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Dear Mom, Part 5

[Ed. Note: about twice a year, I write a massive missive to the folks back home...let's listen in...]

Dear Mom,
Well, I’ve started this letter five times, but they were all abortive attempts as they just kind of rambled around and eventually just became blog posts. Lately though, a theme has emerged and perhaps that will let me hang a tale upon it.
The three-year anniversary of my arrival is fast approaching and in the past year it seems that I have begun crossing a number of lines or borders. It seems that in nearly every aspect of my life here, I have stepped over some invisible barrier into a different phase of things. Some of them are internal, some external and some just purely time related. There were no signs or warnings, and most were unexpected, but all noticeable in their passing.
The most obvious one is that folks no longer are impressed with my language skills. It used to be a few sentences into a conversation, they would invariably ask me how long I had been in Indonesia. When I told them, they would nod in approval at how fluent my Indonesian was. No longer. Now when they ask and I say, “Two and a half years,” they just nod as if thinking, “It’s about time.” So to prolong the novelty a bit longer, I have begun learning a little Javanese. For a Westerner to learn Indonesian is rare, but to learn Javanese is vanishingly rare. It’s not unheard of, though.
There is a Spaniard who lives not far from me, who has been on national TV demonstrating his mastery of both dialects of Javanese (halus/smooth and kasar/course, akin to high and low English). I have a New Zealander friend who, after 14 years here, has mastered Sundanese. I have a Dutch friend who does pretty well with Bataknese Toba dialect. But, on the whole, foreigners do not ever learn, at least to a conversational point, the common tongue. Case in point is Steve, who after 20¬+ years of marriage to an Indonesian, two daughters who are fluent in Indonesian, and 12 years living here off and on, can speak only a hand-full of words.
For my part, there was a point about six months ago, that I barely thought about, where I stopped translating English to Indonesian in my head when I was talking. I simply started thinking in Indonesian. Suddenly, I was able to have hours-long conversations (on some subjects) without having to compose in my head; the words simply came out naturally. I noticed it one day when I was waiting for my ojek driver (motorcycle taxi) and I got into a conversation with some men on the street. Just a bull session, nothing complex. The part that was intriguing was that when I came across a word I didn’t know, I was able to describe/define it to the point they could tell me the word.
This may not seem like such a victory or momentous occastion, but there are several factors that make it unique for me. I am quite fluent in Spanish and German, but in both cases, I had extensive classroom training in those languages. Indonesian is the first language, other than English, that I have learned naturally, by being forced to use it every day, in the same way a child has to learn. I bought some books to teach me grammar and a dictionary, of course, but that is akin to learning English by studying Shakespeare. One can speak beautifully, but most people look at you like you just stepped out of the Middle Ages. The other challenge is that Indonesian really doesn’t have a grammar system.
It’s only the past twenty years that academics have begun trying to codify the language, but it really only amounts to a list of exceptions to every rule. As a field of study, it is wide open right now. A linguist could make a job for life studying the language (and yes, I’ve thought about it). As I tell my students, the first rule of grammar is: we always do it like this except when we don’t. That was never so true as for this language.
For instance, Indonesian has 10 affixes that can be used with any word, no matter what its function. In every case, they change the meaning and function of the word in any number of ways, depending on context and structure. The prefix meng- has four different meanings with nouns, four with verbs, two with adjectives and two with adverbs. Sometimes the meaning is dependent on the word itself, but more often on the function and position in the sentence. It’s enough to make you crazy when you are trying to get a handle on things.
I was rather proud when I figured out one rule on my own that none of my students have been able to guess, but all agree that I’m right. There are two words commonly used to negate things. Tidak means “no” or “not,” and bukan means “isn’t.” The problem is that no one could tell me when to use one or the other, they only knew when it was right or wrong. Turns out that tidak is used to negate verbs, and bukan is used to negate nouns. For example, “Is that your brother?” “Bukan.” “Do you want to go to the mall?” “Tidak.” I know, seems like a small thing, but it was a genuine victory to define the rule.

