While I am verbose here and with friends, I am quite shy in new social situations. I never am quite sure what to say and so I fade in to the woodwork if left to my habits.
In 2011, determined to address this, I joined my first improv class. I was joined by a number of other people who had purchased a Groupon. Just after our introductions we did our first exercise: Stand in front of everyone all alone for one minute and say things you love non-stop one after another: “I love libraries…I love transit…I love spicy food…” and so on. It was terrifying and exhilarating. We all made silly mistakes “I love…um…rats!?” and laughed fondly with one another. Mistakes happened and they were OK.
Over the next year and then some I continued to take classes. I auditioned for teams and performed on stages in front of 20, 30, 50 people and had so much fun. It was magical to create a new world with interesting characters and relationships. It wasn’t always funny, but many times when it wasn’t funny it was still interesting. And some nights it was just amazing. There is something so exciting about having so much fun and feeling so excited that your legs start walking on stage before your mind is fully aware of what is happening because there is such deep inspiration.
It wasn’t all perfect, mind you. I was on a team for a while in which one of the members seemed to have a mental decibel meter whose sole purpose was to measure laughs. We would get off stage and sometimes even before we got back to our seats he’d say how much he thought the set sucked. My nature is to take that personally: Well I was there too. What could I have done to make it better that I didn’t?
I had reached a crossroads: I had enough education and experience to know what “good” was and to criticize myself when I wasn’t being good. The days of blissfully playing without caring whether I was good were over. I’ve been doing this for almost two years now. Why am I still struggling sometimes on stage?
And then came one night in 2013. I was in a drop-in where random people were teamed up to make scenes. I found myself having a relatively serious father/son conversation with someone on stage. I was emotionally invested but admittedly not 100% certain where this was going to go. Another teammate grabbed a chair, sat downstage as if he was on his living room couch and shouted “This television show is so dumb. It’s not funny and nothing’s happening.” I was crushed.
That was it. I performed a couple of times after that but having a real human put voice to the monologue of my own inner critic was too much. I stopped performing, I “called in sick” to my last performance and then didn’t even go see a show for about three years. Every time I would go I would remember how stupid and vulnerable I felt and I never, NEVER wanted to feel that horrible again. No amount of wonderful, fun scenes filled with discovery was worth that.
At about the same time I started studying Hindi. This was something new and exciting. It took me a few years to really ramp up my level of commitment. But one huge challenge remained. I had nobody to practice with.
Sage encouraged me to just try with people at Indian grocery stores or restaurants I heard speaking Hindi but I was nervous. Maybe they’d make fun of me. Maybe they’d think I was insulting them by implying that they couldn’t speak English and my very beginning Hindi would be better. And so for literally years I had nobody to practice with.
Over the years I got braver and in the past year it really blossomed. I have a friend in Toronto that I love spending time with who is happy to speak Hindi and is super supportive. I have many online friends who are happy to correspond in Hindi. I still remember my friend Nitin giving me a video call on the bus and our speaking Hindi as I rode home in Toronto, certainly to the confusion of many others on the bus all heading to my predominantly Urdu-speaking neighbourhood.
I have been getting braver and braver – especially on this trip. I have spoken Hindi to literally everyone I interacted with until we got to Bangalore (where Hindi-speaking isn’t as common).
And then last night, Sage said “Challenge yourself – you have lots of Hindi speaking friends on Facebook now, post something in Hindi!” And I did. A few minutes later I got a message from an acquaintance in Toronto. “Please don’t just translate English to Hindi. Your mistakes in gender and singular/plural are embarrassing. If you are going to post, speak properly.” they said. I responded and said “I need you to not be so negative. I am trying – and making mistakes is a part of the learning process.” After that she said “Well, if you’re serious about it you should enroll in university.”
And there I was: back on stage in 2013. I went from having fun and being so proud of my progress to feeling terrible. This is exactly the reaction I was worried would happen when I made my first hesitant attempts years ago. I felt I had been punched in the stomach and for a moment lost all of my motivation.
This time, though, as I wrote my final letter to this person, I grew stronger and prouder than ever. I actually sat down and listed the things that I would have missed out on had I said “No, I can’t afford the time or money to take a few years off and go to university. I guess I’ll just give up.”
