Back to

Thursday, October 24, Langa

Last night, we arrived at the town of Langa, nestled deep in the forested hills of the beautiful island of Flores. In honor of our arrival here, and in anticipation of all the new experiences our second homestay is bound to bring, I want to reflect a little on what I’ve taken away from the four weeks I spent in Jogjakarta, and what realizations I can bring to the remainder of my Indonesia experience. That might sound more than a little grandiose; let’s get concrete.

As I sit here atop one of Langa’s hills, basking in the blessed cool of our homestay coordinator’s house, I present to all you rabid Yak Board watchers a humble request. Think back to the most recent conversation you had over the dinner table. Recall what was discussed, what disagreements you may have had, what assertions you made, judgements you offered up, every argument, commiseration, criticism, and, if your dinner table is anything like mine, every last second of the deliciously snide commentary that winds through it all. Try and recall everything you paid attention to, and, perhaps more importantly, those things that you didn’t. Do you have a picture? Though I can only guess at the content of conversations held back home —conversations of another world, thousands of miles across land and sea— I have to imagine that this scene might strike a familiar chord.

[A DINNER TABLE, upon which there sits a vase of flowers and two plates, placed on opposite sides. A REFRIGERATOR stands in the corner, upstage right. Seated in a chair at the right end of the table is IRENE, left is MICHAEL]

IRENE: (Glaring, steely-eyed, at MICHAEL, across the flat, wooden expanse of the dinner table)

“So, you’re telling me you did not, in fact, succeed in procuring that quart of milk I asked you to pick up yesterday?”

MICHAEL: (Staring blankly into the middle distance)

[Absently]: “Hmm?”

IRENE: (Eyes narrowing further)

[Sharply]: “The milk, did you get it?”

MICHAEL: (Working his jaw idly, loudly, around a particularly tough lamb chop)

“Yeah, mhmm. Right again, honey.”

IRENE: (Three distinct lines forming on her forehead, coming into sharp relief somewhere in the space between her eyebrows)

[On the edge of hysteria]: “The milk, Michael! Did you get the milk!?

MICHAEL: (Snapping out of it)

“What? Oh, the milk. Oh, yeah.”

(Moving to the refrigerator and opening it)

“Right here.”

IRENE: (Looking over her shoulder)

[Confused]: “Oh. Okay.”

To be fair, this is something of a dramatization (ho-ho-ho) but I think I can be confident in saying that many of you have found yourself in this type of situation at least once or twice before. It’s a common enough template; the absentminded husband, returning from work, and within minutes driving his reasonable, practical wife up the wall. But I’ll stop dancing around the point: the idea of this type of visualization is to think a little bit harder about what it means to communicate. What do you do, across the dinner table from your significant other, to convey information, to convey emotion? What strategies do you use, what facial expression, body language… Do you talk slowly, or quickly? How often, and how expressively, do you gesticulate? These are some of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, what I’ve been thinking about since I left Jogja.

I have one more request for you —the last one, I promise! Consider this everyday dinner table conversation —whatever the “Michael and Irene” scene looks like for you— and imagine how it would change if the majority of the words you spoke held no meaning for the opposite party. Let’s say, just by way of example, that one of you spoke English, and the other spoke… oh, I don’t know, maybe Bahasa Indonesian.

In fact, in the service of further pursuing this heavy-handed metaphor, we don’t have to imagine what the scene would look like at all. Let’s visualize it. Let’s stage “Michael and Irene” at a tremendously popular Jogjakarta playhouse. We have a cast of two: one speaks English, the other Bahasa. All of the muridnaga are in attendance, along with hundreds of high-culture locals, jittery with anticipation. The lights dim, and a hush falls over the audience. Suddenly —with that delightful rustle of soft, red cloth— the curtain parts, the audience takes a collective breath, and we open on:

[A DINNER TABLE, upon which there sits a vase of flowers and two plates, placed on opposite sides. A REFRIGERATOR stands in the corner, upstage right. Seated in a chair at the right end of the table is IRENE, left is MICHAEL]

IRENE: (Glaring, steely-eyed, at MICHAEL)

“You—[Uninteligible] milk—[Uninteligible] morning?”

MICHAEL: “What? Say again?”

IRENE: [slower, with exaggerated enunciation] “You say me—[Uninteligible] no you—[Uninteligible] that buy milk—[Uninteligble]. I can for yesterday?”

