed to be a popular game. But now, I know what I would pick. Hands down, ability to speak any language. If I could walk down the street and eavesdrop on what people were saying, I could see a whole lot differently. I am deaf in so many countries of this world. But what if I had the superpower to instantaneously learn any of the 7,000 languages that exist? I could really understand. I could really see. I could really travel.
This is a map of where I traveled over the course of 220 days in India.
I landed in Bangalore, headed to ruins/climbing in Hampi, then the beach, and south to the southern point of the sub-continent. I then flew to Delhi, and spent month 2 in Rajasthan. It was still just the start. I started learning Hindi in Rajasthan, and it was the beginning of a new trip for me. It felt amazing. I didn’t have any of the faintest idea of how much the doors were about to swing open for me! By this I mean, learning Hindi was surprisingly fun. I’d never felt so enthusiastically rewarded. People’s eyes lit up because we immediately had something to connect over. I was struggling with my Hindi, and they may have been struggling with their English, but we could meet on common ground. Granted, many many Indians are completely fluent English speakers.
I stayed with a family in a village 60 km out of Jaipur, and every time I would say anythhing in Hindi, everyone would burst out smiling and keep repeating what I said. When I was leaving, I told the mom, “Aapse ki mehemannawaazi ka sukria” which was one of the sentences I memorized that means “thank you for your hospitality” and she put her hand over her heart and said in Hindi how good it makes her feel when I speak in Hindi.
PHOTO: Jhunjhunwala family that I stayed with in Surat, Gujarat, INDIA through Servas and my SYLE scholarship. From left to right: Kruti, Surekha, me (Raleigh), Krishna, and Kanchan.
It felt amazing. I had stumbled at communicating for so long, and she understood my sentence.
A Bit About Why I was Learning Hindi
I applied for a program (and a scholarship for said program) called Servas Youth Language Experience. Servas is a non-profit peace organization that encourages traveling, and this is one of their opportunities for students and young adults. I was the first person to ever apply to learn Hindi.
I had written on my application:
Language is a fundamental part of all cultures. It’s central to how we share, how we understand, and who we are. I have spent my whole life learning how to articulate my feelings and thoughts. But I want to unlearn the language that I’ve used to describe it, and return to the feelings and thoughts. I want to relearn how to articulate in a new way. There’s nothing I love to understand more than people. I read books on body language, wander around waiting for conversations, and explore philosophy for entertainment. Translation is one thing, but there’s nothing that can replace sharing a story in one’s native tongue. The concept of learning about people through their language is one that I am most excited about!
I explained that although I was a very beginning level speaker, I have an interest in language. I would be living in India for a period of time. I am willing and excited to learn.
After learning that I had in-fact been awarded the scholarship, my anxiety took a different route. It motivated me. The premise of the scholarship is that you will live in 4 different homes of Servas members, each for a week, composing a total of 1 month in complete Hindi. No English allowed.
I ached for a resource as simple as duo-lingo.
I once visited a school as a guest speaker. This was before my Servas home-stays had started, but I had been studying a bit. Knowing I was going to speak at a school, I memorized 15 various sentences to say in Hindi. The words articulated: “Hello, my name is Raleigh. I am American, and 21 years old. I have been traveling in your country and love it. Hope to learn some Hindi too. Thank you for having me!”
But when I got there, the principal was so happy to see me. He pulled me right into a class, and interupting the teacher, called on the “best” student up to show me their English.
“Arjun!” the principle yelled, and all the kids heads spun at once. He sat in the back of the far left corner of the room. It was silent except for his nervous shuffling as he came up to the front of the room at stood before me. He was about up to my chest, maybe 11 or 12. He was visibly shaking as the principle commanded that he give his “English Introduction”. Speaking very quickly he said,
“Hello my name is Arjun Kumari. I am 11 years old. My father’s name is also Arjun Kumari, and he…” the boy was shaking so much from nervousness, and then as if to refocus he continued with bravery,” my mother’s name is Shalini Kumari and she is a housewife. It is very nice to meet you.” He looked up from the ground tentatively at me, waiting for my reaction.
It seems kids had been taught to recite a speech in English for school, but little did they know I was oddly prepared for this!
I said in Hindi *translated back to English* with equal nervousness, “Hello my name is Raleigh. I am 21 years old. I am from California. I am here to travel. My mother is Paige and she is a teacher. My father is Teod and he is a teacher.”
When I stopped, the entire class roared into laughter. Arjun’s face lit up. He went from looking worried to laughing warmly. He shook my hand and walked truimphly back to his seat, all the students eagerly whispering to him.
