Belum? We will try to make it sudah!
by Harry Clark - based in Makassar, working around Sulawesi

To learn any language you must inevitably absorb some of the history, culture and social attitudes of the country.
“Belum” in Indonesian simply means “not yet” in English. Right? 

I have been working in Indonesia on and off for over 20 years, lately in Makassar. At the beginning, the locations were outside of Java, in Eastern Indonesia, on foreign loan-funded agricultural infrastructure projects. These were mostly out in the rural areas, so there were few foreigners to talk to and learning the language was essential for me to be effective in my job, and to make friends and enjoy my life. I did it slowly and steadily, but with great enthousiasm, learning as I went along.

After all of this time, I have become fond of Indonesia, Indonesians and Indonesian. Everything the reader with bad Indonesian experiences wants to bark about it being a corrupt, violent, lawless, degenerate, gangster-ridden semi-country on the edge of disaster has to be admitted, but it is just not generous enough about the mysterious, endlessly fascinating Indonesia of my experience. I have made many friends in Indonesia, particularly in Makassar, and somehow found a way to endure the extreme frustrations that can send westerners nutty, mainly because I felt satisfied in seeing poor rural people improve their lives through the projects I participated in. Makassar is an example of all that is good and bad about Indonesia, with sea, mountains, teaming hordes of people, history, ethnic divisions and, lately, a vice President of Indonesia.

In learning the language, I had early troubles with “otak” and “otot” because I always mixed them up. In the sugar factory, I would go round checking on concrete pours and would regularly laugh and grumble to Indonesian workers (in Indonesian) “You have to use your brains” when they were doing something that was clearly wrong and needed doing again. I would point at my head to emphasize the point and they would nod and seemed to understand. It was a long time before anybody would tell me that I had mixed up the word for brains (= otak) with the word for muscle (= otot) and they thought it was hilarious that Englishmen had muscles in their heads where Indonesians had brains!

A classic error that new learners of Bahasa Indonesia make, involves the word “malu”. Many Indonesian words are based on a root word which may be a noun, adjective, verb etc., which can be extended into an associated word (verb, adverb, noun, adjective etc) by adding “ke”, “peng or meng”,”me”, “di”, “per”, “ber” etc. at the beginning and possibly something at the end like  “an”,“kan”, “ken”, “i” etc. For example “hutan” is a noun meaning forest, while “kehutanan” is the word for forestry and “penghutanan” means forestation. Similarly, the Indonesian word “malu” is an adjective meaning shy or embarrassed, and by extension “memalui” means to embarrass and “kemaluan” should be a noun meaning embarrassment. Should be, but it’s not. So, the students of the language maybe get to make their first speech to a group of their Indonesian colleagues after a few month’s studying, and of course they always start with a comment about their modest progress in the language, and to please forgive any mistakes. They start with “Saya (I) punya (have) kemaluan (embarrassment) besar (big)”. That usually sends the Indonesian listeners into cataclysmic squeals of laughter with the speaker looking perplexed and red. Why? What did he do wrong? The construction is all technically correct but “kemaluan besar” has a special meaning which you just have to know. It means “private parts”, so he had just announced to everyone that he has big private parts! 

Reflecting the differing emphasis demanded of language by culture, there are many words and phrases in Bahasa Indonesia that have no direct equivalent in English. For example, Indonesians are more conscious of family ties and have special words for them. The words “kakak” and “adik” mean older/ younger sibling, “bungsu” means the youngest child in the family, and “baisan” is your son- (or daughter-) in-law’s parents. Another example is the many words for rice, which is very important to Indonesians, and many would say they cannot feel satisfied until they eat rice at least once a day, no matter how many hamburgers they eat. Thus, Indonesian has “padi” (on the stalk), “gabah” (unhusked grains), “beras” ( bought in the market ready for cooking) and “nasi” (cooked rice). 

Somebody once described “the East” as a warm, wet fog-blanket thrown over you when you arrive and taken away when you leave. When I go on leave to UK, I have usually been way long enough to shake off the wet blanket and return to my English life, and the two worlds are so different that it is hard to remember what real life is like in the other place. I lose sight of the frustrations and disappointments in Indonesia, the slimy tropical weather and the stinking ugly, crowded, traffic-choked towns and cities. I just remember the gentle smiling polite people, the beautiful sunsets, and the almost non-stop laughing and joshing. After a few weeks in UK, I usually miss Indonesia, and coming from the airport in Jakarta after the long flight, I long to get back, but where does “real” Indonesia start? Not on the flight. That is neither one nor the other. Not in the international airport, even with the taxi touts and the pen sellers. Not in the taxi, because Blue Bird airport taxi drivers are usually polite, professional, bright and sharp, ready to deal with foreign passengers. I look for the moment when the fog-blanket drops over me. One time, it started at check-in to the hotel when I asked if there were any messages for me, and the receptionist answered, ”belum”. In cold hard English this means not yet, but surely the answer is either yes or no, there either is (or is not) a message waiting for me and I just need the facts. However, Indonesians are programmed from birth in creating harmonious relationships with others, and a short sharp “NO!” is not in keeping with their natures. You, a guest, have just indicated (ever so tangentially) that you were expecting a message at the desk, so the receptionist wants to give you some hope that your wishes will soon be fulfilled.

Not all westerners enjoy that kind of detailed concerted effort to making you feel nice, but I sure do!

(January 2005)


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