The Complications of Simplicity

Indonesian is said to be a fairly simple language. Even the Indonesians themselves will say so. And theoretically, they are right — it is a fairly simple language, conceptually.

But there are two problems.

One is its abbreviated sort of structure. It’s simply downright un-American, and certainly downright un-English. English is a language of many grammatical requirements, and its forms are very specific. You may say for instance, I am going to school, or I will go to school, or I went to school, or I go to school. In Indonesian, the whole ball of wax is contained in three words: Saya ke sekolah, literally ‘I to school.’ The particulars are implied in the context — which is to say that the hearer will fill in the blanks according to the context in which the sentence is uttered. If there is any confusion, certain specifying words may be added, such as ‘sudah’ (already) ‘belum’ (not yet), or ‘sedang’ (in the process).

For those who speak English as their native language, the simplicity is … well, way too simple. It is the foreignness of structure, therefore, that baffles. It is not a ‘normal’ way of expressing one’s thoughts.

Secondly, although Indonesian is at its core a simple language, consisting of a much smaller vocabulary than English, it has been greatly expanded by the common people with all kinds of alternative words and colloquial expressions and forms. One may understand an Indonesian who is speaking directly to oneself, because he will be employing common, correct forms; but one will likely not completely (or even near completely) understand Indonesians as they speak with one another, as they will be employing a dizzying tongue of slang, colloquialisms, alternate words, and so on. Add to this that they may well be salting the whole conversation with words from a shared second language, such as Balinese or Javanese. For instance, when I arrived at the neighborhood Starbucks the other day, the Barista happily greeted me with the word “Tumben”.

“Tumben? What is that?” I ask.

“Tumben? It’s … hmmm … I don’t know. Let’s see now … What is the Indonesian word?”

“You’re asking me?”

“Ha-ha! Hmm. Oh! Sudah lama! That’s it! Long time, no see. It’s Balinese word.”

There’s a young fellow who works part-time as the parking attendant at the Circle K  store just up the street. If he is there when I stop by, the unspoken rule in that I must sit and chat for a while. Which I happily do. But to be honest, this young man’s use of language is so terrifically heavy on slang, that I generally understand no more than half of what he is saying. He, of course, understands all of what I say because I am employing only the basic core Indonesian that all Indonesians understand.

I was pleased, however, the other night when he said “Tumben malam” — because I understood it! I learned it at Starbucks! ‘Tumben: Long time, no see, plus malam: Nighttime = ‘Long time, no see at nighttime’, or, in English, ‘It has been a long time since you’ve come here at night.’

Regarding whatever he said afterwards, I am still uncertain.


From Orbit to Earth

I have been writing in the last couple posts about language, from my perspective in 2012. I had been here in Bali perhaps two years at that time and was writing, in English, of course, for The Bali Times newspaper, which is now, as far as I know, defunct. Not my fault! It seemed an especially useful, or genial, news service for ex-patriates, providing a western sort of voice and perspective, along with just plain news in straightforward English. The only other English option I know of is The Jakarta Post, a major newspaper which is well done and in fluent English, but which for the most part addresses issues which are rather strange and inscrutable to common western experience–i.e., articles on Indonesian politics and government commissions, corruption an anti-corruption commissions, and so on.

In my weekly column, called Practical Paradise, I wrote mostly of the ex-patriate experience in Bali, and in Indonesia in general. Most of the pieces were humorous, in some degree, and many pointed to the curious displacement that occurs when western ways and expectations meet head-on with common realities in a foreign country, resulting in everything from humor to wonder to frustration and irritation.

I was fortunate to come to Bali with my wife, who is originally from Jakarta. She had also worked in Bali in the past, and lived in America for some 10 years, and thus is fluent in English as well.  I depended on her at first like a blind man depends on a sighted companion, for I knew barely a word of Indonesian. One may read in travel brochures that most people in Indonesia speak some English. Not so. They certainly do not. Oh, perhaps in tourist-dense centers like Kuta or Seminyak or Nusa Dua you will find a fair number of folks, especially those working in the tourist industry, who speak some basic English, but in the midst of the general population, in most areas, no, they don’t speak English.