They were aghast that I, the foreigner, was struggling to speak Hindi just as they had struggled to speak English. Also, it was no doubt the first time many of them had ever heard a foreigner speak Hindi so I’m sure they thought my accent itself was funny.
Since then, I started to really feel how important it was to be learning Hindi. I felt like it was a real super power. I had no idea how much the world was about to open up to me. I found myself with a flashlight in bed, reading from a Hindi dictionary late into the night. I began to love it. But this was still all before my immersion into Indian families had started.
My First Servas Stay – Udaipur, Rajasthan
Arriving in a new place is always a bit thrilling, and by thrilling, I mean a mix of things. It’s scary. It’s exciting. It’s unknown. There will without a doubt be something new. India is truly incredible. It has shocked me time and time again. Everything is different here. All the expectations I had about society have been completely turned on their head. I was in a cabin car of a train, had just traveled about 5 hours through Rajasthan, and now was in route for Udaipur, the city of palaces. I pictured endless palaces and lakes surrounded by desert and busy Indian traffic. I was about to meet my first Servas host. “I hope they like me!” I thought, “I wonder what their family is like?”
I had given them my seat number in advance, and would have gotten off at the wrong station if it hadn’t been for the young man and woman who stuck their noses through the window of my car.
“Raleigh?!” They said.
“Yes! …uh Servas?” I replied, as if it were a secret code word.
“Get off here!” the young girl instructed urgently. Her name was Juria. The young man accompanying her was her cousin, Bagavati. All three of us turned out to be the same age, 21. I followed them off the train station and they were grateful for my Hindi introductions because neither spoke any English. Turns out Bagavati has a rickshaw. We hopped in and headed home.
Upon arrival I was showered with kisses from my to-be Indian mother, Chand Kumari Ji. It was shocking! I wasn’t quite sure how to react. It was more warmth than I expected, so I thanked her and held her hand.
The term “ji” is one you add at the end of people’s names whom you respect. Another tip with the Hindi language that I’m grateful to understand.
“I’m so happy you are finally here!” She beamed, “I have been waiting for you! Come, sit down, have some tea and some food!” She said as she led me to the living room. Bagavati and Juria sat down and the three of them began discussing in Hindi my plan for the week. I was getting lost. But caught a few words here and there. They had every day planned down to the hour! From meals, to transportation, to sights, everything! In fact I had to rush and freshen because Chand had reserved seats for us at a local theater in just an hour. We were going to go to a beautiful traditional Rajasthani puppet show, in a castle on the edge of a lake!
The warmth never ceased. “Why are you only staying a week?” Chand asked sadly, “Next time, please stay for at least a month.” I was baffled. She had just met me! What if she didn’t even like me? But none the less, I felt absolutely charmed and more welcome than I could have asked for.
That night we wandered along the lake after the show, throwing rocks in the water and spending a lot of time in silence. My Hindi barriers were evident. I ached to be able to speak. I felt deaf and mute for the first time I can remember.
Over the next week, we ventured out into castles deep in the desert. I saw the 2nd longest wall in the world, named after the great wall of China. The great wall of India stretched 24 miles long, far beyond the horizon that I could see. On a small model in the castle, one could see that it circled around the entire mountain range. Inside the walls were 244 different ancient temples, all from the 1400s. I was beyond myself with excitement to explore.
But this place was just one of the destinations. Each day I was blown away. We visited viewpoints that overlooked the city of palaces, and a 3-story highly intricate Jain temple that is a pilgrimage site for Jains all over the world.
We saw traditional dance and historical light shows. We ate 3 meals a day of the most mouth-watering cuisine I’ve ever tasted. I learned how to cook too!
Constantly accompanied by my two friends, Juria and Bagavati, it became a week of true magic. Neither spoke English, which was excellent because there was no easy way out of the immersion. During the evenings, we would return to Chand Ji and report our days. We talked about language as well as her life and my own. It was important that we got to know each other too. She was helping me with grammar and correcting my words, and was the first Hindi teacher that I ever had.