- I talked with the taxi driver who brought us to the hotel about his family and his daughter’s recent marriage and we compared the weather here versus back home and laughed about our respective ideas of “cold”
- I was able to talk with our hosts in Delhi who were able to speak a little English but much better Hindi. Between us we were able to share stories of how we met, what we loved about our families and where we grew up. When I made Hindi mistakes they corrected me or asked for clarification.
- In Raipur I met my Hindi teacher – a wonderful person I would never have had the chance to meet otherwise – and her amazing friends.
- I had the courage to speak a little Hindi in front of an audience of dozens of people.
- Everywhere we went I was able to understand most of what was being said. I switched back and forth between English and Hindi. Sometimes I would lose track of the conversation in Hindi as I would tune out because in my mind there was a voice screaming loudly “Do you see this? You’re understanding this! How amazing is this!?”
- My friends in Jaipur all knew I was studying Hindi and even their children would practice with me, speaking slowly so they could be understood.
- Everywhere we went in Jaipur from the streets to Galta Ji temple, to autorickshaws I was able to talk to people about their lives – not just about where I wanted to go or what I wanted to eat.
- When we made a field trip to Bagru village where artisans made wood blocks for dying and block printed fabrics, I was able to ask them about what they were doing and find out about their business. (Watch for an entry on this in the upcoming weeks)
- One morning our friends’ kids and their cousins were visiting and asked Sage to tell a story. One of the cousins wasn’t as familiar with English so Sage asked me to try to translate. And so, as she told the story of the Hatseller and the Monkeys, I gave my best translation. Later I would hear the kids out in the yard repeating the catch phrase from the story that I had told them: “Meri topi vapas kar do!” over and over.
- We went to Saksham, my friend’s NGO that helps give an education to kids in a nearby slum. While Sage was inside talking, I was outside talking with the kids answering their questions, asking their names and trying hard to remember them all.
- Later that same day we all went to the park. My friend announced that Sage would be telling a story and I would translate – with his help. And then, it happened just like that. There I was, telling a story in front of a dozen kids. It wasn’t perfect, and I needed help, but I was still so proud.
- After three visits to my friend’s house I was finally able to speak with his mom who doesn’t speak much English. Some days she would bring me a newspaper to read and read along with me like one reads with their child. On our last day there she would come in and tearfully tell me in Hindi that she was sad and didn’t want us to go and I was able to tell her that we didn’t want to go either but that we would definitely come back.
- In Bangalore we had a few bad drivers, doing things like literally watching movies on their phone while driving. Their English wasn’t good but fortunately their Hindi was. I was able to tell them to quit looking at their phone. At one point , having had enough, Sage told him to stop several times and he ignored her. But when I said “Rukho!” we were dropped off without fuss.
By the time I got to the end of this list I realized something. More than once in my life I have reached this point. The point of getting reasonably good but not great. I go from being a little self-conscious but giving myself a bit of slack because I’m a beginner to becoming more self-conscious and having little patience with myself because I have more experience now. And then all it takes is one insensitive comment to bring the entire house of cards down and I walk away.
Except this time, as I made this list, I realized that I couldn’t do that. Yes, that comment hurt a lot and I’m still not sure how to stop comments like that from hurting. But on the other hand, that pain doesn’t mean I should stop any more than sore legs mean I should give up cycling. And never has it been more evident just how much I have gained from studying – even outside university, being willing to be vulnerable and try speaking Hindi when I can. After all, for all of the time I’ve been studying it’s brought me almost nothing but joy – and one mean comment.
As I wrote my final letter to this person, my strength continued to grow. Pushing through pain is something I do every time I go on a long bike trip – but I know going into it it’s coming. I also know that there will be minutes of pain and days of joy. And I also know that pain is a part of growing stronger. I can do this. Not only can I continue with Hindi, I can double my efforts. When I come back I’ll be even better. I won’t even need Nitin to help translate my stories if I work hard enough.
And what about improv? Well, I also made a decision on that as well. When I get back, I’m starting again with that. Why am I letting people who have no interest in my own life steal my fun. That’s ridiculous.
Watch for updates…