Two auburn oak leaves crisscrossed at the stems, a steaming mug ensconced within - the cheery sticker on the green-coloured door announced Fall. After dropping Mehar at school, and brisk-walk-alternating-with-jog in Central Park later, I had taken to stopping by Starbucks for coffee. Twin odors of baking and coffee were what I associated with America, from when I had first arrived on a consulting assignment. I joined the line of caffeine seekers and scrolled down my Twitter feed. Oonagh’s tweet - Okay universe, let’s do it one more time. #NewDay - made me smile.
Pumpkin spice latte.
Mmm… that sounded delicious. I looked up. A high school girl - she could afford the calories.
With cream, yes.
When my turn arrived, I asked for a tall pike and waited.
"You speak such good English!"
The woman behind me in the line seemed genuinely appreciative. So I decided to return the compliment. "As do you."
The woman was surprised. "But- - of course, I live here." Emphasis on "live".
She was stocky, blonde, blue-eyed, with a washed-out complexion that hinted at Teutonic origin. In my track pants, I was not making any fashion statement. I had been mistaken for Latina before, grocery boys at Fairway hailing me with "Hola"; blinkered Japanese tourists chasing deals in Century 21 had taken my brown skin for a store helper’s. But I had also figured that in Upper West Side one could get around anywhere with their business - ferrying children, pushing strollers, buying groceries - in sweats and none batted an eye. I made myself taller and smiled. I was prepared to enjoy this conversation. "As do I."
A quiver of consternation across the woman’s forehead as she attempted to navigate the conversation without appearing intrusive while being exactly that. "I meant I was born here. I’m a native."
One out of three New Yorkers was immigrant, which was indeed reflected in the spectrum of faces and languages I saw and heard daily. So the woman was clearly not from the city.
"You are a New Yorker?" I asked as she waited for the tall Pike to arrive.
"No, I’m visiting."
A Midwesterner, likely. I had encountered that particular American variant: polite, white, quarantined from the salad bowls of West and East coast cities."As am I."
The woman seemed to relax visibly. Her smile returned. “That's what I meant. You look," she searched for a word, shrugged, "exotic."
I tilted my chin, an imperious shorthand for "I see".
"How long will you be here?"
Perhaps the Midwesterner in New York assumed every non-white was a tourist. "Oh, I don’t know, a few years."
The server arrived with my coffee. I scrolled to the Starbucks app on my iPhone and flashed it at the reader. Taking my coffee, I smiled at the woman and proceeded to the counter for Half and Half. As I stirred in the creamer, I noticed the gentleman, pants darned at various spots and the same frayed check shirt, in his spot by the tall window, nursing his coffee and reading a book. On occasions, I would bring my laptop along for change of writing location. I had observed him for several weeks now. He seemed to come daily, and spent hours with one coffee. Private school kids, posh Mamas, corporate executives, handymen, NYPD cops, elderly retirees - I had seen them all in that Starbucks store, a microcosm of the variegated city.
As I headed to the door, the woman caught up with me, a grande cup in her hand.
"If you don’t mind my asking," she said, as if the conversation was ongoing, "where did you move from?"
"Hong Kong," I said.
"Oh! I thought you looked Indian."
The woman was dismayed with the disordering of her mental picture. And I was getting tired of the inquisition. "Yourself?" I asked.
"From North Dakota."
"Then you must speak Dakota."
Just that week Mehar was working on a lesson on Native Americans in the US. Browsing through her seventh grade social studies book, I was intrigued to learn the connection between the Native American tribe Sioux and Dakota, a linguistic sub group, which in turn gave the state its name. To me, Dakota meant Fargo, that atmospheric film with its pregnant police chief protagonist, surely a first. "You said you were native, so I assumed."
The woman stiffened visibly. "I meant native English speaker."
"Sure." I wagged my head. "And did you know India has twice the number of English speakers as England itself? Have a good day!" A wave, and I strode off.
Of course, I spoke English. I also spoke Punjabi, Hindi, some Urdu and Kannada, and part-comprehended Gujarati and Bengali. And that tiresome Midwesterner? Not even a smidgen of Spanish, I was certain. Despite the fact that there were more Spanish speakers in the US than in Spain.
A storm of tweets rose in my mind as I planned to unleash them, Trump style.
English not a foreign language for Indians who'd made it their own & given it a generous dousing in garam masala #NothingNativeAboutEnglish
Next time you go to the gym, lounge in your pajamas as you watch a re-run of Avatar, shampoo your hair, remember #NothingNativeAboutEnglish
Next time you wear those Khakis, fancy yourself a tech guru, or a media mogul, remember #NothingNativeAboutEnglish
All those words, and more, we Indians lent to the English language. Remember #NothingNativeAboutEnglish
English became the world’s language coz it borrowed from wherever it went: Arabic Chinese Italian Polish Persian #NothingNativeAboutEnglish
The French have a council that is official authority on French. The English created no borders for their language #NothingNativeAboutEnglish
English embraced others & absorbed from them. Its mantra for success? Stay open, stay flexible, stay alive #NothingNativeAboutEnglish
Ah! Feeling like I could out-Trump Trump even, I swiped my phone and tapped the blue bird, all set. Ahead, to my right, a door swung open and a man made to exit. Somebody hailed him from inside and he hovered in the doorway, neck craned back. Behind him, I sighted a row of people in sweats, arms extended skywards, necks retracted, before they straightened, lowered the arms and folded them in front of their chests. The group was in sync with a tutor who faced them, lithe and graceful as she bowed her head and said something. In unison, the class sang.
Nahm - as - tay!
I glanced at the board atop the shop front: Upper West Side Wellness Through Yoga
The phone had gone to sleep mode, my right thumb hovering over the screen. I pocketed it, took a long sip of the pike, and smiled.
Twitter aside, there were other ways to win the world.
© Manreet Sodhi Someshwar