Over the week, I became more and more at home. I learned about Chand ji’s way of living and we shared perspectives and stories. But there’s really nothing like Servas in terms of this. Did you know that in Hinduism cows are sacred? Well, Indian people, besides being a majority of vegetarians, honor cows in many other ways. Every morning Chand ji would set aside some breakfast and hand it to me on the mission to go feed it to some cows. I would only have to walk down the street a few minutes before running into one. The reason that there are so many cows along the roads in India is that there is a high demand for milk but no demand for meat. Cows only produce milk for about a year after having a baby, so there is enticement to make the cows constantly pregnant. Yet having a cow is still a symbol of family wealth. It seemed surprising to me that anyone would want a cow, but that’s just because I didn’t grow up with it. Although the constant birthing cycle of cows leads to contradiction between being seen as a holy creature, yet many are on the streets eating garbage.
Another interesting way Chand ji would worship the cow was through burning cow dung throughout her home in the morning. I remember waking up coughing to an awful smell. I couldn’t stand to be inside. I started coughing and rubbing my eyes. She had places cow patty’s directly over the flame in the kitchen and once burning would walk them through the house. It was awful! “Why are you burning cow poop?!” I had to ask, but Juria explained to me that it was a blessing for the home.
Chand Ji also had an entire room dedicated to an intricate altar with a doll in the center, whom she worshiped and took care of. She even changed the dolls clothes each day. I know this because I asked-somewhat jokingly, “Do you have to wash her clothes each time too?” and Chand ji answered completely seriously, “Yes. Of course.”
When it was time to go, Chand ji hugged me tightly.
“Call me everyday. You are my daughter.” With a tearful goodbye, she sent me off to my next Servas host.
Servas Family 2: The Jhunjhunwalas
I never know what to expect with these things. I kept picturing the family I was about to meet. The last week had been hugely influencial to me. I’d never staying in a household quite like Chand’s before, and I had little idea what was in store. But I again was welcomed when I arrived in Surat, Gujarat. The Jhunjhunwala family stood together on the platform like a christmas card picture. I immediately knew they were for me. We made eye contact and I eagerly greated the family.
“Namaskar! Mera naam Raleigh hai. Aap Servas me hai?” which means,
‘Hello! My name is Raleigh. Are you in Servas?” They hugged me and greeted me. We all piled in their van and headed home. I started chatting the best I could in mixed English and Hindi. Once we arrived at home, Surekha (the mom) said to me apologetically,
“Oh! We usually do this at the train station! Please apologize!” I wasn’t sure what she meant until she came out of the kitchen with a few small ceremonial gifts. “We always welcome our guests this way, but we usually do it at the train station!” She said as she placed a flower wreath over my head and then lit a fire and went around my head with it. Luckily, I knew how to respond to this. In Indian tradition, when you see flames at temples, you place your hands over the fire and then your own face as if to bath in the energy of the fire.
It was very special! But it was just the beginning. The week was everything to me. I hadn’t felt so at home in a family since I’d left my own. I joked around with the dad, went out for night adventures with the sisters, and geeked out over cooking with the mom. I loved it.
The great thing about meals with Indian families is how complete meals are. Each time we’d eat, I’d exclaim, “Three vegtables! And Salad! And yogurt! And Chapatis! This is amazing.”
They’d laugh and remark, “No no no. This is just a normal meal!” Low and behold, it was. Three meals a day, we ate like Kings and Queens. My life was changed forever in terms of food.
“What?! You make your own yogurt each day?” were among my sentiments. I discovered more and more about traditional foods. In this area, they adopted textures and flavors that were again new to me even after two months of backpacking all around India. I loved it. I even made a big pot of purple potato, cabbage, and veggie soup one night that had just enough a kick in it to make everyone love it.
It was great having two near-sisters around. We set up slacklines, went out on scooter rides, and even midnight-wandering into a forbidden and haunted beach.
PHOTO: Kunchan and her long time friend Rishi. We had parked on the side of a river and were playing music from the car as we danced.
I felt extremely reflective during this time. I would say I was pretty happy too. I wrote a blog entry called ‘Sometimes You Don’t Need a Reason’ where I talked about some of the lessons I learned from conversations with Kanchan and Kruti, the two daughters in the family. Upon rereading this post, I recognize that at this time I felt reenergized and loved for because of this time with this amazing family.
A special gift I received from Kanchan was a whole new wardrobe. She has her own business as a traditional fabric distributer in India. We picked out some fabrics together and went to get them sewn at a taylor. It was another lesson in what was possible to create myself! Together we created: a black pair of slacks, a white pair of slacks, a wrap skirt with a matching crop top, a long sleeve tunic, and a dress.
Overall, I loved the family so much. We have kept in touch since then, and I am eager to visit them on my next voyage to the Indian sub-continent. It will always be one of my favorite memories of India.
