I read the other day that Pope Francis speaks something like nine languages, but instead of sending me into further raptures over my favorite modern-day hero, my first thought was, Oh, yeah??? Well, I'd like to see you try Kannada, pal!
Once again, I find myself facing a language that seems like nothing more than an elaborate practical joke, designed to make me blurt random, poorly pronounced - and wrong - words at hapless strangers.
Kannada is not going into my brain. It is not rolling melodiously off my tongue. Whenever I try to stutter a word or two that I've managed to memorize, I'm seized with antiperspirant-defying nerves that cruelly shove me into gibberish. Gaaaaa! Leeeehhh! Eeeooom!
I've grown used to politely puzzled looks and alarmed side-eye: Is she OK? Should we put a pencil in her mouth so she doesn't swallow her tongue?
So, I compensate with the ol' thumbs up.
On the bus and trying to tell the conductor where I need to go, I mispronounce a few words and then give him a winning thumbs up. At KR Market and attempting to indicate that I don't, in fact, want to pay 100 rupees per kilo for pomegranates, I say 80 rupees and get that thumb in the air. Trying to tell akka that I'd like a bottle of water, I point confidently at the shelf with the water and give her a double thumbs up.
Go big or go home, I always say.
Oh, occasionally I mix it up and flash the thumbs up's equally convivial cousin, A-OK - index finger and thumb forming a circle, three remaining fingers arrayed in a jaunty sunburst of support - but I like the decisiveness of the thumbs up. It's like an exclamation point on the top of my hand. "Yay!" it says. "I may not technically 'understand' what you just said, if we're being persnickety, but maybe I do? Subconsciously? On some sort of 'we all speak the same language as members of the human family' level? I mean, check out this optimistic thumb!"
I also pair my thumbs up with a smile so friendly it borders on manic. I smile my mouth practically off my face. If anyone's trying to cultivate an image of America as a land of intellectuals, I'm doing nothing for the cause. Sorry.
You know what, though? I may be some goofy golden retriever of a foreigner - one with opposable thumbs, luckily! - but the thumbs up also says that I'm trying, I think whatever is going on right now is awesome and I'm really happy to be here.
And I get quite a few smiles, and even a few thumbs ups, in return.