Beyond comfort zones

Sitting in the hired car, I asked the driver casually, ‘You understand Hindi or English?” In the rear view mirror, he threw a blank look at me and said a long winding sentence in Malayalam.
“I do not understand Malayalam. You know where to go don’t you?” I asked. To my horror, he looked blankly back at me. Desperately I repeated the name of the place I was headed to in Kochi and he nodded. I sank back in momentary relief.
How had I landed up with a driver who knew only Malyalam? This was ‘God’s own country’ catering to tourists! Being a weekend, it would be difficult to find a substitute. I had to manage.
We reached my destination and I asked him to wait. He gave me his mobile number, saying something in Malayalam. Even as I took it, I wondered how I would communicate with him on the phone.
When I came out of the building a few hours later, trying to locate his number, I saw him standing outside the gate. He signaled that he would get the car. I heaved a sigh of relief as I waited at the gate. Inside the car, I said the name of the place I wanted to go next. He nodded, which I assumed meant he would get me there!
We crossed a bridge on a river. I asked him the name of the river, but he did not understand my question. As he drove silently, I suddenly realized that for my short trip to Kochi, where the driver was concerned I was in a foreign country.
I recollected how more than fifteen years ago, when I was in Japan for a long term training program, I had been overwhelmed. All the signs, directions, notices, station names, train line names – everything used to be in Japanese. Everyone spoke only Japanese. I had realized for the first time what being illiterate entails. How dependant and excluded a person feels as unknown sounds and sights swirl around. After the initial shock, I honed my non-verbal communication skills while trying to pick up a smattering of Japanese to survive. I began to navigate trains, buses and market places on my own, helped by the use of hand gestures, head shakes and most importantly by the patience and politeness of the Japanese.
As the car sped towards Kochi’s legendary Mattanchary quarter, I wanted to know how far the place was. I repeated the name of the building and pointed at my watch. He replied, “Five minutes.”
The exchange took me back to the driver I had in Beijing when I was there for three days, four years ago. An elderly Chinese, he knew only mandarin. Daily, I set out with the address of my destination written in Chinese characters, and he would deposit me safely. For the return, I would point the time in his car watch. For other places, if he did not understand my pronunciation I would show him the photo of the place in a tourist pamphlet and we would be on our way. With an effort on both our parts, the trip did not suffer any major hiccup. When I finally got off near the Great Wall of China, and thanked him in English he had smiled benignly and waved towards the climb awaiting me.
The next day in Kochi, the destination was slightly far. I tentatively pointed to the radio in the car and said, “Hindi song?” He comprehended immediately and soon found a station playing Bollywood music.
At the end of the trip as he drove me to the airport, we crossed the river again and he said “Madam Periyar River”. In the three days, he had probably understood my question, and remembered to answer it.
Stepping out of our comfort zones in small doses or in a dramatic manner is essential at intervals. Within our comfort zones and familiar surroundings we often forget how different people are – we speak different languages, gesticulate differently, understand and value things differently. These differences are not insurmountable. We can communicate, get our work done, relate to each other, and simply coexist – even if we cannot exchange a word. All that is needed is a desire to communicate and understand from both sides.

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13 thoughts on “Beyond comfort zones

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  1. I totally understand the story is written by ms. Sadhna Shankar. If I go that place in future, i will try to learn malayalam and Japanese languages for communicate with peoples. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. It’s too helpful for whose who will go first time that place. Overall nice story and helpful. Thanks once again.

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