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Cancer Care Chronicles
November 2017

Mother Tongue

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Palliative Care and Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas
JAMA Oncol. 2017;3(11):1471-1472. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2017.1533

“It is a part of who we are. You will appreciate it later,” my mother repeatedly told me as a child the many times I refused to respond to her in Hindi. Although I was born in the United States, I always felt slightly foreign. For one thing, my name, Charu Agrawal, sounds foreign. My mother would pack foods like aloo gobi and parathas in my lunch box. I constantly found myself trying to fit in with my classmates, who spoke English at home, had American-sounding names like Brittany, and brought turkey sandwiches for lunch. However, as immigrants to this country, my parents were determined to assimilate into American culture while retaining their Indian identity. Speaking Hindi was central to their identity. In contrast, I was desperately trying to fit in, so speaking English, sometimes with a Texas twang, was mandatory among my schoolmates. Nonetheless, I soon learned that I had better speak Hindi in our household if I expected any consideration from my parents, such as permission to attend birthday parties and sleepovers, and later, to borrow the family car. So, I spoke Hindi purely as a survival tactic, not as a nod to my cultural heritage. While I spent the majority of my childhood thinking that Hindi would not have any practical use outside our home, my perspective changed one day on hospital rounds.