Category Archives: Language

Language woes? Ndeso woes.

Shabbiness will not pass here.

There’s a term here (or at least in East Java; not everything I’ve learned in East Java or talked about on this blog necessarily translates to the rest of Indonesia, which is important to keep in mind when you hear me talk about “Indonesia”… I’m often able to correct myself to say “Java” or “East Java” and “Javanese culture” instead of “Indonesian culture,” but this is becoming more imperative now that I’m in a totally new region of the country with a different dominant ethnic group– the Sundanese– and other groups like Cirebonese and Betawi instead of Osing and Tenggerese…more on this later) for people who are kind of, for lack of a better cultural equivalent, backwoods. The direct translation is an adjective form of “village,” which we might anglicize as “village-y” but might be more easily understood, cultural eqiuvalent-wise, by Americans as “hillbilly,” “redneck,” or “hickish”. I’m sure you can think of other relevant synonym. The Javanese term is “ndeso”, and I think it’s a perfect descriptor of myself in comparison with true Jakartans.

I think that lots of what I mentioned in my previous blog post about language might be connected to this term more than I realized before; once, in America, I chatted with a professor (American) in Indonesian, and he had studied bahasa in Jakarta and spoke in a perfectly trendy and fluent fashion. He commented that my bahasa sounded like I was from the sticks, which I suppose is true in terms of where I come from in the States as well as where my accent suggests I live/lived here in Indonesia (remember that I learned most of my Indonesian in a semi-rural East Javanese village; East Java is definitely “the sticks” as far as non-Jakarta locales go… Jakartans tend to ask everyone that’s not from Jakarta something along the lines of “Which part of ‘the land’ are you from?”, where “the land” is “everything that’s not the city”– there’s the city and there’s everything else). I think that I’ve slowly been realizing this week that people might, just might be commenting on my language because of how ndeso I sound. Of course, I’ve gotten comments about my accent simply sounding Javanese, but I think that perhaps there was a hint of surprise and derision underlying some of these comments that perhaps I hadn’t accounted for in previous attempts to understand why the comments have been so pervasive!! And lucky for me, ndeso applies not only to language but also to personal style; if you’re friends with me, you know I’m not the most put-together person on earth, appearance-wise. I bet you can imagine where this discussion is going.

So, I went to buy a new phone charger at a fancy store, and my shabby self was effectively ignored by the shop’s staff, mostly made up of trendy young people in trendy clothes. I was wearing yoga pants that were wearing at the knees, a loose and ill-fitting tunic with a gaudy black-and-white pattern, and grey/pink/blue jogging sneakers with neon pink socks. My hair was a stringy mess. I think my nose was sunburned, too. The red and blue bag I was carrying matched nothing (especially not my rusty orange scarf). I had on knock-off Coco Chanel sunglasses. Zero makeup. I was grubby, in full effect. And now, I realize my futile attempts to chat with those guys probably made them think I was even crazier than I appeared since my accent is so… ndeso. Uncivilized. Not trendy. Not like what we hear on TV shows from the chicest celebs. I don’t expect to be treated well just because I’m a foreigner or a foreigner who speaks bahasa, but it was strange to feel so… honestly, just low classI was clearly out of my league in this outfit at this mall, and my generally-complimented-on bahasa skills couldn’t even save me. Actually, I felt totally shamed! Nobody did anything directly to shame me or make me feel inferior, but I don’t think an Indonesian would do something like that (as I can easily imagine an American doing). The indirect social shunning was enough!! What would have generally worked in terms of chatting up the staff didn’t fly at all here… I grabbed the charger and bolted, wiping away the sweat that had worked itself up on my brow, fleeing as quickly as I could.

I am clearly a country mouse in the big city. These experiences would happen to me regardless of context if I moved to a big city, since I actually am kind of ndeso, by American standards, even if most of my Malang friends wouldn’t use that term to describe me at all.