At first, I tended to hang out with western acquaintances–an Englishman named Vick, Australians, Mike and Adam. Together, we would end up in western establishments or tourist spots, sort of endlessly orbiting the world we might otherwise be inhabiting. We saw everything from the outside, from the window of our capsule, flying our own flags, keeping in constant contact with Houston, mission control.

And it occurred to me, as the months passed, that this orbit must deteriorate–in fact, was deteriorating. Vicks interactions became mostly in the form of gripes and complaints–why couldn’t these people learn to drive like civilized folks in London? Why should he have to learn gibberish like the Indonesian language? Shouldn’t they be learning English? Why should his wife, a Balinese woman, complain about having to help him with every little thing? If the shoe were on the other foot, he would help her, by God. As for Mike? Mike became more and more a hermit. He visited the same establishments every day, the same restaurants, the same coffee cafes, where the staff members knew him and knew what he wanted. He rode his bike alone to Serangan Island, sat on the beach alone, then rode back alone, and at night he would listen to radio programs and show up for coffee on our next visit with a brand new batch of ludicrous conspiracy theories.

Things get awfully lonely in outer space, awfully strange, awfully unreal.

There are two types of expatriate. Those who live much as they would live in their home countries, residing in and matriculating among enclaves of other expatriates, negotiating the native culture, when necessary, through interpreters, hired assistants, maids, contractors; and those who descend from that air-tight capsule, splash down, as it were, into the vast foreign waters and swim for all they’re worth.

Language, in the latter case, is the needful stroke. You can float for a time, especially in Bali’s waters, heavy as they are with the salt of congeniality, but you must strive forward with purpose, with a destination in mi, nd. Though I speak with the tongue of an American, but know not Indonesian, I am like sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.  Language is the key.

So I  hit the books with renewed effort. Comic books, grade school books, simple books for young readers, and I launched myself from  ground zero into the heart of the alien earth, forcing myself to interact, to speak–in the market, in the café, in the bar, in the park, on the street–enduring the nervous puzzlement of my victims and striving forward, trying again, asking them to please repeat what they had said, slowly, and like a school book. I resisted the apologetic smile, the clueless shake of my head, the easy departure, the discomfort of appearing stupid, and swam on, splashing rather wildly at first, gulping a bit of seawater, but improving my stroke with every effort, effort by effort. Baby strokes

I’m a slow learner. I really am. Especially where language is concerned. Of the two years of French that I had in college, I’ve retained perhaps three phrases. But then, I wasn’t interested. Now, I am. And I am pleased to say that, after six years, I am generally able to express my thoughts and understand what other folks are saying, and I am able to read in the language with ease. Often enough, I will still have to ask a companion to repeat something he has said, but then just as often, it turns out that he has employed a slang or colloquial terminology that I was still unaware of (and believe me, Indonesian is full of these devices, much more so, I would say, than English).

Several times a week, I visit the nearby Starbucks, where the young folks who work there will often sit at my table while on a break and talk about whatever comes up–my country, their country, my family, their family, politics, dreams–you name it. We freely pass to and fro across the miraculous bridge called language, as we are aliens no longer. We are friends.

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.”


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]

The Celebrity of the Bali Bule

[Biaung 2013. From my article in the now defunct Bali Times newspaper]

There are not many Caucasians in my neck of the woods, being as it is rather off the beaten tourist track, and as a result of being rare in this sense, I will often experience a bit of celebrity. Not like, say, Brad Pitt or Lady Gaga, given that people neither go into a frenzy at my presence nor violently protest it, but more like a giraffe or a duck-billed-platypus.

