Cultural diversity in the office lunch group

A Pakistani guy joined our programming team last week and it’s been an interesting experience getting to know him at lunch this past week. My lunch group in office is a motley desi crowd with a Cambodian and Sri Lankan joining in to provide the required variety. Now I am not sure if this is a good sign, but I know forming a desi lunch group wasn’t a deliberate decision on our part, it was something that just happened. I used to have lunch with some American colleagues earlier and that was a fun experience too, but our timings never matched and so on, and somehow I came to be a part of my current lunch group instead.

So anyhow, coming back to my main story, we are about eight desis (till last week, all of us desis were Indians), a Sri Lankan and a Cambodian in our group. The language of discussion is naturally English for the most part, but put together a large desi junta in an informal setting and it’s hard for us to keep away from Hindi after a while. So yes, there are some Hindi quips exchanged from time to time, and our Cambodian friend, in particular, is an expert at picking up new stuff and frequently has us in splits with his attempts to repeat what he’s just heard.

He knows some phrases very well by now and hearing him say ‘Chalo khana khaate hain, bahut bhook lagi hain’ every noon followed by a ‘Chalo chalo, jaldi chalo’ and a nonchalant ‘Theek hain’ when we plead for two more minutes, a stranger could be forgiven for thinking he is actually an Indian in perfect Chinese disguise! (Roughly translated the three phrases mean ‘Come on, let’s eat, I am very hungry’, ‘Come fast’, and ‘That’s okay’!) Incidentally, this guy has some prior background of Hindi, he has seen Indian movies (with the dialogues dubbed in Cambodian but the Hindi songs thankfully left well alone) on Cambodian television as a child, but sadly all he remembers from them is ‘lots of people singing and dancing everywhere’!

We have very entertaining and sometimes explosive discussions during lunch every day, talking about American movies and sitcoms, Cambodian food and culture, Indian movies and politics – any topic under the sun as long as it’s not about work actually. The Sri Lankan friend is usually keen to discuss the latest LTTE exploit in Sri Lanka while the Cambodian friend is always curious to know more about India. And an Indian friend C’s favorite topic is Kashmir and terrorism in South Asia. Somehow, whatever be the starting point of the discussion, he manages to steer it towards his pet peeve – South Asian politics, with special regard to Kashmir.

So one can imagine the kind of volatile situation our new Pakistani friend stepped into last Monday! The first few days went by peacefully enough, but it’s rather hard to kick an old habit suddenly, so as expected, the much-loved topic came up for discussion again yesterday. Our new friend handled the situation pretty well though, admitting there were some problems on both sides of the border and leaving it at that. Thankfully C seemed to have got the hint by then and did not persist with his usual enthusiasm to debate the issue in microscopic detail. Some major fireworks were averted that day, I think!

(I am eagerly waiting for the next India-Pakistan cricket match though. Where Kashmir did not do the trick, an Indo-Pak match surely will. My father was good friends with many Pakistani colleagues during his long stint abroad and the Indian and Pakistani families made it a point to watch Indo-Pak matches together whenever possible. Ah, the pleasure of sitting in a friend’s home, enjoying his hospitality, watching a cricket match on his television set and cheering like crazy when his country’s star batsmen is out clean-bowled!)

The new guy is a pretty sporting and friendly person, I must say. With his pronounced (and to our ears, slightly funny) Punjabi accent and flamboyant personality (he’s been a theatre actor during his youth), he adds a welcome playful element to our group. He is also very patient in answering all our curious questions on Pakistan and Pakistani society. I now know that Gujrat is a city in the Punjab province of Pakistan, I know several hardcore Urdu words like mukhtalif and zaika and that the colloquial Urdu spoken in Karachi sounds very similar to Bombaiya Hindi spoken in Bombay. Our Cambodian friend, however, might soon get lost in the subtle distinction between swaad and zaika, I fear! (Both refer to a subtle variation of the English words ‘taste’ and ‘flavor’ in Hindi and Urdu respectively.)

Disclaimer: Needless to say, some of the Pakistani references in this post are not meant to be taken seriously. Both my father and I have the greatest affection and respect for our Pakistani colleagues and consider them very good friends. I also understand that Kashmir is a serious political and humanitarian problem, and I have no intention of poking fun at it in any way. I have no fanatical views on Kashmir myself, and would only like it to return to peace and normalcy as early as humanely possible. I am extemely fanatical about Indo-Pak cricket matches, however!

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7 responses to “Cultural diversity in the office lunch group

  1. I stay with 2 Pakistani housemates. I have always had Pakistanis as my friend circle. I found them to be a more decent bunch than Indians. I love their general respect shown to elders even if the difference in age is only a matter of 1-2 yr. Fortunately for me, I keep an open mind and therefore have no problems getting along with them. They do have their prejudices about Indians as we have about them. It’s fun working through them.

    Here’s one for you –
    Did you know that in Karachi, dark skinned people are considered to be Catholics? lol

    ~ Vinod

  2. Yes, the prejudices on either side are sad. I don’t know about who is more decent (wouldn’t like to generalize) but it’s nice for me to be friends with them and get to know Pakistani culture.

  3. I also got to know the way Hindi occurs to their years. They find some ( a few) of the Hindi phrases quite funny in the way the words come together to describe something. I asked for the alternative that they were accustomed to and they said something that seemed allright to me.

    The best part was Pakistani food. It’s heavenly. Shaan masala from Pakistan is a gift to bachelors from the subcontinent. The joke in my house with my Pakistani housemates is – “While everything in Pakistan is breaking down they have two things going for them – food and women (in terms of beauty only)”.

    The decency thing was merely my own limited experience with Indians and Pakistanis.

    ~ Vinod

  4. Just before I forget –
    you will notice Pakistanis using phrases such as “Meini Bhi Khana hein” instead of “Mujhe Bhi Khana Hein”. It took me a while to get used to that.

  5. Yeah Vinod, they find my Bambaiya Hindi especially funny and hard on their ears. 🙂

    Do you have a blog? Why don’t you do a post on your experiences? Should be fun!

  6. I don’t have a blog. There is something about blogs that I find spiritually weakening. It’s difficult to explain.

    My housemates have been introduced to the Hindi word ‘Chinta’ (worry). They are now using it freely. In Urdu it is fikr. While they introduce Pakistani food to me (try Sheermal), I am introducing South Indian food to them (lemon rice, tamarind rice, tomato rice etc).

    Keep posting on your experiences with the Pakistani guy. I’d like to see the parallels with mine.

    By the way, South India (where I’m from) seems like a different country than North India to my Pakistani housemates. They simply can’t relate to it at all. lol

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