writing > meta/life > rocketwoman
Last Updated: September 2018
12 minute read




I’m not a big podcast person. I’m also not big on evangelizing Indian…things (besides South Indian soul food because most of y’all have no idea what that is). I much rather enjoy my position of silently judging people telling me about their favorite Indian restaurant next to their hot yoga studio.

Yet here I am, presenting you with Rocket Woman on “My Indian Life”, which I was recommended to by Kamika (who represents approx 25% of my human connection to the country I was born in). Go listen to it. Sit through it, it’s only 20 minutes, I’ll wait here with my coffee while you’re on there.

Great! I have so many things to talk to you about this podcast!

“Men and Women are treated as equals”

You know, India is pretty sexist, but I believe it in this context. Still, I take it with a grain of salt. We hear about treating women as equals in the workplace and without skipping a beat talk about how BP Dakshayani, lead rocket scientist wakes up at 5am to cook for 8 people. But it remains that India is surprisingly progressive with workplace equality and has fewer glass ceilings in technical roles than America. This may be a surprise especially with the way our men behave around the world. However gender equality is about more than just the workplace. While things are changing, the conversation still feels restricted in India with holistic feminism being much less mainstream. Women willingly take on their burden as homemakers and honestly believe it’s their duty and not a man’s, or that walking alone at night is dangerous is just a fact of life. Because yes, it’s still one of the most dangerous countries for a woman outside alone at night, whether you’re a rocket scientist or not. I just want to say, no country is particularly ahead or behind others in gender equality, we just see progress in different walks, and can all learn from each other.

The Rocketwoman Herself

I fled the Indian higher education system and workforce culture as my sole objective at age 18. I looked at it from my high school bubble, and thought “I want to experiment and innovate and design and nope, India looks too hard and inflexible for me.” I ran away to America and never regretted it (my parents may have though) and get to do what I want how I want (after some detours). I have been able to find and attain all the environmental conditions to make my career trajectory as comfortable as possible between family, colleagues and luck. And then here’s this woman. Imagine being so driven you learn to write code without seeing a computer. From some poor village outside a backwater town. Where not even the boys wanted to pursue STEM, yet Dakshayani did, and oh did she. A movie about her would be like Hidden Figures x 10.

The Indian Space Program

I have spent some time poking around the startup scene in India. I have talked to various people who subsisted on a diet of Indian tech industry before moving to Silicon Valley or Seattle. I have tried out some of the “innovative” products to come out of the motherland. There’s much to be desired about the mindset towards product market fit, investment, morals and values, and pride in craft. The Indian software industry is largely trapped in the orbit of uninspired reimaginations of popular western tech offerings.

But the Indian space program achieved escape velocity from this fate (phew I worked so hard to set this up). It’s something every Indian should be proud of, and is seriously underrated purely as an achievement of humankind. ISRO works with a fraction of NASA’s resources, and unlike much of the advancement in Indian tech and lifestyle, isn’t merely following in the footsteps of advancement seen elsewhere. ISRO approaches the challenges of the final frontier from first principles, while incorporating a lot of uniquely Indian ingenuity and resource optimization. They conduct impressive space missions effectively from what you would find in your grandpa’s garage. We make a big deal about how Elon Musk’s deal is innovating by approaching various challenges from first principles, but ISRO’s work is 100x more impressive than SpaceX.

I am a staunch proponent of working with and near the people who are visionaries in the industry you care about. This is why I did what I did to live in America and work on consumer software and games. If you care about the space industry, and this might sound a bit radical, you should consider working at ISRO – even if you aren’t Indian!

Let me know if that’s something you want to explore, I’ll put you in touch with my aunt and uncle who are senior computer scientists at ISRO :)

The accents (and vernacular in general)

This is tangential to most of the content of the podcast, but anyone who knows me knows I love to talk about accents – and voice my pet peeves about the discriminatory biases of people in western culture when it comes to eastern accents. I have wanted to write a whole essay, nay several essays worth about accents. But this podcast is as good a segue as any to talk about this, so here we are, and I’m hijacking this commentary of the podcast and steering it into a commentary about English accents!

When we hear an accent, our first thoughts are indicative of our biases. What do you hear? Maybe you think the host Kalki has “less” of an Indian accent, but “still a bit of an Indian” accent. Then Dakshayani speaks. “Crude”, “rough”, “heavy”, “thick”, “strange phrases” or otherwise difficult to understand. Maybe you think the Rocket Woman sounds uneducated or “so Indian o m g”. Maybe you thought “is this person really that smart and accomplished but can’t speak English properly?” Maybe you couldn’t understand what she was saying half the time. Maybe you considered turning off the podcast because you couldn’t get over the cognitive dissonance of her being a pioneering genius at space flight research given the way she sounded. I hear you. I’m not surprised. Yet, see how silly that sounds?