I’m unusual. I’m odd. Children cannot help but shout at the sight of me. “Hey bule!”*  Either that or they shy away hide behind a parent or a nearby tree. Some of them merely stare, like little deer caught in headlights. The older boys, the adolescents, have learned some English, and they like to employ it whenever opportunity knocks. “Hey, Mister! Beer! Obama! Boom-boom!”

Honestly, it find it all purely delightful.

I suppose this is because I a so accustomed to being fairly perfectly anonymous.  In America, if you are not Brad Pitt or Lady Gaga or some reasonable facsimile, people simply don’t give a damn. You may as well be a fire hydrant or a telephone pole. And if you were to pipe up and say, “Hi,, how ya doin’?” or “Hey, where ya goin’?”, the stranger so addressed would more than likely avert his eyes and walk a little faster, taking you for some kind of weirdo or pervert. Either that or he’d flip you the finger, if he had enough time to bother.

I’m not saying it has always been that way. It’s more of a recent development, over the last half century or so, a period of time that has seen the division of community into small, somewhat paranoid special interest groups, isolated cliques through which society in general is negotiated with watchful caution, being considered vaguely dangerous and by and large threatening.

I’m reminded here of a scene from the old movie Blast from the Past. In this movie, Brandon Frasier has from childhood been sequestered with his family in a fallout shelter since 1950 or so., the father having mistakenly believed that the world above had been wiped out in a nuclear war. When finally Brandon emerges from the shelter, some time in the 1970s, one of the first  creatures he sets eyes upon is a black female mail carrier. Astounded, nearly frozen with delight at the novelty, Brandon finally exclaims, “Oh my lucky stars–a Negro!” In the deeply segregated society of the 1950s, one simply did not see black people, nor did black people see white people. We knew of each other’s existence, of course, but to behold the actual creature was extraordinary and inspired and inspired a certain sort of amazement, a passing enchantment.

So it’s kind of like that. Oh my lucky stars, a bule! And why not? Brandon’s character intended no insult, but merely expressed a child-like wonder at the brave new world he had suddenly entered. Here was something beyond the pale of everyday experience–the environment of the self-sufficient yet hopelessly remote fallout shelter–and by extension, the social environment of 1950s America. In the same way, these people who greet me in Bali mean no insult or intrusion. They simply acknowledge the uncommon event and are driven to connect, and thus take part through speech.

The beach nearest my home is not a tourist beach. There are no shops or cafes, no chaise lounges, no sellers or hawkers. From Padang Galak to Ketewel and beyond, the sand is black, and hot like smoldering coals. People don’t swim or snorkel here, partly because it’s a rather dangerous sea, and partly because you’d come out looking like a loaf of poppy-seed bread. It is local people who frequent this beach, to fish, to collect black and white rocks for sale to the warehouse down the road, or attend a ceremony or a ritual bath; and in the evening they come to stroll, to chat, to let the children play in the lake-like shallows left by an outgoing tide.

It is here that my celebrity seems most noted and esteemed. Everyone wants to say hello. They need so say hello. They alter their path to approach nearby, to smile, to wave, to say hello. Where are you from? Where are you going? Where do you live? How many children do you have? It is simple; it is the same; and yet it’s newly pleasant with every occasion. I am alive, after all, and they are alive, and we are alive together on this one small island, in this huge, non-negotiable, impersonal world.

“Om, Om,” one man exclaims, calling me “uncle” as he turns his little daughter by the shoulders to face me. “Minta uang dari Om,” he tells her. Ask for money. And I am slain by the innocence of the thing, the faith of the man, the sky anticipation in the eyes of his little girl. Ask and you shall receive, knock and the door will be opened.

Sadly, I am helpless to help them. Silver and gold have I none. My pockets are quite empty, and my wallet as well. But such as I have, I give. Friendship. Kindness. Humanity. Celebrity.

[*Bule: In general, any person who is not Indonesian; more specifically, a Caucasian person]