Anyway. I got a few new tops and stopped wearing my raggedy yoga pants in public. I fixed my shoe situation and got a nice pair of sandals that would pass as decent by bougie standards. The next time I went to the mall, I put on a bit of makeup. I’m not falling victim here, but I think that I need to step my game up a bit, regardless. Of course, I still laugh a lot on the inside when I see the girls and guys who are trying really hard to be trendy and chic; I can take all of this with a grain of salt, but I do think it’s important, well, not to look like a professional hobo, at least not all the time. This is connected with turning 30, too, I think; I need to be more presentable, in general, perhaps. Ugly duckling!!

The struggle is real, people!! The culture shock continues!

 

BRAIN POWER!

Guys, gals, and others– ya’ll, our brains are magical. I’m telling you, after two months’ worth of vacay from the land of Austronesian languages, my brain is all tuned in to things I apparently had blocked because of saturation earlier in the year. Whatever language acquisition switch was turned off is now back on!!! It’s fantastic!!

I’ve picked up a handful of Javanese words this week and a surprisingly basic Indonesian word that I should have already known for a long time. No note-taking necessary to memorize. I just heard the word several times in conversation and eventually asked about it. It used to be that I’d hear a new word once and immediately note it; now it seems I’m picking up frequently used words and isolating them in conversation (without even knowing their meaning yet)… reminds me of the initial phases of language learning, when single words popped out and I just had to latch on frequently-used-in-spoken-conversation words because I had no other way of building vocabulary outside of language class. DUH.* This is the natural way to learn language. It’s a shame that a saturation point exists, but I suppose it’s got something to do with our brains protecting themselves from imploding (or exploding) due to excessively firing neurons… or the body in general going into survival mode and allocating resources accordingly after a period of mild yet constant stress. Hmm.

Maybe this two month respite was just what I needed to cross over the language plateau I’d felt I’d reached, especially in terms of Javanese. Love that idea. Now, if I could only get past the point of being able to understand more (in both Indo and Javanese) than I can quickly and accurately produce…

Language and the brain from The Guardian.
HuffPost: How bilingualism boosts the brain.

Goodnight!

*Maybe I need to stop saying duh since I’m nearly 30?

Play for fun

follow me on Instagram @tisamlette

It has been quite some time since I’ve written anything, and the plain and simple reason is that I’ve been very busy enjoying! About every single day has been jam-packed with something or other–research, volunteering, enjoying life here to the greatest extent possible (i.e. goofing off and enjoying friendships).

As it turns out, the international relations office (IRO) family spends multiple nights a week together after-hours being together and getting up to all sorts of silly and fun activities. Wednesday night is futsal (soccer on a small, indoor field), Friday afternoon is badminton, and we’ve been doing an awful lot of Asian-style karaoke (in individual rooms like in Lost in Translation, not the same as the regular, mortifying karaoke we unfortunate Americans are accustomed to). The part-time IRO staff members, mostly undergrads, also like going out in the evenings to find tasty food and/or go shopping. There have also been some exciting campus events, most notably a Confucius Institute talent show that was really stupendously amazing and surreal in its fantasticality. We’ve had a birthday party and a housewarming celebration, too. So, I’ve been swept up by reading and studying during the day and doing something exciting with friends basically every evening.

I went to the first futsal practice under the horribly misguided impression that at least some of the office girls would at least be there so I that could coax them into playing with me. Indonesian ladies are notoriously uninterested in playing futsal, probably because it is indeed quite rough and there just aren’t opportunities for them to build their interest in it like there are for young men (it’s a combination of structurally unequal opportunity and cultural disinterest in over-exertion and running around in athletic gear with a bunch of men). At the first practice, I was the only lady. I was honestly afraid of getting hurt, so I sat the first practice out, watching from the sidelines. I hadn’t ever played soccer before except once in my neighbor’s front yard up at the lake where my grandparents used to live, and it was nerve-wracking to think about jumping right in.

