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
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.