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iPhone app for learning Bahasa Indonesia

10 April 2013

I just downloaded this free app, and it’s a great, easy way to get started with the Indonesian language:

Learning Indonesian iPhone App

The English is spoken by an American native speaker, and the Indonesian is spoken by an Indonesian native speaker.

Give it a try! I’m reviewing so I don’t lose all that I learned.

Leaving Indonesia

4 August 2012

I’m back in the United States now, after living in Bandung, West Java, for 10 months. I have to say I’m happy to be home. I enjoyed many things about my stay in Indonesia, including and especially the people I met there, but it is not an easy place to live in — especially the cities, including Bandung, because of the ever-present traffic jams, overcrowded streets, and lack of public transportation. Sidewalks are poorly maintained, where they exist at all, and so walking is not pleasant.

A returning Fulbrighter must write a lengthy report in an online form. I have started this, but it will take some time to complete it. After that’s done, I’ll come back here and add some thoughts to this blog.

I have updated the > Tips < page here, with new information about the “Exit Permit Only” (EPO) and excess baggage fees on international flights. If you are a new Fulbright Scholar preparing to go to Indonesia, you should read the parts about the KITAS, immigration and police, and luggage fees. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to try to answer them.

Olympics and Indonesian Television

27 July 2012

According to an editorial in today’s Jakarta Post, people in Indonesia will not have any chance to see much of the Olympics on TV. Of course, Indonesians might be able to watch some events on YouTube … if they can tolerate the impossibly slow Internet connections that are par for the course here, in the world’s third-largest democracy.

Schedule and results page: Official London 2012 Olympics site.

Indonesian sports TV channels do spend big money to show European soccer, Formula One and MotoGP races, and boxing, according to the Jakarta Post editorial — but they don’t care about airing the Olympics, so they won’t be doing so. Neither will the big commercial networks here.

Instead, the modestly funded national broadcaster, TVRI:

will  broadcast Olympic coverage for 6 hours a day: 2 hours early in the morning and 2 more in the afternoon and evening. The final matches in soccer, tennis, basketball and badminton — the only sport in which Indonesia stands a chance of winning a gold medal — will also be aired live. (Source)

Everywhere around the world, people are inspired by watching the Olympic competitions. I don’t even care about sports most of the time, but I love watching the Olympics!

So I feel sorry for the majority of Indonesians, too poor to afford cable television, restricted by inadequate Internet access, shut out by a lack of TV reporting in the Indonesian language, and unable to join the rest of the world for two weeks of global togetherness.

No wonder the Indonesian teams won only 4 or 5 medals in each of the last two Olympics! And this is the fourth-largest country in the world, with a population of about 250 million.

But the bigger loss for Indonesian people is that they miss out on a kind of sharing that crosses international boundaries and tensions and even surmounts hatred. Watching the Olympics is a kind of learning experience for the soul, where sometimes you find yourself cheering for athletes from countries you never heard of because their stories are so compelling. It’s a grand pageant, a celebration of human achievement.

What a pity the Indonesian people can’t join in!

How to study Bahasa Indonesia

15 July 2012

I recently found this free site from the University of Hawaii at Manoa: Indonesian Online.

All of the Lessons are listed on one page.

You can sign up and pay to get real university credit for taking the course — or you can just use all the materials on your own, and learn Bahasa Indonesia for free.

Acquiring language: Bahasa Indonesia

7 July 2012

I have been studying the Indonesian language since May 2011, and now I can speak it well enough to have a simple conversation — a very simple conversation, nothing too complicated (I’m not at all quick at learning new languages). I don’t know enough to give a lecture completely in Bahasa Indonesia, unfortunately.

People speak a similar language in three other countries: Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore. There are numerous differences in word meanings between their language and the official one in Indonesia (example: kereta for car in Malaysia; mobil for car in Indonesia, where kereta means a horse cart), but the grammar is the same.

Here is my favorite example of what makes Bahasa Indonesia difficult for me:

  • Itu rumah besar. (That is a big house.)
  • Rumah itu besar. (That house is big.)
  • Rumah besar itu. (The [that] big house.)
  • Rumah yang besar. (The house that is big.)

Bahasa Indonesia is the national language of Indonesia, and it’s the language of instruction in the schools and in most universities. However, for most people here, it is not their first language. There are 726 regional languages in Indonesia (source). Javanese has the most speakers (75.2 million), and Sundanese (27 million), which is spoken in and around Bandung, where I live, is the second most common. Of all those regional languages, 13 account for almost 70 percent of the population of Indonesia — so some of them have few few living speakers today.