However, at the second practice, I knew what I was getting into and had time to mentally prepare myself to be the only girl on the pitch (and the worst player by far!!). The guys all knew it was my first time playing; luckily, they only play for fun. They don’t even keep score. Unfortunately, despite bucking up and representing the female sex on the pitch, it wasn’t a great day for breaking down gender-based stereotypes, ‘cuz I was a total wimp out there. I tried my best and at least worked up a sweat running up and down the sidelines, and I did get walloped by the ball pretty good on my arm by a tough and amazing South Korean kid (wah, the bruise lingers yet). I went into momentary shock when the ball hit me, but my Argentinean neighbor/buddy was right next to me and smartly asked me if I wanted to take a break. I think he sensed that I was stunned! Looking back, getting hurt right from the outset was an okay experience; I’m more prepared to keep trying and I know what to expect. It’s not so dire. Futsal is super fun, and everyone I play with is really goofy and laughs a lot the whole time. It’s a great workout, too, of course. It’s so nice to be physically active here in Indonesia, and a welcomed change from Peace Corps rural-village-lady life (I just didn’t get enough exercise back then and I think it contributed to heightened levels of near-depression).

Also very silly at the outset was family karaoke. It’s done here in little rooms that have a display screen, a couple of microphones, and a digital display that let’s participants select songs. Plus snacks. And sweet tea served in “Bintang” beer mugs (Mas M and Mas T just love joking around about drinking beer while karaoke-ing). Everyone sings with reckless abandon, even if their voice is awful by conventional standards. Songs are in Javanese, English, Indonesian—anything you please. Popular hits from the US/Europe include emotional love ballads and emo pop-punk; I sang some Abba songs, a couple of Celine songs, even a Metallica song. Luckily, most of these were duets. I sang the “Cups” song from whatever musical that is during the first visit to family karaoke, and then, the second time, I was requested to sing first and sing that song! I can’t be doing so bad. There’s a lot of silliness, dancing, and hooting and hollering at family karaoke time. Like futsal, it’s completely done for fun, and nobody cares if your voice is abysmal. I never thought I would like karaoke so much, or sing it so energetically. I have done karaoke twice, exactly twice (two songs) in the US, and I hated it. But when you’re in a little room goofing around with your pals, it’s pretty sweet and satisfying. I’ve already been four times or so since I last wrote. Almost weekly!

Another exciting and new regular activity in my life is weekly badminton practice. Who would ever have imagined that my regular activities would be soccer, karaoke, and badminton? As you can probably guess, it doesn’t matter if you are terrible at badminton. It’s better if you’re good (at all of these things), but it’s totally great anyways if you are just purely terrible. The first time I went, I played along, and my right forearm hurt for two days. Did you know that Indonesians are really good at badminton? It’s very easy to over-extend oneself playing badminton with Indonesians. Think of whatever stereotype you have about Chinese ping pong skills; that’s roughly the skill level of Indonesians with badminton. Apparently, they are one of the top two best countries in the world at badminton, although I forget what the other one is at the moment. Anyways, badminton is great, and the ladies do enjoy playing this less intensive, less running-y sport. Mas M’s wife is a stunner and apparently played in college; she beats me every time. The boys are so silly and vicious and often fall down on the floor in fits of contagious laughter when something silly or amazing happens. I’m slowly getting better, too. Last week, the 4th or 5th week attending, the team I was on actually won!! Not really important, but hey. First time for everything.

Oh, last week I scored my first goal at futsal. Actually the first goal in my life! I made four attempts and made one. Mas T was goalkeeping and swears he didn’t let me get away with anything. Also I ended up with two additional bruises, one on my calf and one on my thigh…thankfully, as of now, I have no bruises from badminton or karaoke.

