Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Dear Mom - Part 1

(Note: This is a multi-part post of an earlier letter home. I thought it might be worth sharing here. -B)

Greetings from the Far Side!

Given that I am now approaching the second anniversary of my arrival in the Indo Zone, it seems appropriate to compose a summary letter of my experience so far. Many of you I am in contact with regularly and will no doubt find some of this repetitive, while others may enjoy some observations of life in Indonesia from someone who is making a concerted effort to thoroughly consume the culture here.

As you no doubt will assume, life here is quite different from anything I have experienced before. Southern Mexico and Guatemala approach some aspects, such as tropical lifestyle, however I was unprepared for the profound similarities between Indonesia and the States. Lying somewhat below the surface, there are a number of ideological and historical matches between the two cultures. Even most Indonesians can not appreciate them since it requires extended experience in the cultures of both countries. Perhaps in this letter you will also begin to taste the closeness of the two, if I do my job right.

When I came here, I had the express purpose of diving in and fully sampling this unique place and its peoples. I have made a focused effort to avoid other foreigners, to learn the language and to delve as far into the culture as I could. Given that language and culture are symbiotic, I knew that I must learn Indonesian as fast and as fluently as I could. However, I was unprepared for the tast I had set for myself.

Even though I am fluent in three languages and speak another eight with various levels of skill, they are all European languages. While this may not seem like a big obstacle, one must fully understand how language works to know why my task has been so difficult.

Languages are vocal pictures and we think in images, not words. The words we use contain not just definition, but shared experience and cultural references. When you learn a second language, you must be prepared to re-context your thinking in order to achieve true fluency. All European languages share a common cultural reference. Despite the superficial differences between Germanic and Romantic, the underlying context of history and culture are the same for Europeans, Australians and Americans. From the way we construct sentences to more subtle things like the way the Black Death in the medieval period pervades our culture, how Westerners think and conceptualize are very similar across national boundaries.

Herein lies the problem. The history of Indonesia, and Asia in the larger context, is quiet different. Thus, the language is framed quite differently from any in my experience. There is almost nothing in common with Western vocabulary or grammar. Certainly, foreign words and terms have been borrowed into Indonesian, but even those are slightly redefined, making more subtle understanding problematic, as it is tempting to use more familiar flavors in the words rather than shift the contextual window to accommodate. For example, the word transportasi may sound like its English counterpart, but in Indonesian, it has no context for private mobility, only public. Similarly, Indonesian has borrowed handuk from Dutch, but instead of meaning a face cloth or handkerchief, it means bath towel. These, of course, are the more obvious differences, but it takes some time to appreciate the more complex things.

One prime example is the Indonesian word “selamet”. It is commonly used in greetings such as “selamet pagi,” or “good morning.” Another common expression is “selamet dating,” which translates as “welcome,” but would more appropriately say “fortunate arrival.” “Selamet” translates as “good,” but if one transliterates the word, it simultaneously means “happy, fortunate, beautiful, peaceful, pleasant.” In other words, one must expand the context of the standard greeting to include a variety of flavors that are expressed with other words in English. Another expression in Indonesian is “mantap.” The dictionary definition is “steady,” however it is used in a variety of contexts that might be translated as “cool,” “excellent,” “delicious,” or even “far-out,” depending on how it is used. It is the same as if one tries to transliterate “take a shower” from English into Indonesian. “Ambil mandi” would be incomprehensible to someone who does not know English, and comical to someone who does.

There are many examples like these and I could easily write a dissertation of the topic, but my purpose is not to bore you with comparative linguistics, but to help you understand my difficulty in fully sampling the culture. I have spent many hours now attempting to understand Indonesians, and language is but one aspect of a larger task. The next hurdle is quite a bit more daunting, and that is the sheer diversity of this country. There are over 350 distinct cultures and as many languages in Indonesia. What appears as a rather homogeneous and bland society at first blush, reveals itself to be highly complex and diverse upon closer inspection.

For example there is a group of people called the Batak whose native land is central Sumatera, and whose culture is centered on the largest lake in Asia, called Lake Toba. The first reference to the Batak in Western literature is in the writings of Marco Polo. An outsider would be tempted to lump them together as a single people, however they are subdivided into ten distinct tribes, each with a separate language, culture and history. Five of the 10 languages are cognate, but the other five are radically different. The Batak distinguish themselves by family names. Those with certain last names belong to this tribe, and so on. The Batak have a distinctive look, which is confirmed when one learns a person’s last name. They are generally larger and more robust than other Indonesians, and because of strong family ties, they have been very successful. On average, most Batak are university-educated and have a strong identity as brutally honest and hard-working. Javanese tolerate the Batak and they are considered valuable employees because of their honesty and trustworthiness, but the honestly is also why Javanese are affronted by Batak. They are legendary warriors, very aggressive and have fierce tempers, and for these reasons many military brass are Batak. They can also be found in journalism and sales all over the country.

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