Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Real Blog Post

Because I promised one, and because I keep my appointments...

(Name that allusion, please.)

I've been taking Javanese lessons for the past five weeks. I only meet with my teacher once a week, and I'm really lazy about studying vocabulary, so it hardly does any good, but at least now I can recognize what "monggo" means when people say it, oh, about every other word. (It means "please" or "after you" or, more generally, "I'm being polite to you right now.")

My lessons are, in general, a real kick: my Javanese teacher speaks no English, so I get long lists of Javanese vocabulary translated into Indonesian, and at least part of our lesson every week is devoted to fumbling around with an Indonesian dictionary trying to figure out what the heck "terjungkel" means. ("To fall over backwards from a squatting position"; a semantic space apparently highly necessary in a land of squat toilets.)

Last week's lesson was particularly confusing to me. The first four lessons followed what I viewed as a logical progression of vocabulary: greetings, politeness phrases, body parts, numbers, basic verbs, prepositions, and basic adjectives. Just the sort of words I need to start forming simple sentences, or, alternatively, to tell people that I don't speak any Javanese.

The fifth lesson, though, was a little different. Instead of moving from body parts to, say, days of the week, we went to "ways to move or position the aforementioned body parts." My vocabulary list at the end of last week's lesson looked something like this:

selonur: to sit with the legs stretched out
ndodok: to squat
sila: to sit cross-legged
ngeplak: to hit the head with the hand
ngeplok: to clap
njawil: to stroke the arm with the hand
merem: to close the eyes
melek: to open the eyes
mentheleng: eyes wide or bugging out
kera: cross-eyed
sipit: squinty-eyed like the Chinese (her words, not mine)
bangir: high-bridged nose
pesek: flat Asian nose
nyeprok: wide nose
ndomble: sagging lower lip
gugut: jutting chin
nyathis: receding chin
mecep: sticking the lips out
merot: sticking the lips to the side
melet: sticking the tongue out

Why, you may ask, would I need those words as the next basic step in learning Javanese? I asked myself the same thing. The lesson as a whole made no sense, not least because I don't know most of those words in Indonesian. And, please, let's be honest: what good will it really do if I describe someone as "squinty-eyed, with a flat Asian nose"? Number one, seeing as how I work and live with ethnic Chinese, it will do no good whatsoever. Number two, I just look racist. None of these words, I thought, could possibly be useful.

I was wrong. In the week that has elapsed since my lesson, I have heard the words ngeplak, ndodok, and gugut, and have used the word njawil. What's more, I have actually heard, from one of the teachers at my school, a description of her students as "squinty-eyed, with a flat Asian nose." Who's racist now?

*Nota Bene: not me. Actually, no one in this story. This blog entry might be better if followed by another one about how Indonesians are perfectly honest, and, to an American perspective, perfectly tactless in their physical descriptions. Teachers at my school are commonly described as "the fat one," "the short one," and "the black one." I goggle every time I hear this in Indonesian and now, thanks to my Javanese teacher, I can goggle every time I hear them in Javanese.


alea said...

I recently had to describe a fellow library student to another student. In an attempt to not look racist, I couldn't just say "the only black person in our entire program", so I fumbled around (I used height, hair style/color, and sartorial habits) and probably just confused her.

the point of my comment: I'm all for Indonesia (or Deaf) candor. It'd make my life so much easier.

Tolkien Boy said...

I think it's rather charming to be in a country who cares so much about methods of movement. Here in America, it takes forever to describe such basic things as bending over slantwise to scratch the part of your back that never gets scratched...

Aunt Jan said...

Venezuelans are more like Indonesians than you’d think. Kids call the fat kid in school “Gordo.” I’ve been told that I’m a bit “rellena”—which means “stuffed,” like a cabbage or a pastry. And yesterday, when asked to identify a sister that another sister didn’t know, I said, “Es la negra,” to which she responded, “Now I know who you mean.”

FoxyJ said...

Most other countries are much less polite/PC, whatever you want to call it. Spaniards have no problem telling you that you are large, ugly, etc. One time I had a companion who was very tall and big framed (not really fat, just big). Everyone in the ward called her "Hermana Grande" and me "Hermana Pequena". I think she was "Grande" for her whole mission. At least she had a good sense of humor about it.

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