This week, a lovely Puerto Rican lady whose studying Indonesian at UMM (yes, there are technically two Americans on this campus!) introduced me to a ladies-only fitness spot in Malang, which is great news as I had been snooping around for a gym with Mas M, with displeasing results. In keeping with the theme of light fitness for ladies, most gyms are oriented towards male clients, i.e. totally grungy and full of testosterone. Sorry, males. I visited one of these horrid places just to look at it and got quite stared at and felt great discomfort. However, the ladies-only gym has fulfilled all my wildest gym fantasies and more!! They have several classes a day, and I’ve so far been going to the hip hop classes. They are very challenging. There’s no AC or fans, and the classroom is on the second floor. We get really soaking wet with sweat and I look quite silly trying to do hip hop. BUT, who cares, it’s fun! I’m going to attend a yoga class tonight and see how that goes. They’ve also got various other aerobic classes, like zumba and pilates. There is enough exercise equipment (weights, cardio machines) to satisfy me, too. Best part? It’s $9 per month! Love you, Sanggar Senam Inda.

Many evenings, the part-timers will invite me out to find food or coffee around Malang, often to the big enormous mega-malls where things cost a pretty penny (relatively speaking) but are a welcomed escape from regular coffee made at home and rice plus tempe and veggies. We’ve been hopping around from café to café, sometimes working on homework, sometimes doing a little shopping, almost always taking selfies. The part-timers are so sweet, and I get the sense that they don’t enjoy much time with other international people (even though they seem eager to hang with me and so possibly feel interested in developing friendships with other internationals?). The part-timers seem very happy to spend time with me, and I reciprocate for sure. There are always many foreigners coming in and out of IRO, and my sense is that the part-timers rarely make social connections with them, probably or most likely because of language barriers. The international student coordinator is trying to organize a big trip for the foreigners and office staff together in order to build stronger relationships among office staff, and hopefully this can happen! I also hope I get to go to Bromo and/or the beach with the part-timers in the near future, as they’ve suggested we do together.

There are also some part-timers in the American Corner on campus that love goofing off, too. We had a silly Halloween party, which maybe you saw pictures of, and the students made me up as an Indonesian zombie. I had a lot of fun and actually scared a few people. I’m sure I could only ever scare young Indonesians. I’ve never been scary on Halloween in my whole life. Success!

Another item of business that has been keeping me busy lately was my participation in an international seminar on campus this week. It was based on the theme of institutionalizing Indonesian language as an international and academic/scientific language, and there were presenters and guest speakers from all over Indonesia. Although there were some slightly unnerving presentations with undertones deriding local languages and cultures in favor of unification through shared (dominant) language and national identity/culture, I enjoyed participating… what can you do? I posed a few questions to those speakers suggesting, however subtly, that local languages should be slowly colonized by Indonesian and Indonesian should be all citizen’s first language, trying to get someone to articulate the relationship between language loss and devaluation of local cultures…I don’t think my point came across as I had intended, so all I can do is try to be an example by studying the local language here and valuing the culture as well. For better or for worse, a foreigner showing interest and appreciation for local language and culture can go a long way in terms of demonstrating that these things shouldn’t be allowed to disappear or to be subsumed in the name of nationalism. I don’t think local languages and cultures should disappear. I don’t think all Indonesians want this, either…although it is a fact that people from rural areas where local languages are spoken will have a hard time if they go to the city to look for a job and have sub-par Indonesian language skills. I’m getting off track; this seems like a good discussion for a future post.

Anyways, I gave a little talk at the conference about my experiences learning Indonesian as a second language, since I was asked to participate two nights before I needed to make a submission and didn’t have enough time to prepare anything more substantial. I decided after listening to the opening ceremony of the conference that I should deliver my talk in Indonesian to the best of my abilities, even though the facilitators said I could use English if I wanted. But why would I, if the topic is all about building up Indonesian as an international language? I also decided not to prepare my talk beforehand and have an Indonesian friend correct it, because I wanted to demonstrate to the listeners what my real skills were by speaking as naturally and spontaneously as possible, flaws and all. I ended up giving the talk in about 85-90% Indonesian and the rest in English (except 0.5% in Javanese, just to get a few laughs). The lady who presented after me was a master’s degree holding professor of Indonesian who gave a talk about how people should really work hard to speak proper and correct Indonesian in order to fulfill their patriotic and civic duty, and she told me repeatedly that my Indonesian was very good (and she’d probably harass an Indonesian who spoke Indonesian at my ability level). So, I count this as a victory, even though I’m sure I made some mistakes and my face was as red as a tomato the whole time.

