“Indonesian is very easy to learn, in fact I heard it’s one of the easiest languages!”
And so begins this account of how I ordered air (water) twice and ended up with ayam (chicken)... Twice.
Four months ago, I embarked on a journey to study Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian, bahasa meaning “language”) in my Beijing dorm room before coming to Jakarta. Blinded to the resentment that many Indonesians and foreigners alike feel for the “Big Durian” (a nod to Jakarta’s rather [INSERT SELECTION: putrid/tasty] qualities), I was perhaps pre-maturely enamored on my first visit by the city’s labyrinthine chaos, gracious locals, glittery mega-mall consumerism, and resolve to carry on despite a pandora’s box of imperfections. Here is the capital of a democratic country with 266 million people that few Americans know anything about — and that only seems to make the news when it’s about volcanoes or orange monkeys. I thought learning the language might help me scratch the surface.
Like a linguistic glue holding more than 17,000 islands together, Bahasa is Indonesia’s standard medium of communication. Based on Malay and spiced with a myriad of global influences, its nuances reflect millennia of cross-cultural interactions at the convergence of Indian and Pacific Oceans; as a Spanish and Mandarin speaker, I’ve been intrigued by the remnants of such histories in words like meja (table, mesa in Spanish and Portuguese) or mie (noodles, mī in Hokkien). For most Indonesians, Bahasa is their second language after a local mother tongue like Javanese (Basa Jawa) or Balinese (Basa Bali). Moreover, the spoken vernacular is always evolving thanks to the archipelago’s epic ethnolinguistic diversity and, maybe even more so, the Indonesian people’s affinity for tongue-in-cheek slang (bahasa gaul).
Determined to break down the communication barrier, I worked from simple phrases à la “less chilis, spare me” to increasingly complex conversations about big families, religion, macet (traffic jams), and, much to the dismay of my Cirebonese friend Anita, Pocong (the notorious wrapped ghost of Malay cultural origins) — Indonesians have a perplexing penchant for paranormal encounters. There is also, of course, unique medicinal wisdom imparted on me like “eating bat will reduce your asthma”. I chat up ojeks (motorcycle drivers) on harrowing commutes, warung (traditional cafe) owners, and my gang of Betawi (Jakarta inhabitant) comrades befriended over syrupy bowls of es campur. While I’ve cherished every second of these conversations and the patience of my interlocutors, engaging in Bahasa has nonetheless brought me face-to-face with some discomforting vulnerabilities.
Acquiring a new language requires conscious rebirth. Becoming an infant. As for any creature on earth, this first iteration of life is most vulnerable. With little vocabulary, superficial cultural context, and no grammatical tact, the inflated intellect of a Stanford-educated twenty-something can be curb-stomped into the mind of a toddler. The embarrassment that comes with pronouncing words wrong or not understanding a question mires many people in monolingualism. Yet, we only grow across those leaps of faith.
In a completely different way than Mandarin, Bahasa is difficult because it is “easy”. The barrier to basic proficiency is low-enough that one can converse and get the gist of a Kompas article within four months of study. Diligent study, mostly. But that same deceptive ease lures me into conversations escalating far too quickly, failure like a Sumatran tiger stalking my measly five hundred vocabulary words. It is disheartening to feel the imagined proximity of understanding evaporate only fifteen minutes into dinner.
Surprising to no one, I make mistakes in this language all the time. That is how I ordered air twice and ended up with ayam... Not once. Twice.
The bewildered waitress at Gado-Gado Bon-Bin cracked a half-smile as I handed her back the two plates of chicken she had just prepared and I had apparently asked for, pronunciation severely questionable.
“Maaf, Bu”. Sorry.
Chicken-gate, while retrospectively a good laugh, is just one vignette in my trials as an eager student of everything Indonesia. Throw in some new vocabulary and conversations rapidly go overhead, my brain failing to discern separate words in an unfamiliar Austronesian cadence. Forget that wanita means “woman” and restroom choice becomes potentially mortifying for a pria (man). Confuse “pacar” (romantic acquaintance) for “pasar” (market) and a branding discussion turns... unintentionally juicy.
Amidst these clockwork-like miscommunications, silences,and blank stares — the edge of the forest — I am resigned to listen. Running out of words to say, I’ve grown accustomed to sitting quietly between Indonesian friends, offering polite smiles and nodding as if I grasped the discussion at hand. Yet, like a sponge in water, I find myself absorbing more and more of the conversations each time. And maybe that has been the harder part.
One friend lost their job. Another ran away from home. Many are unbanked. The everyday uncertainty of life in a developing country, even for its expanding middle class, is entirely foreign to me — a foreigner less by passport than the debit card in my wallet. Learning this language has brought me closer to kindred spirits in a way that highlights my circumstantial otherness. Still, being some of the most humble and kind people anywhere, Indonesians not only tolerate my lack of understanding — they encourage me to see things differently.
A lot of friends ask me why I’ve dedicated so much of this life to learning new languages. I’ve never been able to articulate an answer until now.