When Art Imitates Life

August 15, 2012

While learning Hindi through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) exchange program in India, Eyal Hanfling starred in a school musical play about Swami Vivekananda, a 19th century Indian spiritual leader. Vivekananda is credited with introducing the Indian philosophies of Vendata and Yoga to the U.S. and Europe and with raising the status of Hinduism as a major world religion.

"From the moment I was notified I had been chosen to play the role of Vivekananda, I thought it was hilarious that an American person who had come to India was going to be acting as an Indian person who went to America," says Hanfling, a native of Bethesda, Maryland.

Hanfling and the other actors conducted most of the dialogue of the play in English, but one monologue to be read by Hanfling and all the songs were in Hindi.

In preparing for the play, Hanfling had ample opportunity to practice his Hindi. "Being in the school play and working closely with the other student actors and directors did help me improve my Hindi skills and confidence in speaking," says Hanfling.

Hanfling believes playing the role of Vivekananda mirrors the role he has played as an American exchange student in India, serving as a citizen and cultural ambassador.

"Swami Vivekananda travelled the world to spread messages of peace, and living in harmony," says Hanfling. "At one point during the play, I stood on a balcony above the stage and recited the words, 'Sisters and Brothers of America,' the same words that Vivekananda said in his famous speech to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. By calling Americans 'sisters and brothers,' Vivekananda did exactly what I am doing this year, which is promoting mutual understanding and creating connections with people in other nations."

Hanfling credits living with host family members, a standard part of most NSLI-Y programs, with much of the progress he has made learning Hindi.

"It was the host family members, teachers, and workers in my host family's homes that stopped me, asked me a question about the U.S., and waited as I tried to give a response in Hindi," says Hanfling. "So over the course of this year, I have been able to improve my confidence in speaking through every day conversations about life in America, and at the same time try to share my culture with Indian people."

In the future, Hanfling hopes to continue his study of Hindi at a university, apply for a Critical Language Scholarship to study Hindi intensively during a summer while in college, and study or work in India. Hanfling, whose ethnic heritage is half-Indian but who did not speak Hindi prior to the program, wants to start speaking more Hindi in his home in the U.S. as well as continue to read the Harry Potter books in Hindi.

"Over the course of this year, my college and career plans have slowly changed from totally undecided to a closer focus on International Relations, Political Science and South Asian Studies," says Hanfling. "I want to use my knowledge of Hindi to hopefully branch out and learn more languages like Urdu and Arabic.... I foresee myself coming back to India in the future to work, and using what I have learned this year about living abroad to try and experience other culture and become a global citizen...I know that the bonds between the U.S. and India that are made now will be very important in the future and I want to be part of the group of people who are making those bonds."