The Fiji Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2010
My family all enjoy watching the Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan, Rush Hour, movie series.
One of the scenes in this action-comedy is when Chris Tucker's character assumes, wrongly, that because Jackie Chan's character is from Hong Kong, he cannot speak English. Hence the famous line, "Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?" spoken with a comic over-emphasis.
Of course the joke is eventually on Christ Tucker's character when he finds out that Jackie Chan's character can speak English but chose not to, leading to an interesting point being made on racial stereotyping and the assumptions we make.
I suppose I am used to people making wrong assumptions about me because of my surname or my chosen vocation. I do not mind being asked if I eat beef every time I order a cheeseburger.
I am thick-skinned enough not to take offence by the odd comment that I have betrayed my "Indian-ness" and my (sur)name by not only being a Christian but by having the gall to become a Methodist minister; although I do point out that my grandfather and namesake converted to Christianity and neither he nor my father found it to be a betrayal of their "Indian-ness" but more an affirmation of their humanness.
However, I do find it strange that some people who have known me on a first name basis for more than two decades now add a forced formality to our conversations by insisting that they address me as talatala or reverend.
Recently my son, Francisco-Xavier, has experienced a similar type of assumption. As a newcomer to primary school, Francisco-Xavier was excited to write another chapter in the Bhagwan history of attending a school in Toorak.
As we discussed the subjects he would study, the issue of vernacular classes came up. A number of options were put forward to him by his teachers. The first was to take English 2, while the second was to take Hindi.
Francisco-Xavier was most disappointed. He had been hoping to learn Fijian. He put forward his argument to his parents and then to the teacher:, that he can learn Hindi at home from his grandma and more English from his mother (because she teaches English, not because her maiden name is Pickering) and because he was from Rewa and so should learn Fijian. Francisco-Xavier takes pains not only to explain to people his full name (Francisco-Xavier Tuisawau Benjamin-Shri Bhagwan yes, it is a mouthful and no, we did not think it would be when we named him) but also to explain his heritage so that people understand him better. He explains that both his parents have roots in Rewa (daddy in Vuci and mummy, being a Pickering, in Lomanikoro).
I faced a different struggle in learning the languages of my heritage. My parents decided that it was better for school and work (including writing columns in newspapers and magazines) that my sisters and I have English as our first language.
While that had its advantages it, compounded with a lack of formal vernacular lessons at school, meant that we had to learn Hindustani through the dialogues of our favourite male and female Indian actors and that my introduction to the Fijian language outside of the basics were insults. It took me a while to work out what Kai idia lia lia meant and how it did not really work if I used it on one of my i-Taukei classmates.
My first Hindi sermon, consisted mainly of phrases used by famous Indian megastar Amitabh Bachchan and theological terms.
Thankfully, I can now speak less laughable Hindi than I did two years ago and my work with the Methodist Indian Division, ensures that it should improve with practice. In the same manner, my work at the Davuilevu Theological College helps me improve my Fijian.
There are many people in Fiji who are tri-lingual, speaking their own vernacular and then the language of their cultural neighbours as well as English. Some speak the three major languages because of the foresight of their parents; while for some it is just because they lived in a rural area and learned it to communicate with their Indo-Fijian or i-Taukei neighbours.
In urban areas this takes place to a certain extent. We are multi-cultural in our friendships and relationships but the common language for many is still one that is foreign. So we translate our thoughts from Hindi to English and then from English to Fijian and vice versa with the effect that something may get lost in translation.
At Davuilevu Theological College, the students in their outreach program, learn basic Hindi words and theological phrases along with Hindi bhajans (hymns), with the Rotuman language also being introduced in this manner. While this is essentially a tool for evangelism, it provides a key element in the process of fostering respect and understanding in a pluralistic society. Recently at the funeral for a lay pastor, who was also the husband of the first Indian female Methodist Minister (currently studying at Davuilevu) the students sang a Hindi bhajan. The beautiful rendition by predominantly i-Taukei students touched those in attendance who were mainly Indo-Fijian.
Recently as I went for a regular floating session at the National Aquatic Centre, I watched the students from the Gospel School for the Deaf communicate with their teachers and each other through sign language.
I thought to myself, "If only we all learned to sign then there would be no loss in translation. 'I love you' would mean the same thing to all of us'."
There is a need for our children not just to be taught their own language, but the language of the others. Churches, religious societies and community groups can hold formal classes or create informal spaces for languages to be learned. This is a crucial step in building bridges in a fractured nation.
May the rest of your week be blessed with light, love, peace and the desire to understand your neighbour.
This article is the sole opinion of Reverend JS Bhagwan and not that of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with.