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..