When Indonesia became a nation, after World War II, there had already been a long campaign to establish Bahasa Indonesia as the national language, in part because both Javanese and Sundanese have hierarchical levels for speaking to people of higher or lower status, and in part because it was smarter to choose a language that was not the property of any single ethnic group in the new nation.

Some interesting things I have learned about language here:

(1) In Yogyakarta I met an American anthropologist who has been studying life in a particular village near there for about 40 years. He had made regular visits to the village annually for many years, but recently he had been absent for about 10 years because of obligations in the United States. I asked him what had changed the most in that time, and his answer was the language of the young people. Ten years ago, when teens were hanging around, they usually spoke in Javanese to one another. Now they speak mostly Bahasa Indonesia.

(2) There’s an idea that Indonesians whose first language is a regional one, and who speak that language at home with their parents, will be adept at learning foreign languages later on, because when they go to school at age 6 or 7, they must do everything in Bahasa Indonesia.

(3) My teacher of Bahasa Indonesia did not learn any regional language as a child, because her parents, who met as university students, had each come from a different language group. So when her parents speak to each other, or to their children, they always speak in Bahasa Indonesia — they don’t have any other language in common. (She mastered English while living in America for two years as a high school student while her father completed his graduate studies there.)

(4) Many people from farming communities in Central Java, where Javanese is spoken, come to Bandung to find work. So even in a Sundanese region, their children’s first language might be Javanese. According to one of my colleagues, however, teens around here like to use the Sundanese language, so it’s common for high school students to converse in a mix of Bahasa Indonesia and Sundanese — maybe with a fair amount of English thrown in — even if their first language was Javanese.

(5) According to my teacher of Bahasa Indonesia (guru bahasa saya), who also teaches courses in formal Bahasa Indonesia to native speakers, many Indonesians find it challenging to write correctly in the national language. They can speak fluently, and to the ear, their spoken Bahasa Indonesia is very correct. But writing the language demands more structure, some different verb forms, and more attention paid to prepositional words such as pada. (You can shorten and compress a lot in speaking, but in written language, you should not.) A Fulbright colleague who grew up in Indonesia but was educated in the United States told me there is very, very little emphasis on reading or writing in the Indonesian schools, and he says that accounts for the poor writing skills of many educated Indonesian people.

Bahasa Indonesia is the third foreign language I have studied. I had three years of Spanish in high school and one full year at university. My vocabulary is okay, but the verb forms still confound me. I had two years of spoken and written Japanese at the Japan Society in New York, 20 years ago, but I’ve forgotten most of it; the kanji ultimately defeated my efforts. I really enjoy learning Bahasa Indonesia, and I hope I’m able to continue after I return home.

This post was inspired by an opinion column in today’s Jakarta Post, written by A. Chaedar Alwasilah: Government indifference hindering literacy in local languages. I was also fascinated by this account of translating from English to Bahasa, by Indonesian author Julia Suryakusuma: Mind your (Indonesian) language! (also from the Jakarta Post).

P.S. As Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world (population about 250 million*), it might be time for the rest of the world to pay more attention to Bahasa Indonesia. Add to that Malaysia (29 million), Singapore (5 million), and Brunei (only 400,000), and the number of speakers of Bahasa Indonesia clearly exceeds that of speakers of Japanese (Japan: 126 million people), for example, and maybe even of French (add up the populations of France, Quebec, Haiti, etc.; then add in north Africa; one total I found for French speakers worldwide is 126 million). However, the reasons for learning the Indonesian language rest mainly on spoken communication, as there is not a large literary corpus.

* All population figures from Index Mundi, 2012.

Gudeg in Yogyakarta

13 June 2012

On my third visit to Yogyakarta, I ate gudeg for breakfast with Pak Lukas of Atma Jaya University.

Gudeg is cooked jackfruit (nangka), stewed for many hours with palm sugar (gula merah) and various spices. Delicious! Although it looks very caramelized in the close-up above, it is much less sweet than American candied yams; the flavor is more complex than that, and the taste is more than just sweetness.

Lukas picked me up at 8 a.m. and took me to this resto on the north side of the campus of Gadjah Mada University. It was a very clean and pleasant street, lined with many small businesses. This restaurant is rather large, although it was not very full at that hour.

The gudeg is in the front. Clockwise: Beef skin (no thank you), a hot pepper, delicious tofu of a type I had not eaten before (amazing — the endless variety of tofu here), stewed chicken thigh and a hard-boiled egg (both hiding under the tofu).