Let’s see… the last thing I want to update about is my research. I have been reading a lot a lot a lot, mostly working to wrap my head as much as possible around what I’ve been hearing. I have had a couple more interviews since I last blogged, as well, and these have been just as interesting as the previous set. I still need at least two more proper participants and then I will be ready to start preparing for whatever follow-up interviews need to happen. I’ve started looking for transcribers and translators for the next phase of the project, but have had minimal success with the initial candidates. I’m going to consult with the “International Language Fellows” group on campus, which is made up of about 700 well-rounded, academically talented undergraduate students; one of my new pals, Lia, is the treasurer of this group, so she is going to help me recruit people who are interested in transcribing and translating the interviews for me. Delegate, delegate! I simply cannot do the transcriptions, since more than half of the material is in Javanese, which I cannot spell (and I can’t always decipher the individual words, anyways). I really hope the ILF group comes through!!

Other news: I’m happy to share that I’ll be presenting on my project in late March in Macau, which is a Special Autonomous Region (SAR) of China. The conference is run by Danish scholars and the theme is, roughly, folklore and the supernatural in island nations. I’m super excited and looking forward to travelling around Macau, which, if you don’t know anything about, you should explore. The Anthony Bourdain episode on Macau is a good place to start (it’s on YouTube). I had no idea how weird and unique Macau is, and I find it fitting that I’ll be ending up in such a strange and quirky place for my first presentation about this strange and quirky research project.

I think that’s about it for now; I promise to update more regularly from now on! I have been letting myself get lost in the activities of daily life here, and I think it’s wise to step back and process a little more thoroughly (lest I “go native,” which I sometimes feel I’ve already done based on what some of the newcomer foreigners have said to me about myself, my behavior, etc). I’ve got more to share: I’ve been doing some guest lecturing at middle schools and at the university, visiting Tlekung and having fun times with the host family, and planning my trips to Magetan and Jogjakarta in a couple of weeks. I’ve also been scaring myself with ghost stories and killing mosquitoes like that’s what my Fulbright is really all about. Also, I have a little ‘potted’ plant garden, two new roommates, some stories of visiting friends’ homes, and some negativity (yes, it exists) I want to get off my chest… alas, fodder for another day, my loves.

Best, biggest cinta forever,
Sammy

PS: I officially expressed my intention to Indiana University to pursue doctorate studies there next fall, pending funding/assistantship, of course. If I am funded, Lauren and I will be giving it a try in Bloomington next August!

— follow me on Instagram @tisamlette —

One month in


— follow me on Instagram @tisamlette —


As it turns out, this research project is off to an incredibly easy and incredibly difficult start, both at the same time.

Choosing to research a topic I had very little concrete knowledge about was quite wise, in retrospect (I’m not exactly sure how my proposal was successful; after a few weeks, I can see for myself that I was misguided in my understandings of things I suggested to be true my proposal! I didn’t realize just how little I knew!). Since I have so much to learn, I can learn a lot quickly, which feels great. Generally, asking a few questions to one or a few people yields a great deal of information and many new ideas for topics, events, or cultural/religious phenomena to research. As a result, I’ve learned a huge amount in a short time, and most of it seems to be quite essential to grasping what’s “going on” with participants and/or healing culture here.

It’s just the same as the language learning curve; in the beginning, there are lots of basics to learn, like survival verbs (eat, sleep, drink, want) and phrases (thank you, please help me, where’s the bathroom, I don’t speak your language). As time progresses, one’s knowledge and understanding of the language becomes increasingly nuanced, and this can often be when language learning begins to get more difficult, such as in expressing abstract concepts or feelings or discussing politics or religion. Since I’m still building my foundational knowledge about the concepts related to this research project, gratification comes quickly; there are lots of basics to learn, and basics are generally easy to grasp. I’m certain that as time goes by and discussions and concepts become increasingly nuanced and esoteric, I’ll encounter more serious difficulties. This understanding is keeping me in check; this last nine months aren’t going to be a walk in the park, even if all I technically need to do is talk to people, read, and write!