MICHAEL: [Nervously] “Umm…”

IRENE: (Eyes narrowing, mouth tightening)


MICHAEL: “You wanted me to buy milk yesterday?”

IRENE: (Rapidly losing patience)

“[Uninteligilbe]—day—[uninteligible]—until weekend—[uninteligible]—milk!”

MICHAEL: “Oh, you didn’t want me to buy it until the weekend? Sorry, I—“

IRENE: [Interupting]

“No! No!—[Uninteligible]. I want buy—[uninteligible]—to cook our son!”

MICHAEL: (Wide-eyed)


IRENE: (Exasperated, starting to fume)

“I try—[Uninteligible]. Every day—[Uninteligible]!”

MICHAEL: (Starting to rise)

“Okay, okay. Just one second. Take a breath—“

IRENE: (Rising also, outraged now)

[Operating at hyper-speed]: You—[A long string of particularly percussive unintelligibility]—stupid husband!”

MICHAEL: (Rushing to refrigerator and removing a quart of milk)

“What!? What!? Is this what you want!? I have the milk! Look.

(Gesturing) Here. I bought it yesterday! Is this what you want?”

IRENE: [confused]

“Oh. Okay.”

All silliness aside, I think that the “Michael and Irene” scenes do a decent job of illustrating one of the more interesting challenge we have faced during our time in Jogjakarta: the language barrier. When I came to Indonesia, I came with the understanding that these sorts of communicative challenges were like obstacles to be overcome, that the language barrier was a towering wall to surmount, an impermeable barrier, a stolid, glowering troll guarding the bridge, whatever equivalent metaphor you might wish to apply. It worried me, because I knew that three months would not be enough time to acquire the language skill necessary to get beyond it, to the opposite side, to the mysterious, mist-laden land of fluency. I worried I would see Indonesians waving down at me from the top of the wall, smiling, joking amongst themselves, and I would be permanently stranded at the bottom. I would never make it to the top, to the other side, the land where conversation with locals comes easily and the words you need jump eagerly to mind. Now though, with some distance between myself and the city, I can say with confidence that these worries have proven to be almost completely unfounded.

The truth —or at least what measure of it I’ve managed to stumble into during my four weeks in Jogjakarta— is that the language barrier is not nearly so definite or refined as I had been led to believe. Instead of a wall —something to be climbed, hand over hand, straining upwards against gravity towards a greater and greater understanding— it is better described as something like a nebula.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the moment I stepped off the plane in Jakarta, I also stepped into a linguistic miasma. Instead of a towering wall, I was confronted by a permeable, lingering mist, within which lurked the denizens of Indonesia. During the first week or so, I stumbled pretty much helplessly through it, catching glimpses of people through the smog —restaurant owners, hotel clerks, street vendors— but finding myself unable to do much more than wave and smile as they drifted by.

As I began to pick up more language, I started to walk a bit steadier —less headfirst face-planting into the ground—and caught glimpses of people like university students, restaurant waiters, and go-car drivers. I discovered places where the mist is thin, like with my homestay family, and at the academic institutions I visited, and also places where it is much thicker —impenetrable or oppressive, even— like studio Ukur, where I studied with my ISP instructors, or in sections of the city (gulp) where I was addressed in Bahasa Java. I’ve had some encounters that have been completely clear, many that have been a little confusing, and some where I could hardly see the other party through the fog. But in all my misadventures through the language nebula, in all my conversations, however disorienting or difficult, I have never felt lost or stranded. However frustrated you may feel, there’s always a way out, a glimmer of light, a breath of fresh air, someone to hold your hand and lead you into the clear.

This Is what the “Michael and Irene” scenes really serve to demonstrate: that even though the two are vastly different in terms of emotional content, length, and language, in the end, the questioning party had its question answered. Irene found out that Michael had bought the milk. They found their way through the nebula —stumbling about, crashing into each other, seething, miserable— but eventually, they came to an understanding. By some miracle of exaggerated gesticulation, facial expression, and linguistic approximation —aided by a hodgepodge of mismatched vocabulary— they were able to communicate.