Lukas mentioned that it’s nice to eat gudeg first thing in the morning because most places are cooking it at night (it must be cooked for hours), so the morning is when it’s freshest. Only a few places will cook it during the day, so if you eat gudeg in the evening, it’s probably been sitting around since last night. Ugh!

Here’s the menu from our gudeg restaurant today. Fifteen variations, but every one includes gudeg and rice (nasi). Rp 9,000 is slightly less than $1 U.S. Paha atas is chicken thigh, and dada is chicken breast. We had Paket 13, less than $3 U.S., and quite a lot of food for breakfast!

Below you’ll see me, after eating, standing on the sidewalk beneath the restaurant’s sign.

Power relations in Indonesia (a Javanese perspective)

26 May 2012

A couple days ago, someone introduced me to the concept of kaula-Gusti. He used this concept to explain to me a kind of cultural sensibility that continues among the Indonesian people today.

Rather than try to repeat his explanation, I’ll use this:

The local term ibadat or ibadah, is a direct borrowing from Arabic ‘ibada. It means, according to Pak Sholeh, “to enslave oneself to God (ngaula ning Gusti Allah).” Semantically (munggu logat), the notion of ngaula (to enslave) entails at least two implications. The first is affirmation of the existing bond between man and God in a slave-Master (kaula-Gusti) relationship where man is the slave or servant (kaula) and God is the Master (Gusti); the second is an affirmation that man, the servant (kaula), has the task of obeying the Master (Gusti), both by doing continuously what the Master orders and by avoiding what the Master forbids. However, acknowledging that the God is the Master who, despite His absolute power and omnipotence, is exceedingly beneficent and merciful, giving the servants life and invaluable nourishment, has a third implication; that is, that the servant has a moral obligation to express thankfulness, to do his utmost in his service, and to be generous in his obedience. (Muhaimin, 1995, p. 84)

The text is from The Islamic Traditions of Cirebon: Ibadat and Adat Among Javanese Muslims, by Abdul Ghoffur Muhaimin (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2006).

As my friend explained, however, this is much more than the master-slave relationship with which most Western people are familiar. Notice the references to God in this explanation — but my friend said this relationship exists between the rakyat (the public) and the ruler, whether that ruler be a sultan or a president. It also exists between various higher and lower people in Indonesia.

So I asked the woman who comes three days a week to clean my apartment to explain her understanding of kaula-Gusti to me. She grew up in Central Java, the child of farming people. The idea is very familiar to her; she knows exactly what it is, but she had a hard time figuring out how to put it into English. So I said: “Is it about the relationship of God to the people?”

She looked shocked. “Oh, no, it’s not about God,” she said. “It’s more like … the sultan.”

“The sultan and the people?” I asked.

“Yes, but not only the sultan. It’s also, well, like you and me. You are the Gusti, I am kaula.”

So this is what my friend was explaining. He focused on the “moral obligation to express thankfulness,” which sounds quite perverse to an educated Western person — he said the kaula wants to serve the Gusti. This goes against everything an American has ever learned about slavery, coming from our history with Africa and the brutal slave trade between that continent and ours. No one wants to be a slave.

But the long ingrained cultural condition here in Indonesia is like a different kind of soil from which grows a different kind of plant life, well adapted to that earth and its nutrients. I’m not saying it’s right or good — it’s just different.

And if you want to know what sparked our conversation about kaula-Gusti, my friend and I were talking about the bribe that Indonesians say is not a bribe. An example came from another American, when he had finished getting all his immigration documents from the local Imigrasi office. The American man and his sponsor, an Indonesian college professor, were preparing to leave the Imigrasi office when the Indonesian handed a folded bunch of money to the immigration officer. As they left the building, the American asked if his sponsor had just given the officer a bribe.

The Indonesian professor said it was not a bribe, because the paperwork was all finished. It you give money before an action is complete, then it is a bribe, and that is wrong, he explained. But if you give money after, that’s not a bribe. It’s more like a tip, because the Imigrasi officer did a good job, and the American had all his forms and permits now.

So the other day, I asked my Indonesian friend to explain why that money is not a bribe. He had a good laugh and then asked me if I understood the concept of kaula-Gusti.

The Indonesian professor was expressing thankfulness to the Imigrasi officer when he gave the money. But, my friend added, that Indonesian professor would be lying if he said he did not expect the Imigrasi officer to remember that payment in any future encounters they might have.

I’m not really clear who is the kaula and who is the Gusti in that transaction. But I do see now how the subservience one sees everywhere in Indonesia has roots that go back hundreds of years — and in a way that is very, very strange for a Western person, it contains a voluntary aspect, an acquiescence, an acceptance of one’s kaula-hood.


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