PHOTO: I set up my slackline in foliage before the beach. I set it up at about 50m and high enough off the ground to not bottom out. It was their first time seeing slacklining and they were amazed! I later set it up at a smaller height and they tried fearlessly.
PHOTO: Exchanging goodbyes as I depart for Delhi!
Meeting My Mom in Delhi
I stayed with the Jhunjhunwalas as long as I could before I had to make it back to Delhi to meet my mom. She was coming to visit me for two weeks! I couldn’t wait to see a familiar face. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude that she was making the journey to come see me and see India. And boy, did I have a lot to tell her.
I ended up having a helpful skill. I was able to nail down the best offer in rickshaws, have small talk with shopkeepers, and even occasionally bribe a train conductor or two. Watching my mom interact with India was almost like seeing myself in third person. I was reminded how strange and hilariously shocking it was being an American experiencing India.
Family 3: Resting in The Himalayan Foothills
After a teary goodbye with my mom at the airport, I knew it was time to head North. I didn’t know where my third or fourth Servas hosts would be yet, but I was in the processing of requesting. I sent many emails and phone calls, awkwardly trying to speak in Hindi and introduce myself over the phone, until I found Dr. Jai.
After a few weeks of thoroughly getting lost throughout the mountains, I was feeling a bit disoriented. Dizzy from weeks of living in movement. I wrote a blog entry from this time where I talked about my aimlessness. But basically, I kept getting to a place and then immediately missing the place that I just was or immediately became ready to continue moving. Looking back, I can see that landing at a host’s home in Chandigarh was completely necessary for me. We spent a quiet week going on walks and exploring the quaint city of Chandigarh. It gave me time to slow down, reflect, write, and read. It was at this time that I really set my intention for my last month in India. I knew that slowing down was necessary for me, and planned to find a cute town in the Himalayas and stay the remainder of my time in one place.
PHOTO: Dr. Jai and I visiting a lake in his city of Chandigarh.
Dr. Jai hosted me for one week and I especially bonded with his daughter. In his home it was just the two of them, and I was happy to be able to spend exciting and special time with them.
I ended up leaving Chandigarh and heading to Manali. I found home here as well.
PHOTO: View from my campspot outside of Vishisht. These mountains looked different every day!!
PHOTO: Dog that camped with me every night for three weeks. She belonged to a family that owned apple orchards near where I was camping, and she was put outside each night to guard the orchards. We kept each company and to this day, I miss her dearly.
PHOTO: Example of some of the amazing bouldering problems in this area!
I stayed just outside of the beautiful town of Vishisht. It was just my size. There were temple hot springs, delicious restaurants, a vibrant music scene, plentiful rock climbing locations, some killer chess players, and even slackliners! I found home in so many ways
Family 4: Saying Goodbye to India with Family in Delhi
I was well aware that my time in India was coming to a close. I had booked a flight out of Delhi to continue my traveling in Europe. I was excited for the change of pace, but deeply sad to be leaving a country that meant so much to me. I was glad to spend a week with such a warm loving family. Dr. Aurora (pictured below) not only has her pHD, but works on the peace commission between India and China, is an accomplished author, and works in higher education.
PHOTO: Dr. Aurora and I
I loved attending the Yoga International Conference in Delhi. The conference was entirely in Hindi, and although I struggled to understand, it was rewarding being able to be in that setting and appreciate a fully Hindi program. We cooked food every day and spent time connecting. Then I said goodbye, and headed off.
Conclusions and Thoughts
Teaching myself a language has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I think that I had to unlearn the way we use language so automatically and really reflect on how to communicate. Under all these sounds we click and spit with our lips and tongues, are a system of symbols that allow us to share our needs and communicate our thoughts. It’s one of the most distinctive characteristics of being human.
I am truly amazed that we can learn and speak complex languages in order to communicate with each other. Learning a language has made me reflect on the core of what I am trying to say, and fully appreciate my own language as well.
I found myself more confident in my own voice. Instead of worrying about articulation or social aspects of conversation, I found myself grateful and confident in my ability to communicate. How lucky am I to be fluent in a language? How lucky am I that I’ve built such a vocabulary? I have no reason to be hesitant in my confidence in my abilities.
Learning Hindi allowed me to connect to people in a genuine equal way. Although I feel lucky that I am privileged enough to speak such an international language, many people don’t learn English as their first. I was able to struggle to speak and meet people in the middle versus them always meeting on my side.
I’m happy to be on the journey of learning through the communities I meet, the languages I expose myself to, and the experiences that continue to challenge me.