The bonus for learning Indonesian is that I can also understand two other languages. Malay and Tagalu (Filipino) are sister languages, like English, German and Dutch. Knowing one gives you a leg up in the other two. Malay is close enough that I can easily read it. There are minor differences in spelling and pronunciation, but virtually interchangeable. Tagalu is a little more difficult, but there are many shared words and the grammar is identical, so far as I can tell. When I listen to Filipinos speak, I can clearly understand about 20% of what is being said.
Javanese is the first language I have attempted to learn using another foreign language. I have yet to find any authoritative sources in English to help me, so the only way I can learn it is by having it taught to me in Indonesian. Fortunately (or not), the grammar is identical and only the vocabulary needs to be learned. There are two primary dialects, high and low. High Java is spoken in south central Java, around the city of Jogjakarta. It is considered the definitive dialect and amounts to the royal form of the language (Jogja has one of two remaining sultanates in the country). The other dialect is spoken in north central Java, around the cities of Surabaya and Solo. There are numerous sub-dialects and people are able to read them the same way we can tell a New Yorker from a Californian.
An example of the difference from Indonesian is the expression, “Tidak apa-apa.” Literally, it means “no what-what,” but translates as “it’s nothing.” In Javanese, the same expression is, “Mboten nopo-nopo.” Another example? In Indonesian, one says, “Jangan lupa makan,” or “don’t forget to eat.” In Javanese, one says, “Ojo lali mangan.” One of the major rivers in Jakarta is the Kali Malang, which is Javanese for the Unfortunate River. In Indonesian, that would be the Sungai Sial. As you can see, there is little crossover in vocabulary, though they match word-for-word in structure and grammar.
I have an ulterior motive for learning Javanese. In the immediate situation, it is an quick ice-breaker in many situations. It brings an immediate laugh and a flurry of conversation as people remark in surprised disbelief that this foreigner knows boso jawa. But, as a long-term investment, it is a tool to protect myself in the event of future unrest. I have heard numerous stories about the events around 1998, during the “unrest” that led to riots and extensive violence against foreigners and Chinese descendants. My thought is that being able to use a little Javanese can buy time or turn away people looking for trouble, and diffuse tense situations. In any case, it can’t hurt and makes for a good hobby in the meantime.
The reason for the long, involved diatribe about language was to tell about one of my hobbies, which is learning local legends and myths. Many of the ancient myths, and indeed the pantheon of Javanese gods in the old stories are borrowed from Hindu and Sanskrit myths, in the way that the Romans borrowed and customized the Greek pantheon. Indonesians of all classes and education still harbor a strong belief in magic and superstitions. There are shows on TV that dramatize the stories of the old gods and the soap operas feature frequent scenes in which characters consult witch doctors and use spells and charms.
All Indonesians have a strong belief in ghosts and spirits, and many people (primarily women) are often possessed and fall into trances. It’s a curious phenomenon that I have witnessed a couple of times with my students. It is almost the diametric opposite of epilepsy in that the person becomes completely flaccid and the eyes are fixed and unreactive. The cure is to take the person to the doctor, where certain prayers and rituals are performed to exorcize the spirits. But I digress…
One of the more popular mythological characters is a man called Gatotkaca (gah-tote-kacha). The name is derived from Sanskrit and means “bald kettle-head.” He was a giant, as most of the gods were, and his head was shaped like an updside-down kettle which was completely hairless. In many ways, he parallels our Superman, in that he had magical powers and incredible strength. Unlike Superman, though, his powers worked best at night. For that reason, he is frequently depicted as being black. His story is very popular in the shadow puppet plays and bedtime stories for children.
More interesting to me is the story of Si Pitung. This character is very real and the story is a cross between Robin Hood and Zorro. His house is now a museum just east of Jakarta. The name Si Pitung is a variation on the Javanese for “the gang of seven.” I guess that there was a primary character and presumably a band of merry men who assisted. He is considered a criminal by the Dutch version and a hero by the Indonesian version. The most authoritative version I have heard says that his career began by selling a goat to the Dutch landlord in an area of Jakarta not far from where I live, Tanah Abang. That night, he stole the goat back and kept the money. Well, this escalated into an all-out manhunt by the Dutch, with Si Pitung stealing and distributing wealth from the Dutch, a la Robin Hood. He also would extract revenge on local officials who were guilty of oppression against the poor people in the area, a la Zorro. Legend has it that Si Pitung was able to strike in many places at once, which, along with the gang reference, implies that there was a group of men using guerilla tactics to generally make the Dutch masters miserable. I have to admit I really like the guy.
Another curious legend is about a fruit called “buah simalakama.” Apparently, the fruit is highly desireable, being at once large, delicious and pleasing to look at. One who beholds the fruit is struck with a passionate desire to possess it, but once they do, they are presented with the ultimate dilemma: if they eat it, their mother will die, and if they don’t, their father will die. The legend has elements of our own “forbidden fruit,” along with flavors of the sword of Damacles and other similar predicaments. The expression buah simalakama could be translated as being stuck between a rock and a hard spot, or damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I imagine there is some story that goes along with it, but I am still trying to track down the definitive version.
There is another story about a king who had two daughters, named Bawang Merah and Bawang Putih. It’s a children’s bedtime story and is rather involved, but the gist of it is that Bawang Putih is the apple of her father’s eye, and Bawang Merah is insanely jealous of this fact. She sets out to get revenge, which ultimately leads to everyone getting hurt and the two girls begin to cry profusely. Wherever the tears of the girls land a plant grows, one producing red onions (bawang merah) and the other producing white onions (bawang putih, or garlic). When you cut the red onions, they make you cry, but the white onions do not. Just so you know, white and yellow onions are both called bawang Mumbai, or Bombay onions.

To be continued...

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