I teared up listening to Dakshayani on this podcast almost as soon as she started talking. Why? Because (“whybecwaas…”) when I heard her speak, I heard “I was never slowed down by people not understanding me. I was never told not to represent my team/work because of how I spoke. I didn’t need to change the way I spoke to be treated with respect where I deserved it. I didn’t need to devote energy to adjusting my speech patterns to fit in with anyone or anywhere. I can also speak several other languages fluently yet can use English professionally.” I’m so happy she had that, because it’s a non-trivial barrier for immigrants in the West (depending on what they seek personally and professionally). Dakshayani may or may not have been shy of her comfort with English (“compared to the kids”), but she certainly didn’t show it, plowing on through the interview with confidence. I respect and admire that so much. And then her husband comes in. And he speaks a slightly different flavor of Indian English. Yet they probably don’t even think about each others’ different accents when they hear each other.

In 2007 I wouldn’t even have noted anything about the accents in this podcast either, or their differences. But over the last decade, my own accent has transitioned from a flavor of “non resident Indian” through various stages into what is now a somewhat Californian dialect of American English with occasional oddities. It was a largely subconscious transition, except at occasional checkpoints I realized I was highly sensitive to accents and code-switching. Most of my recent spoken English conversation has been with Americans or others migrating to America. An American accent is socially positioned as the end-goal of conversational English fluency here, and whether that’s my personal goal or not, over time we all drift towards it here. It’s more consciously pursued by some people, for various (respectable) reasons. When we (immigrants) mold our accents over time, we’re not trying to “pass for American”, and it’s not meant as any kind of diss to our motherlands or culture – we’re just optimizing whatever we can in a challenging environment, this is just another one of those things. After hundreds of interactions with people rolling their eyes/escalating their eyebrows/clicking their tongues/expressing frustration with their inability to understand us (yet making it clear to us that it’s our fault), we inevitably decide it’s less work to change our accent to be more like the American one, consciously or subconsciously. We start to hang on to the way people say certain words. We copy phrases our friends use. We try to find the line between “dewd” and “dood” when we say dude. When our old friends mock us for our Americanized accent, we feel slightly alienated from our old blood, yet brush it off and think - nay, hope - “they’ll eventually get used to it.” The ones who stay friends, do indeed get used to it. My “old accent” still surfaces when I talk to old friends or when saying words I don’t often use/hear in American conversation. When an American used to my mostly American accent hears such a word they get caught off-guard. “OH right I forgot you didn’t grow up here.” I wish you didn’t forget that. It’s part of who I am.

I miss my old accent. It felt more free. I would say words how I learned them, and rarely replayed the last thing I said in my head and think “do I want to reinforce that pronunciation going forward? maybe I should switch to saying it the British way.” I try to remember how I used to say certain words, and when I hear my family or old friends speak like how I used to, I think it’s beautiful. And every other non-native English speaking accent is beautiful. I love listening to people who have bothered to learn English yet bested the cues telling them to speak like a Britisher or an American, unlike myself.

If you primarily speak American English, think about this for a second. The burden of processing accents shouldn’t be on the speaker. You’re getting in the way of their ability to interact with you. I’ll just say it: monolingual speakers are lazy listeners. They rely heavily on context and conversation patterns and slang of the lingua franca such that they often can’t process more than 30% of perfectly grammatically correctly spoken sentences in the same language but doesn’t completely conform stylistically. And here’s the one-two punch – 1) they stay this way because they have the social privilege to do so. We still live in a world where if you don’t speak English like an American in America (and aren’t white) people won’t hesitate to tell you to “go back to your country if you can’t be bothered to learn to speak English properly”. 2) the same standards are then made universal, and even in contexts where the accent shouldn’t be held to these standards (between immigrants for example), people are shamed and mocked for not having mastered the American accent.

Remember, it’s not like bilingual speakers were “lucky” to have been raised on multiple languages. It’s usually because our mothertongue would never unlock certain doors for us until we learned English.

Pay closer attention when listening to the individual words. Become comfortable with how other people speak English. Don’t compliment (ahem patronize) people on “not having an accent,” nor tell their accent sounds cute/exotic/sophisticated/cool. Patiently ask them to repeat themselves if you didn’t catch them, and apologize for your inability to understand them.

Ask clarifying questions, but please don’t go “oh!! you mean //insert american-expression//!! lol!! your english is funny!!”. Politely suggest corrections to explicitly misused words if they made an honest syntactical or vocabulary mistake. Explain your initial confusion without implying the confusion was their fault and not yours. Learn to dissociate the accent from their command of the language. Appreciate that when someone speaks English with a non-American accent, chances are that they probably know at least one more language fluently! What are the chances you could speak that language with half the fluency they speak English?

Well, don’t worry, if you can say 3 words in that language you’ll probably be congratulated, invited to their wedding and offered a ladoo/pocky/mooncake. So maybe who cares?

for context, i'd say target audience/goals in priority order: a) white americans and 2nd+ generation american born: "i would like to understand what accents mean, and how its frustrating for us" b) 1st gen immigrants and bilingual americans: "hey don't disrespect fobs/your parents just because they don't talk like an american" c) immigrants and non-americans: hey i can agree with that and can relate, thanks for putting it into words ask jay valliamma BP dakshayani