The photo above may appear to some that I’m being recruited to partake in a spiritual journey at some Ashram, but alas that is not the case, although I would not necessarily be against that idea! No, this is a photo of the Punjabi women that made up my ESL class in Vancouver, circa 1985-7. I was doing my B.A. at Simon Fraser University, and a friend of mine in one of my classes told me that she was volunteering for the Punjabi Farmworkers Union and asked if I would like to come to their next meeting to see what it was all about. I had been thinking about doing some volunteer work, so I said: “Sure.” The parenthetical part of my title is the Sanskrit translation “for today’s lesson,” which in our alphabet would look like this: Aja dē pāṭha la’ī. Just in case you want to brush up on your Punjabi!
As you have, I am sure figured out by now, I liked what I heard at the meeting, and decided that this would be a worthwhile and helpful thing to do. But first, a little background. Several of the surrounding suburbs of Vancouver, B.C., Surrey in particular, have large swaths of agricultural land, and a very large percentage of the workers of that land are from the Punjab in India. Both men and women toil away in these fields, much like the Mexicans in Southern California. At that meeting, I learned that many of the men spoke English, as they usually immigrated first and established themselves, before the rest of their families joined them in Canada. Because of cultural norms, many of the men were content that their mothers, wives, daughters, did not speak the local language, which of course made them completely dependent on their male counterparts to function outside of the home. This is what the Farm Workers Union was trying to change by offering ESL classes in their homes.
So, for several months, usually during the “down time” in the fields, I would make weekly trips (for a two hour lesson, they often went longer) to the above family’s home. There were actually two families living in the home, and often there were a couple of family members who lived elsewhere in the neighborhood that would join in. Fortunately for me, one of the regulars spoke some English, so she would help with some translating. The women were eager to learn, and eager to teach me Punjabi, so every lesson started with me having to say: “ਹਾਏ ਤੁਸੀਂ ਕਿਵੇਂ ਹੋ?” Or “Hā’ē tusīṁ kivēṁ hō?” Hi, how are you?
I cannot even begin to tell you how hospitable these women were. After a few weeks it was as though I was part of the family, and as such they wanted to take care of me, which in this case meant making sure I had something to eat and drink before the lesson even started! The food was sublime, but the drink of choice was chai. In fact, after introductions were made on the day of my first lesson with the group, I was asked the following: “ਕੀ ਤੁਹਾਨੂੰ ਚਾਈ ਪਸੰਦ ਹੈ?” Or “Kī tuhānū cā’ī pasada hai?” Do you like chai? Truth be told, I am not very fond of this tea as I find it way too sweet, but it was my first lesson and I wanted to be polite, so I said yes. I had seven pairs of eyes staring at me as I took my first sip, and I did manage to finish most of it. Each subsequent lesson started the same: I was given a snack and a cup of chai, and I drank less, and less of it each time, until one day when I arrived, I was given a snack and a Diet Coke! We had a good laugh about that.
Since many of the women wanted to be able to shop at some of the larger grocery stores and not the Punjabi markets nearby where they didn’t have to speak English, many of the lessons were geared towards that task. I would bring grocery store advertising flyers with pictures of all kinds of products, especially produce, and they would teach me how to say a particular item in Punjabi, and then I would give them the English word for it, and then write it down for them and attach it to the corresponding photo. Then the following week, we would make a field trip to a grocery store, and they would choose an item they wanted and say what the product was in English. By the time my second year rolled around, some of them were doing quite well and building their vocabularies to the point where we could have at least a fractured conversation. One afternoon when I arrived for my lesson, the television was on and as I glimpsed at it, I could tell they were watching a movie, in Punjabi of course. You may be familiar with the term “Bollywood,” a portmanteau of “Bombay” and “Hollywood.” It is a term that was coined in the 1970s and is the Hindi language film industry in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. It is the largest of the Indian film industries and dates back to 1913. There are subsequent film industries scattered around India representing different languages. For example: “Pollywood” or Punwoodis for the Punjabi language films, “Dhallywood” – Bangladeshi; “Chhollywood” – Chhatisgarh; “Kollywood” -Bengali and Tamil; and “Tollywood” – Telugu.
Many of the films made in these different regions of India are referred to as “masala” film, which freely mixes the genres of romance, melodrama, comedy, and musical. And then there are the violent crime films, which explore the seedy underbelly of Indian society. It was the former my students were watching when I arrived that day. One of the women immediately went to turn the tv off, but I stopped her because I had an idea. That day our lesson consisted of watching one of these movies, as they translated into English what was happening on the screen! They loved it. Let’s just say, watching these films, which I did for many weeks, was an eye-opening experience. My first impression was that these films were essentially romcoms, without the com, as comedy in another language, even with fractured translations, is harder to grasp than watching actors making googly eyes at each other before breaking into song! Unfortunately, after about three years of giving these lessons, my commitments at school started to cut into my available free time, and I had to give up the volunteering. They were as sad to see me go as I was sad to be leaving, but it had to be done. The feast that I was treated to on my last lesson I will never, ever forget. And not a cup of chai in sight!
Los Angeles 2022