Stephanie Mora Hernández '13: Music In Spanish?

Stephanie Mora Hernández was the 2013-2015 Fellow at Lady Doak College. This is her first year narrative.

In early October, I was invited to join the third-year English students on a five-day excursion to Bangalore and Goa. It was roughly a month since I had settled my belongings in the Shansi apartment at Lady Doak I jumped at any opportunity to see more of the country that I would call home for the next two years. Although I felt everyone’s warm and hearty welcome into the lively community at Lady Doak, I had yet to develop a personal connection to Madurai. My home was not in this city, but over 8,700 miles away.

 

During our brief time in Goa, we rode down the Madovi River just in time to see the sunset. However, this was no ordinary boat ride - a typical double decker boat quickly turned into a dance show with the flick of disco lights as the MC encouraged everyone to take up the stage and show off their latest dance moves. The students giggled in nervousness while pushing one another to go on stage, yet refusing to go themselves. As the sound of a club dance beat blared over the speakers, my eyes  slowly began to widen listening to the first few lines of the song. Not believing what I was hearing, I listened a little harder to confirm my suspicions. My heart jumped as realization fully kicked in. The song was in a language all too familiar and comforting.

 

Mi amor inocente

Yo te quiero

Ya sabes que me tienes loco

 

Music in Spanish? It can’t be, I mean, why were they playing it here? None of the students understood it, and everyone else on the boat seemed unfazed. Unlike Portuguese, Spanish was never recognized as one of Goa’s official languages and there is no large settlement of Spanish speakers within Goa. Confused by the serendipitous song choice, yet overly excited by the music playing in a space that wasn’t my room, I closed my eyes to enjoy the cozy feelings inside me. At that moment, it wasn’t just a song in Spanish - it was a piece of home that I accidentally stumbled upon in a little corner of India.

 

Yet this was not an isolated incident. In my daily routine in Madurai, I started coming across Spanish words in places I’d least expect. A chain pizza company in town promoted a “chicken fiesta” pizza, packed with all the supplies you need for a party in your belly: chunky, spicy chicken, onion, and capsicum. An advertisement in a local newspaper promoted stylish sandals under the name señorita, or young woman. A gift shop sold canvass bags with ¡hola! in large, black letters. On campus, science students competed in the annual intra-collegiate competition under the name química, the Spanish word for chemistry.

 

I started to document the spaces where Spanish was used. My curiosity kept asking the same questions: In what context and how was the language being used? And more importantly, who was using the language and who was their audience? In an attempt to clarify a baffling link between India and my mother tongue that was not visible to me, I gave students interested in taking my beginning Spanish course a mini questionnaire at registration. The form asked them to list three things they associate with the Spanish language and to explain why why they were interested in this course. Out of 75 responses, less than five students answered the first question without saying “I’m not sure,” or “I don’t know.” Why is it, then, that Spanish is being used in these spaces if no one seems to have connections with it?

 

In an age of globalization where the Internet plays such a large role in people’s lives around the world, it makes complete sense that these two languages could interact in a seemingly unexpected place. There are plenty of songs such as Psy’s Gangnam Style or Dhanush’s Why This Kolaveri Di that quickly obtained international success and recognition. The experience of discovering the use of my mother tongue in such an unexpected place was similar to the feeling of realizing you shared a mutual friend with someone you just met.

 

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While temperatures easily average 85-95 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the majority of the year, summers in Madurai are especially brutal. However, they also signal the end of another school year and the beginning of a well-deserved break.

 

Deciding to escape the heat this past summer, I traveled to visit my best friend Anna, who is currently serving her Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Thailand. We met in Bangkok, and for the first few days my task was to keep myself occupied while Anna attended meetings for her program. In a place as large and cosmopolitan as Bangkok, this was a fairly easy task. Earlier in the day Anna pointed out an area that was filled with restaurants serving Indian food. Predetermining that these places here would not do Indian cuisine complete justice, I set out to see just what types of dishes they were offering. While picking up common street food around Bangkok such as sticky rice and moo ping, I wandered up and down streets as I made my way over to the Indian restaurants.

 

Just before I reached my original destination, about a block away from where signs for Indian food were posted, I came across an entrance to a Hindu temple tucked neatly at a corner of a busy street. The sign outside of it gave a brief description on the origin of the temple:

 

“Sri Maha Mariamman Temple - It is commonly called Wat Khaek Silom. It is a temple of Goddess Uma, consort of Shiva, built around 1879 by a group of Indians [who] lived in Bangkok on the purchased land on Silom Road.”

 

I proceeded to the side entrance, curious to see what, if any, similarities and differences there might be between this temple in Bangkok and the ones I’ve seen in and around Madurai. Nothing was drastically different, so I circled around to the front of the temple for my sandals when I heard two temple priests standing near me speaking in a language I could identify and partially understand - Tamil! Of all of the languages spoken in India, never did I expect to find Tamil-speaking individuals in this temple.   Although Tamil falls in the top five languages spoken in India, only 6% of India’s population speaks it versus the 41% that speak Hindi. If anything, I expected to hear Hindi or Bengali spoken in the temple due to the sheer number of speakers.

 

I could not resist striking up a conversation with these two priests.

 

Anna (older brother), where are you from?” I asked.

“We are from Chennai. You know Tamil?”

Koncham koncham teriyum. I live in Madurai.”

“Is that so? I know Madurai. Are you North Indian?”

I smile widely. “No, I am from the States, but my family is from Mexico.”

 

Leaving the temple, I could not wait to see Anna later in the day and tell her I was able to use my limited Tamil speaking ability in Bangkok. In my excitement, I slowly began to realize that I felt something else walking out of the temple: comfort.

 

In a bustling city 1,537 miles away from my new home in Madurai, I finally felt comforted by a language that I had never felt a strong connection to. During my intense summer language course, Tamil and I were at opposing ends of a wrestling match, and Tamil was the intimidating giant you did not want to face. However, once I moved out to Madurai and began creating my routine, it transformed itself from a foe to a trainer. One that pushes you to work through the nuances between written and spoken forms, between the three “L” sounds where one requires the bending of the tongue in a fashion not yet natural to me, between emphasizing long and short vowels in order to use the correct meaning of the word, because at the end it is worth it. Hearing it everyday has become part of my notions of home here, reminding me of the students who spent their free time with me on campus excitedly talking about new events and activities we should do. Tamil now resonates with me in similar ways that Spanish does, and the intermingling of both these languages has truly enriched my time in India.

 

Stopping for a refreshing bubble tea on my way back from the temple, I pulled out my  phone and started brushing off those old Tamil flashcards I neglected so many months ago.

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