Of course, few difficulties have arisen so far. Many of these challenges stem from the language barrier. My Indonesian has quickly returned, even though for the first few days I stuttered and sputtered to get out words and sentences that used to come easy to me. The real (and welcomed) challenge now is Javanese. Pak H and Mas M are doing their best to work on my Javanese with me, and the part-time undergrads in the office of international relations—where I set up shop each day—are all aware that I’m trying to learn, so they are more than happy to “take me along” for a chat in Javanese. As you may already know, there are many levels of Javanese, and the two most common are high and low Javanese (or halus, smooth, and kasar, rough). It’s difficult to try to learn them both at once, but I’m trying my best. All of my friends in the office tell people I can already speak Javanese, which puts me on the spot to practice… that’s is good, really, even if I start making a fool of myself in front of people I’ve just met. Folks seem to really appreciate that I try and often succumb to fits of giggles not because they are making fun of me but because it’s quite rare that a foreigner speaks even a little Javanese. I like the feeling of closeness it brings, and I like showing people that someone foreign can be interested in learning and trying the bahasa daerah, the language of the land.

Another language difficulty: some of the participants I’ve worked with so far use a lot of religious (Arabic) terms that are not in my vocabulary set. Since the terms are religious/spiritual in nature and contextually dependent on the religious framework from which they arose and to which they refer, learning the translation alone is often not sufficient for understanding. The translation simply doesn’t translate, so there’s another layer of knowledge I need to build (i.e., Islam and folk/local forms of Islam in Indonesia) before I can fully grasp what participants are saying. Even once this knowledge base has been built up somewhat, there’s a whole ‘nother layer of “translating” what people are saying in terms of the Javanese way of communication/expression, quite different than what I’m accustomed to in the United States (and not dependent on religious identification; it’s cultural).

Similar to the difficulties that graduate students sometimes experience in the States depending on the interests and objectives of their advising professors, I am somewhat at risk of my project being hijacked, for lack of a more polite term. It’s another challenge I’m facing. Everyone is very eager to help me, and one person in particular is very enthusiastic, but I’m not sure my project goals are completely clear at times to everyone who wants to help.

Of course, I choose to accept help in whatever form, mostly for reasons related to another challenge: finding women ‘healers’ here is difficult, and I need all the help I can get. I’ve decided to remain open to meeting with male ‘healers,’ however, since traditional, alternative, and spiritual/religious healing and curing in Javanese culture are complex topics about which, as I mentioned, I know all too little.* Obviously, I can learn about them from just about anyone without formally collecting interviews for use in the final project, and talking to male healers is useful in this stage of the project. I think it would be wise for me to seek out multiple gatekeepers throughout the next few months so that I can meet with a diverse group of people, not restricting myself to the contacts of one gatekeeper.

So there you are, just a little update about some of the practical aspects of executing the project after a few weeks’ time “in the field.” I will share some descriptions of fieldwork and interactions with healers in the next entry.

xo
Sammy


*’Healers’ is a term that doesn’t really translate into this cultural context in my experience so far. There are many different types of people in East Java who: perform curing with various methods and personal/individual styles; give spiritual, psychological, relationship, and life advice and guidance; support families in solving problems and support women in finding partners and/or conceiving and/or giving birth; perform magic to help people become wealthier or more successful; cast spells and do ‘black magic’; fight ‘black magic’ with ‘white magic’; provide traditional medicines, herbs, and supplements; provide various types of massage for various purposes; use prayer and ‘soul power’ to heal physical and mental disorders; help ‘crazy people’ regain their souls, also known as healing sick souls; help people recover quickly from illness or injury; and more, honestly. I have met with six different types of ‘healers’ so far, and each of them has a unique practice based on varying beliefs, religious and spiritual practices, and life experiences. I can’t even feel comfortable using the term dukun anymore, since five of the six of these—excluding one old woman—didn’t want to be called dukun due to the generally negative connotations of the term.