After spending about a year or two in Finland with my suomalainen mies, and because my momma was particular about politeness, I quickly learned the words for thank you and sorry – kiitos and anteeksi. I also picked up some other sounds and grunts from the Finns around me—Yoh-oh and non-iin—and learned to use each with different intonation and meaning. But, I mixed up my double consonants and confused my mother-in-law when I tried to practice my Finnish with her. I would tell her I was making this delicious keittiö and she would wonder how our kitchen had suddenly become tasty. Only now after 4 years, have I finally got it right, keitto for soup, and keittiö for kitchen. And, my sweet mom-in-law? Well, she has learned to decipher my own special version of Finnish.
When I left Finland’s shores, I didn’t realize that words and mannerisms of a place kinda become entrenched in the very fibre of our being.
We were rushing to get our connecting flight in Istanbul, just fresh off a Finnish flight. And, there was I, very politely trying to make my way between the crowds at the airport. After the quiet and peaceful Helsinki airport, it was a “shock” to find myself in a crowded airport. It was only when I was finally seated and ‘seat-belted’ in the plane that I realized: I had not been saying “Excuse me,” but “Anteeksi.” No wonder then, that I had to jostle my way between the weaving queues. All the while this polite me was spouting Finnish in auto-mode, but no one was able to understand what I was saying!
Fast forward to the land of Genghis Khan. Mongolia and Mongolian. Where one learns that it is Chinghis Haan, not Genghis, with a J, but Chingg-his, and definitely not Khan with a “k”, for the great one was a Haan, a King. Mongolia, a beautiful land and lovely people. Far removed from the history of terror and rampage. And in their midst, a kantasuomalainen man, and me, an Indian.
Habits, they die hard. New ones get picked up easily, and if one is constantly hearing certain expressions used by those around, one can also, quite unconsciously begin to use those very same words.
Being the “agreeable” person that I am, I’ve always felt the need to verbally agree with things people say. And what better way to do it than to use Yoh-oh—the Finnish equivalent of yes, of course, yeah, and suchlike—spelled in Finnish as Joo. What a strong word. Much better than the “Yes, yes,” that I used to use as an Indian. Only, in Mongolia, the Joo, bothered our friends. And really bothered them. During a short tea break at our Mongolian language school, I was busy discussing something with my mies, and loudly said, “Joo!” I was agreeing with him and using my classic Indian head-shake for emphasis. When I said “Jooh -oh,” for the second time, our Mongolian language teachers popped into the classroom, concern writ deep on their faces, “Is everything Ok? Are you well? You’re not sick, are you?” Baffled, and with an extra vigorous Indian shake-of-the-head that emphasized my answer, I said, “No!” The Mongolian teachers sighed their relief. Apparently, Joo is a sound that Mongolians use when they are in grave pain, it is the “sound” of pain. Almost like an “ouch” but only for more grievous wounds and injuries.
And so, it was that I had to quickly learn other expressions, I didn't want our Mongolians to think that I was constantly in pain. I remember telling myself that my choice of word or expression also had to complement the great Indian headshake. And so, I found many other Mongolian expressions and put them quickly to use.
After less than a year in Mongolia, I’d picked up lots of Mongolian-isms. Once, we had a visitor from Finland who was busy narrating a rather dramatic story. And when she was describing the events that befell another Finn, I blurted out, “Tiimo!” To which our Finnish friend, said, “No! Not Timo!” She was annoyed that I hadn't kept up with her narration and also wanted to correct my pronunciation, especially because by then, the legendary me was known for mixing up her double vowels and for using incorrect pronunciation. It took a bit of explaining to tell her that I was not talking about our mutual Finnish friend Timo, but that I’d used a regular Mongolian expression to show my surprise.
But, it’s not just me who gets into such predicaments. The peculiar way of rolling one’s head to show that you agree with someone or something is that is quite unique to Indians. But, my husband remarked that perhaps I had learned this habit from pigeons who visited the ledge under the balcony of our apartment in India. From their angle of observation, the pigeons had to tilt their head to look at us. Kinda like in half-agreement till they turned their head to another angle and gazed at us with their other beady eye. It soon became my husband’s favorite way of spending time when we were at our apartment. He would gaze at the pigeons with their bobbing heads and they would stare him down, shift focus, nod and tilt head and begin again. They knew they were safe as we were too far up above them. The Husband was thrilled about having discovered that “not just Indians, but even the pigeons in India tilt and shake their heads.” Hmm, I bade my time. After our return to Finland from India, someone remarked and told my husband that he had picked up a queer mannerism - apparently, he wobbled his head his head whilst saying “Joo.” I smiled my quiet smile and said to The Hubby, “Yeah! It must've been those pigeons.”
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