Bahasa Indonesia A Language of Men or Ducks?

[From my piece in The Bali Times, 2012]

In my continuing effort to demonstrate conclusively and for all practical purposes that I cannot possibly learn to speak the Indonesian language I will occasionally, under the influence of some ill-founded optimism, buy a new lesson book and set to work with renewed, though short-lived enthusiasm, having decided that the fault is not with my brain but with the quality of the learning material available. In two years I have managed to progress from class 6 to class 1, and succeeded, rather spectacularly I think, in learning less with each effort.

My latest purchase was of a book entitled “Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan.” I had at first no idea what these words meant, but the volume attracted me for two reasons — the one being the singularly tongue-twisting title itself and the other being the fact that the contents of the book are presented bilingually in English and Indonesian. The latter case made reading the material in Indonesian rather easy — really one does not have to read it at all — and the former afforded me with the opportunity to employ the tongue-twisting title, once my wife taught me how to pronounce it, for every occasion and in any manner — in song, in chant, as a blessing or as a curse, in kindness or in anger, while cooking, while showering, while sleeping. It simply rolls off the tongue for every purpose imaginable.

“Good morning, how are you?”

“Pendidikan kewarganegaraan.”

“Did you remember to buy the potatoes?”

“Pendidikan kewarganegaraan.”

“You’re an idiot!.”

“Pendidikan kewarganegaraan!”

You see? Here are two words which, as long as kept isolated from the whole of language and meaning, provide a most wonderfully complete, not to mention stylish, response for every occasion. Or they did so until my wife told me what they actually mean and thereby spoiled the fun. What pendidikan kewarganegaraan means, as it turns out, is “education in citizenship.” This makes the phrase, sadly enough, of little use in Indonesia, and of no use at all in America or Europe. I’ve begun, therefore, to cast about for an equally attractive, yet more functional phrase for chanting and singing, and I invite the reader to send suggestions.

One will often hear it said that Indonesian is a simple language. It has no past tense or present tense or future tense, they will say. It’s all inferred according to context. It’s a child’s language, a primitive construct — an idiot’s language, as my English friend says (who, curiously, cannot speak a word of it). But I disagree, and do so on the grounds that any language that operates on the basis of inference, without proper verb tenses or denotation of time, is a mystery of the purest kind, a thing to be sorted out by sages and mystics rather than a mind as common as mine.

Deepening the inscrutability is that fact that Indonesian as taught in the school books is never in actual practice spoken. In other words, the language that the common Indonesian people speak is not Indonesian at all! You can test it for yourself. Just try saying something out of a lesson book. They will stare at you blankly, as if you had spoken Swahili. And then will set to chattering and blabbering in whatever language it is they are really speaking — which, according to them, is Indonesian, but according to your school book is certainly not. Herein is my exasperation made perfect — for my studies are rendered not only frustrating, but entirely pointless.

Take the word “buat”, for instance (from the verb “membuat”). Your school book will tell you that the word means “make” or “made.” But your school book has lied — for the word in everyday practice means almost anything and can be employed for almost any purpose. I have heard it first hand from my wife, and when I tell her she is wrong, she merely laughs. On the positive side, however, the novice in language may feel with fair assurance that if he says “buat,” he has uttered something pertinent to whatever subject is at hand.

Throughout my studies my most useful tutor has been Donald Duck. Donald’s comics are available at Gramedia and I buy one once or twice a month. Donald, you see, has read his school books, and speaks proper and appropriate Indonesian, in the best Disney tradition. What he says may be stupid, but the important point is that he says it correctly and with an appreciation for the reader who has learned correctly. I come to him for clarity and for comfort. It may be, in the long run, that Donald Duck is the only Indonesian speaker I will ever understand; nonetheless, I take heart in the accomplishment, however meagre, of having forged a functioning connection in the language, if only with a cartoon duck..

An Education in Citizenship

[From my piece in The Bali Times, 2012]

Recently,, I purchased a bilingual language book called “Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan” (which translated means “education in citizenship”). I spoke in that article mostly about my own difficulty with learning the Indonesian language, but I’d like to say something this week about the actual contents of the book, which turn out to be as strange to the western point of view as the title is to the western tongue, leaving both mind and tongue to work quizzically at formulations that defy articulation within the framework of the conventions we bring from the west.

The first section of the book (vol. I) deals with differences in gender. We are told that mankind consists of people who are male or female. Mr. Mijan is a man, Mrs. Mijan is a woman, while Andi is a boy and Ani is a girl. So far so good. Mr. Mijan is tall and handsome; Mrs. Mijan is beautiful and elegant. Well, okay.

Andi, the boy, stands upright, wears trousers, and wants to be gallant like his father. Ani wears dresses and wants to look beautiful and elegant like her mother.

Can you tell yet where this is headed?

Sometimes a girl likes to wear pants, the text explains. Ani likes to wear pants when she plays outside because they make her feel more comfortable and free — and I quote: “Nowadays women wear pants. It has been common indeed.”

Indeed.

And here it comes.

“Although a girl likes to wear pants, a boy does not like to wear a dress like a girl. It is not proper for a boy to wear a dress.”

Now there’s a statement that is both wonderfully clear and wholly inappropriate as far as modern education in western societies is concerned. A boy can’t wear a dress? The hell you say! Of course he can. He can wear anything he wants. He doesn’t even have to be a boy if he doesn’t want to be. Don’t go confusing us with these black and white notions — in this brave new world, anything is possible (and everything too).

The volume goes on to instruct that there are certain activities that are appropriate for the male and certain that are appropriate for the female. The male, for instance, may be found repairing roofs, hefting shovels, pounding nails, whereas the woman’s place is in the kitchen and in the laundry room. The male wields the hammer and the hoe, the female the mop and the broom.

Now, for a person unfortunate enough to be as old as I, social mores like those presented in Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan are not really foreign after all. At first impression they may strike us as foreign (as well as laughable), and yet if the mind has remained constant enough through the long decades of social conditioning, we will remember our own early years of instruction, the Dick and Jane books, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins — books which taught the same morals and mores as found in Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan. The significant difference is that the latter was published in 2010, whereas the former were creatures of the last mid century.

Most of us who have come to this country from afar are aware of having travelled not only through space but through time as well. We step from the plane into both the orient and our own back yard, circa 1959, where boys wear pants and girls wear dresses, fathers are gallant and mothers are elegant, where men are men and women are glad of it, and so on as far as clichés can be extended. We find ourselves impaled upon a double edged sword, both edges of which are keen and true; and what we have learned through the decades and what we knew from the beginning are now laid neatly open in halves side by side. Neither the one nor the other knows for certain to whom it belongs. We are shocked by the sudden re-emergence in force of a set of notions we have come to see as antiquated and inappropriate, even humorous — and yet we are aware of some strange sense of propriety, right or wrong, residing in what we have learned to reject and shun. We call these notions truths, we hold them to be self-evident, when all they really are is easy. Life promises, once again, to become so very simple.

But it is not simple, is it? Much as we might like it to be, it is not. It is just this, in fact, that we have spent the last decades of our lives learning. It is this that progressive societies strive to acknowledge. And it is this that Andi and Ani will learn in due time as well — that the world is made not of factory pegs and slots, but of fabulous beings, no two the same, each more unique with every inspection.

Grow up well, little children. Do no harm. Love one another.

[Note: I am pleased to say, four years from the penning of this piece, that I now speak the language ‘floo-ent-ly’; which is to say that people can usually understand what I’m trying to say, and I can usually understand what they are saying, as long as they speak slowly and ‘bookishly’, avoiding the slang and colloquial conventions they would commonly employ in conversion with ‘normal’ people]