1. Like Real Americans
The lesson of the day was: “Now may I ask for your telephone number, beginning with the area code?” Chandrika, Stella’s co-instructor, was getting them to repeat the first part over and over, concentrating on the diphthong in “now.”
“Americans say ‘now’ like a cat,” she said. “’Na‑ow.”
The students all bleated, “Na‑ow.”
Stella looked down at the class roll, filled with the names of Hollywood stars. “Julia Roberts,” she called.
A fleshy Indian lady wearing black‑framed glasses and an orange and green sari repeated “Na‑ow.”
“Britney Spears,” Stella called.
A young woman dressed in a light blue t‑shirt, but with a soft woolen shawl thrown around her for the sake of modesty, repeated “now” in an even more cat‑like fashion that made the class laugh.
“Let’s not overdo the cat thing,” Stella said, calling on Tom Cruise. The accent of Tom Cruise ‑‑ whose real name was Praveen something ‑‑ was pretty terrible.
“No ‑ woo,” he said.
“That’s not it at all,” Chandrika broke in. “You sound like my uncle from Delhi.” The class worked for twenty minutes on un‑learning their native pronunciation of “now” and learning a nasal American pronunciation. “Na‑ow” sounded weird on its own, but maybe Chandrika was building to something. Stella spaced out, watching their mouths open and close like tropical fish, until Chandrika turned to her. “Any suggestions, Stella?”
Stella roused herself. “What we would probably do is pause slightly after the ‘now.’”
“Thank you, Stella,” Chandrika said. “Let us have a small pause then: ‘Na‑ow. May I ask for your telephone number.’”
When they were learning to pronounce “May I have your name, please?” Chandrika had them saying something like “view” in the middle of the sentence. “Ha view name.” But by the end of the class they were all able to chirp the question like real Americans.
Stella could bear this for a 75‑minute‑long class. But after three classes a day, listening to the students say the same phrases over and over with her simply calling out the names of movie stars and making on occasional comment, Stella felt ready to go insane.
She did the only thing she could: actually do some work. On the fourth day of the class, she surprised everyone by taking over at the outset. Before Chandrika could say a word, Stella loudly announced, “Today we will begin with ‘beginning’.”
Already used to Chandrika’s low energy, the students blinked nervously, and their dubious expressions made Stella anxious to exert control. As Chandrika retreated uncertainly to the chair Stella usually occupied, Stella ran through the exercise like a drill sergeant. “May I ha view name, b’gunning with th’ lass name,” Stella drawled in her best imitation of an Iowa soda jerk. “B’gunning, b’gunning! Remember, no ‘bee,’ and a soft ‘n.’”
Back in the cubicle they shared, Chandrika placed her instructor manuals on the desk and sat down in the only chair; Stella sat on a small rolling file cabinet, carelessly flipping the class roll onto the pile of papers on her side of the cube. She glanced at Chandrika, expecting possibly a compliment for finally taking a larger role in the class, or maybe a complaint that Stella had caused her to lose face. But Chandrika was gazing into empty space -- specifically the empty space in the aisle outside their cube. Moving to India hadn’t done much to improve her mood. As in San Francisco, she did only what was required by her job, no more. Stella had a startling thought -- that Chandrika would be only too willing to let her do all the work.
But after a moment Chandrika looked up. “That was good today, Stella,” she said in her clipped accent. “You were zealous. I’m glad you have overcome your qualms.”
“I haven’t, I was just bored.”
Chandrika ignored this. “You must be intolerant, like a retired old auntie in Phoenix who can’t understand anything foreign.”
“But I hate it,” Stella protested. “This pretending to be Americans, with the names and accents and everything. The customers don’t care if they talk like Indians as long as they can understand them.”
Chandrika sighed. They had already had this argument twice since arriving in Bangalore ten days ago. Finally she said, “Just remember -- the students are glad to give up their accents. It means advancement. If you don’t care about the customers, think about them. You’re here to help them.”
Stella pursed her lips. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about the customers; she just didn’t care how the customer service reps sounded. Whether this was because San Franciscans were more tolerant of difference, as Chandrika had argued, or whether she had more important things to think about, it boiled down to not caring. But she was stuck teaching accent improvement in Bangalore for nine months, so she supposed she really ought to care about something.