The weird truth is that trans-lingual communication is not nearly so dependent upon languages I had previously believed. For someone like me, who relies upon the magic of words for nearly every communication, this was a strange realization. When the language component is taken out of the equation, what am I left with? How do I get by? The answer lies on the other side of perhaps the single most misguided certainty I carried with me to Indonesia: that I would be bound, restricted even, by my language deficiency. In some sense, that premonition was true: navigating the nebula is often quite limiting. But in some other sense, a sense unfamiliar to me, the American —suburban born and raised— I am left with more than I had before, and “getting by” is not a challenge at all, but an unexpected joy.

What I’ve finally begun to realize is that being without a common language, though it may be limiting, is also, in equal measure, freeing. I am made more aware of myself, how I look, how I behave, my tone, my body language, because oftentimes the content of what I say —the words I speak, the language I use— does not really matter. In being forced to communicate without language, I find myself much more conscious of what lies underneath, what meaning is carried on the words. I find myself thinking about “Michael and Irene,” and what’s really happening within those scenes, the meaning behind Irene’s scalding ferocity, Michael’s defensiveness. Let’s stage “Michael and Irene” once last time, but let’s strip it down a little, to its very barest essentials.

[A DINNER TABLE, upon which there sits a vase of flowers and two plates, placed on opposite sides. A REFRIGERATOR stands in the corner, upstage right. Seated in a chair at the right end of the table is IRENE, left is MICHAEL]

IRENE: “I wish that you would pay more attention when I’m speaking to you. I wish that you would value my opinion more. I wish that I didn’t always have to be the bad guy, that you and I could work together.”

MICHAEL: “I wish that you would put more trust in me. I wish that you would be more patient with me. I wish that instead of fighting about mistakes we’ve made individually, we could instead make them together.”

IRENE: (Sighing)

“We’ll make it work.”

This version of the scene, though by far the most boring off the three, is perhaps also the truest, because it addresses directly the subtext running under both versions of the scene: Irene’s frustration, Michael’s feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. These are the essential components of most any conversation, the emotional interchange between the participants. The content is of course also important, but what is a conversation without emotion, without subtext, without the undercurrents of misgiving, of changing perspective, the hidden, lingering presence of what is not said. We never talk about it, but it’s there, hidden beneath our words, infused in every letter, every sentence, every turn of phrase. “Michael and Irene #3” never happens because we’ve learned how to conceal what we mean behind the screen of our language. We’ve learned how to meanone thing by saying another. And what happens once that language is taken away? The artificial screen becomes the natural miasma, and there is nothing left to say, nothing left to communicate, except exactly, precisely, what you mean.

Thinking about this stuff, of course, is well beyond my capabilities when it comes to conversing with Indonesians. I’ll get back to you on the subject once I can consistently distinguish the difference between “tofu” (pronounced “ta-hu”) and “to know” (pronounced “ta-oo”). But when speaking in my own language, this sort of awareness, both of myself and of others, has incredible value. To be able use one’s language not as a screen, but as a means of conveyance, so that one’s words carry weight, and real meaning, is an important skill in its own right. Perhaps even harder, though, is doing the reverse, dismantling someone else’s screen, turning their words transparent to see what lies underneath. This is part of a larger skill, one that takes a lifetime and more to acquire, for it is an education in what it means to listen.

In Dieng, before we made our descent out of the highlands, we were asked a question: “who is a role model of yours, and what do you admire about him or her?” What a question, right! I remember wracking my brain trying to come up with some suitably academic sentiment, some high-minded morality that I could articulate with some similarly high-minded rhetoric. But in the end, the person I chose, and my reasoning for that selection, were both quite simple. As we sat on the floor of the common room in the Dieng homestay house, instructors and muridnaga together, all of us full to bursting with nasigoreng, I told them: “My dad”. The reason, when I was asked for it, was obvious: “He knows how to listen.” It may sound silly, it may sound sentimental, it may sound outright stupid, but it really is as simple as that. For, as I’ve discovered during my stay in Jogja, communication is not really all that much about talking. It’s about understanding what’s said to you, about conveying emotion, and ultimately, about listening.

Somehow, in the city of Jogjakarta, in all my wandering through the language nebula, I’ve hit my head upon the cool exterior of something very hard and real. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, amidst the wild, blaring cacophony of car horns and motorbikes, I’ve managed to lay hands upon a small part of what it means to listen. It’s the beginning of a lesson that will last a lifetime. I’m very, very happy; I hope you know that I mean it.