Riding a caffeine high and feeling particularly bold, I suggested to “Julia,” my lovely Bengali language teacher that we go out exploring on the street outside of my office so I could practice some of my Bangla and meet some new people in the surrounding South Asian community.
She stared at me quizzically. “Where do you want to go?”
I slurped my Dunkin Donuts iced coffee and talked a mile a minute. “Oh, I dunno…like maybe to a clothing store to get that petticoat I need for the sari you brought for me from Bangladesh? Maybe to a grocery store? A bakery? I just wanna practice some of the phrases I’ve learned and meet some other people community, you know?”
She snickered. “Okay, Ginny. If you want to go, I will take you.”
“YAY!! Thank you!” I beamed like she had promised to personally take me Bangladesh.
On Friday, we met for an hour of Bengali lessons. Her current project was drilling various Bangla numbers into my head, writing different numbers on the whiteboard and jabbing her finger at them until I coughed up some word similar to the correct one, or sheepishly denied knowing it at all (ami jani na). The more I forgot, the more brazen I became with my declarations of forgetfulness and the less reserved Julia became with the (well-deserved) exasperated glares she shot at me.
Finally she erased the final number from the board (50 – pownchash) and faced me. “Ready to go shopping?”
“YES!” I leapt from my chair and began feverishly gathering up all of the vocabulary cards strewn across the table.
“First we will go to the dress store,” Julia stated, calmly packing away the dry-erase markers. “You will practice asking the shop employee if they have any red petticoats. Say, ‘Lal petticoat achte?‘ Go.”
I attempted to repeat her sentence, stumbling over the unwieldy words that clambered in my mouth. “Lal petticoat acheten?”
“Nah,” Julia swung her backpack over her shoulders. “Lal petticoat AH-chte?”
“Lal petticoat achte?” I mimicked. “And then what do I say?”
“Amake dao, please.”
I parroted the phrase, requesting to be given said red petticoat, and swung our office door open for Julia.
She shrugged and nodded, walking down the steps to the sidewalk. “Heh, ku bhalo. Yes, very good.”
“I’m nervous,” I admitted as I locked the door behind us. “What if I say something dumb and they laugh at me?”
She chuckled. “Don’t be scared. They will be happy you are trying to speak our language.”
We walked along the busy street, venturing deeper into the American-Bengali community of Jamaica, Queens. Hijab-clad women corralled their small children around us, toting grocery bags and drops of sweat on their brows. The tinier children darted around our ankles, screaming with glee and brandishing small red pinwheels with which they assaulted each other. Middle-aged South Asian men stood outside of their shops, their hands clasped behind their backs, faces impassive as they observed the chaos on the sidewalk before them.
Julia halted in front of a dress shop, opening the door for me and letting me pass through. The store’s blinding fluorescent light and vibrant, sparkling clothes accosted my eyes as I stepped into the room. Racks and racks of beautiful South Asian garments lined the room and crowded the floor, sequins and tiny plastic gems sewed onto the fabric glinting in the lighting. The left wall sported shelves of small mannequin busts laden with extravagant jewelry and a table solely dedicated to glittering metal bangles rested in the middle of the room.
To our right, shop workers walked back and forth on a narrow runway-like stage, chattering with customers and pulling down different brightly colored folded fabrics from the shelves that lined the wall. They handed the folded fabrics to the customers, who hurriedly unfurled and inspected them, commenting on the length and color shades before either deciding to purchase it or requesting a different one.
Julia stepped into line behind five other Bengali women and faced me. “You will ask this woman if she has any red petticoats. Ready?”
I hesitated and watched wide-eyed as the customers and employees talked simultaneously. Truthfully, I wanted to avoid saying anything in the current audience. I was clearly the odd woman out and instantly the center of attention. I felt ginormous, towering a good foot taller than all the women in the shop, and blindingly white. But I had asked Julia specifically to put me in this situation so that I could try out my Bangla and meet more people in the community, so I stepped up to the stage, literally and figuratively.
“Apu,” I called out, catching the shorter young woman’s attention. “Lal petticoat achte?”
She turned and gawked at me, probably astounded by my appalling pronunciation of her home language. Thankfully, Julia stepped in and quickly explained that I was her Bangla student and needed to purchase a red petticoat for my shari.
“Oh,” the woman said, surveying me less warily. “Abar? Again?”
I inhaled and spoke slowly. “Lal petticoat achte?”
“Please! Say ‘please’!” Julia hissed in my ear.
The room constricted around me, tunnel-like, and for a seemingly eternal three seconds, I mentally scrambled Rolodex-style for the Bangla word for “please.” Meanwhile, my generally underachieving high-school French decided to randomly help me out, causing me to blurt, “S’il vous plaît?”
Both women furrowed confused eyebrows and I inwardly berated my overworked language brain. When faced with an opportunity to process foreign language, I instinctively utilize my childhood second language, French. This is clearly most helpful for everyone involved.
“Oh, wrong language,” I said stupidly, jamming my hands into my pockets and shrugging. “Du kito, apu. Sorry. Lal petticoat achte, please.”
The shop employee shrugged vaguely, but her brown eyes softened and she turned back to the shelves of folded fabric. She selected a folded square of red cotton and handed it to Julia.
“Dhonnobad,” I said, grinning broadly, American-ly, at the young woman.
She smiled faintly at me, clearly entertained by my determination to try her beautiful yet unwieldy language in the midst of horrible pronunciation and with limited knowledge of her South Asian culture. Julia unfolded the red petticoat and held it up to my waist, surveying the potential fit and length. Too short and too wide, I noted internally. She spoke some quick Bengali phrases to the shop worker as I tried my best to translate in my head. I caught about three words out of the twenty five she spoke – petticoat (petticoat), small (choto), and red (lal).
“It seems too wide,” I said to Julia, glancing worriedly from the petticoat to her and back. “Does she have another size?”
“No,” she replied, surveying me once more. “We can just pin it.”
“And I guess it gives me space to eat all of the fried Iftari food, right?” I commented with a smirk.
Julia told the woman that the petticoat was fine and that we would purchase it. “Ask her how much it is,” she instructed me.
Thankfully my brain chose the correct language this time. “Etar dam koto?” I inquired, speaking clearly and slowly.
“Eta bish dollar.” Ten dollars. Not bad.
Julia disagreed. “Eta onnke dam!” she exclaimed – too expensive. “I will ask if she will take eight.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” I cut in, wanting to swiftly end this interesting yet stressful cultural experience and language practice.
“No!” her lovely face scowled at me. “It is too expensive. Trust me.”
I tried to keep my face unapologetic as we faced the store employee again. Julia and she began bantering back and forth about prices and the quality of the petticoat and my tired brain decided to stop trying to decipher their words. I stood there dumbly, slowly surveying the store and the people within. Women dug through the racks of beautiful Eid outfits, discussing colors and sizes as the shop employees scrambled to accommodate their requests. The energy in the store was electric and excited.
Finally, Julia flashed a victorious smile at me. “She agreed to eight.”
“Ku bhalo!” Great.
We paid for the petticoat and as we left the store, I called a goodbye over my shoulder – “Allah hafez!”
Amid giggles, a couple of women answered back to me and Julia laughed, steering my elbow back onto the sidewalk. “Good job, Ginny! You did it!”
I did do it. I shopped in a Bengali store, practiced some Bangla and managed to not offend everybody and their sister there in the store. Success.
Time for a nap.