By Teja Dusanapudi

The motherland has two tongues: the one we speak and the one we see. There is the language of words, with unique phrases and even more unique vulgarities, versus the language of the body, of perfectly tilted heads nodding back and forth, of mobbed hands grabbing for the check. We, immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, tell our stories in both of these vernaculars; we pass down our histories through our hands as much as our lips.

Tilt. Shake. Side to side. As one of the most common gestures in India–and one of the most perplexing to foreigners–the head bobble is a movement that means far more than what it signifies. With its very own Wikipedia page, the head shake is recognized across the globe as archetypally Indian; it is a physical representation of the culture of a subcontinent. As a simple gesture, it would seem easy to replicate. And yet, judging by the popularity of articles, blogs, and videos on the internet offering decodings of such seemingly inscrutable movements, the head bobble is apparently as difficult to understand as it is compelling for Western audiences.

But for anyone hailing from the subcontinent, the movement is second nature, an instinctual act. We see it in our grandmothers telling stories of our parents to us, in the uncertainties our uncles show at weddings when asked for another drink, in ourselves as we mimic our family and reminisce in the language of our people. It is, as writer Priya Pathiyan suggests, neither a yes or a no, but an assertion of friendliness and respect. Behavioral consultant Pradeep Chakravarty goes on to assert that such an ambiguous act reproduces the same culture it originates from; as a result of India’s “traditional agrarian economy…. [people] don’t openly convey refusal or disagreement… because you never know when you will need their help.”

The head bobble, then, has more in common with a sleight of hand than any kind of nod; in plain sight, occurring everyday in one of the world’s largest populations, it is physical evidence of what we have come to characterize as a collectivist society, a culture centralized around group harmony over individual discord. Rather than a definitive answer, the move presents a sort of equanimity, equally applicable in agreements as in disagreements. Paradoxically, a head nod communicates nothing while simultaneously enabling a wider range of communication. It is a cultural product that spreads the values of its origins.

The inability for other Western cultures to accept such a movement comes, perhaps, from mismatched sensibilities–a willingness to act in personal interest above other goals. But what, then, does that imply for us, for the people of two cultures, two cultures so different in values that our very movements are inscrutable to the land we live in?

Because the head nod is by no means limited to land, only culture. Inherited along with the collectivist values it reflects, the shake is used by people of South Asian descent even if they’d never been to the mainland. Rather, surrounded by friends and family, the act is transmitted within a country far away from its origin, learned from everyday interactions. 

And so whether Indian or Indian-American, whether speaking the language of the motherland or not, the head shake is still understandable across such barriers of language. But in its presence in the X-American, two cultures are forced to inhabit the same movements: one body inherits the simple, clean nods of yes and no, and at the same time learns how to move the neck in a figure eight to say both. 

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