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.

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]