Samantha Kannan is an American who has been to India nine times, fell in love with our land, married an Indian, and immensely takes pride in Indian culture and ethos. She recently released her first book A New Journey which became a bestseller for weeks. Her 83,500 followers and 86.8 million views on Quora, speaks about the love she has garnered over the years with her values, humour, and principles. In October 2019, she launched Unga English, free conversational English practice platform to support people who want to hone their English speaking skills. Her next book A new Journey 2, is going to releasing next year on Valentine’s Day.
She talked to Interview Times about her journey.
Can you briefly tell our readers about yourself?
I was born and brought up in a small town a couple of hours away from south of Chicago and lived an average life. In college, I moved in with a friend’s Punjabi family and began watching Bollywood and Hindi Serials. I was inspired by them to visit India for the first time back in 2012 and have since returned at least once per year for a total of now nine trips. Last year my husband and I got married in his native Madurai, and I have currently been studying Tamil for two years. We live in Illinois with our puppy Jimikki.
How does the recognition over Quora affect you in real life?
I started writing on Quora because I was lonely, and I liked sharing my experiences with Indians. While teaching in a Kerala village, discussing my favourite movies, tips and tricks for my studies in Tamil and Hindi, or just nonsense day-to-day things, I’ve always had a penchant for oversharing.
There is a wide range of followers. I have met kind people at airports and restaurants, even once at a movie in the US. Undoubtedly, I’ve made some amazing connections and built incredible friendships. But conversely, there is much bullying that I struggle with quite a bit.
With such a mass following, you have won admirers as well as haters. How do you cope with both of them?
Most people are very kind. Some people ping me every day just to wish Good Morning. Some notice my unusual tone in my post, then message to see if I’m okay. There are a lot of sweet and good people in the world. But then some people send just the worst and most hateful messages, and it’s hurtful—attacking my marriage, my non-existent children, my looks, my family. It’s been suddenly and steadily growing for the past few weeks, and as someone who has already undergone the pangs of depression, it is too much sometimes. I always report and block, but it’s usually dummy accounts, and the damage is already done.
What is Unga English? How did you come up with the idea?
Unga is a colloquial way of saying “your” in Tamil, and I admired how it sounded with English. I created Unga English to encourage people in improving their English. As a native speaker, I usually get abundant messages asking for advice or suggestions. Due to this, I came to realise how expensive it is to study a language thoroughly. I believe language shouldn’t be something exclusively available to the highest bidder. Anyone with interest and passion should have the opportunity to explore, learn, and improve. That’s why I wanted to establish a free conversational practice website to support aspiring people to develop their English speaking skills further. I had to temporarily take it down as I am in the final semester of my second degree, but I am going to resume it in January 2021.
You recently released your book, A New Journey. Can you tell our readers about it? And how has been the response?
I wrote A New Journey when I was living in a Kerala village for teaching English. It was the best experience of my life, and I still miss it every day. I was welcomed heartily and made to feel that I belonged in a way that I haven’t experienced in any other place—even my home. Since I have a terrible memory, I started noting down the small mundane things so that I could remember them—basically a diary. But then I slowly realised that I needed to share them because there was so much cynical curiosity surrounding my trip. People were asking if it smelled, if I felt safe, if it was dirty or if the people knew English. I wanted to take the opportunity to dispel a lot of the stereotypes and show people how India truly is. I’ve had numerous people who reached out to me after reading it who expressed their shock and got enthusiastic about visiting India, too.
The overall reception of my book has been very positive, and I also enjoyed a few weeks on the Bestseller list.
From time immemorial, there are various prevalent conceptions or disbeliefs in the minds of Indians and westerners for each other which are mostly perceived and filtered through the lens of Media or Film Industry. What’s your opinion about it?
Unquestionably, there are so many prevalent misconceptions that we harbour about each other; western people think Indians are socially inept people with bad English who love cows, and at the same time, Indians believe that westerners are divorced drunkards who lack intelligence.
On the whole, we only have the portrait which the media paints for us, and it’s quintessential for each of us to look below the surface and discover the reality about each other. For someone like me, who has travelled extensively in both India and the west, it’s something that I feel is my responsibility, so I try to dismantle these stereotypes whenever possible.
Interviewed by Yogita Malhotra and Tushant Baranwal