Gimana, Miss Erin?

Three Things We Like…
December 6, 2009, 9:20 am
Filed under: Indonesia, Stories..., Yogyakarta

Semester was just getting going, and I was struggling to keep up – no, struggling to comprehend anything – in the Politik dan Pemerintahan Afrika small group discussion.  At the end of 30 minutes sitting there with what I hoped was a pensive (as opposed to blank) look on my face, I was loath to let my group’s piece of butcher’s paper up to the front of the class. Written in English, it said:

Three Things We Like About South Africa Region:

· Colonised by many different countries (England, Holland, Germany etc)

· All democracy except Lesotho (constitutional monarchy)

· HIV/AIDS epidemic.

What the…?!

Nobody else in the group caught the nasty cringe/gasp combination that choked me when I saw it. Three things we like…colonised…HIV/AIDS epidemic…pretty blue squiggle under the heading for emphasis. I looked away.  I felt sick. The din of other groups chatting, scribing and scraping chairs across the floor distracted me momentarily. I looked back at our paper. The cringe and sick feeling returned. What was written there was the first I had understood of the group discussion.

Or had I understood?

This was one critical moment where, as the new foreign student who understood a whopping 60% of the lecture content and who misunderstood approximately one in three assignments, I had to decide whether to let this one slip or whether to suggest maybe the heading, particularly the use of the word ‘like’ could be changed.

Not wanting to shy away from opportunities to engage with classmates, I chose to forget the fear of misunderstanding or being misunderstood, and dive right in.

But dive from which angle? I realised that constructive criticism is not done in the same way in Central Java as it often is in the comparatively blunt land of Aus. I realised the danger of appearing to be the bilingual know-it-all that I wasn’t. Just the week prior I had written a page of notes about the many different uses of water in development, when my sosiology lecturer had actually been talking about studying the constant phenomenon of social change. Above all, I realised I was armed only with my smile, manners and existing vocabulary. My dictionary, a Mirota Kampus special that once told me the word for watchtower meant opium, was rather unreliable.

‘Yes,’ I used my Indonesian ‘This list is very good. But this word – like – it means we really like the things in the list – it means suka.’

Six pensively blank faces stared back at me.  The scribe looked confused and asked me to repeat. The second time, there was a flurry of gitu, kok, deh and other informal speech as the group conferred.

“But…like,” the scribe said to me in English, “it means menarik.”

Well, she had me there! A linguistic light turned on in my head. Menarik does mean interesting, but with connotation of being interesting in an arguably likeable way because it comes from tarik – to pull. Tarik, to pull. Menarik, to pull something in. I could see how the scribe got English ‘like’ from Indonesian ‘menarik‘. It was right and yet so wrong for the context.

One thing I now appreciate is that language learning really is more than just vocabulary and grammar. It’s also about learning the art of figuring out when that vocabulary and grammar feels ‘right’, ‘less right’ and just plain ‘wrong’ across a range of new and challenging situations. It’s about having to muddle through and explain yourself through situations that cannot always be pre-empted. The roots of mistakes and misunderstandings can indeed be more complex to dig up than occasional vocabulary slip-ups that result in wishing one’s laundry lady a happy birthday instead of a happy new year, or writing about ‘temple sickness’ or penyakit pura-pura instead of ‘lung cancer’ kanker paru-paru in an exam (I am guilty of both).

I may have just had a language learning epiphany, but decisions in this class were by group consensus and the consensus was to stick with ‘Three Things We Like’. A few minutes later I returned to my seat in the lecture theatre so each group could present. I hurriedly wondered how many times I’d said things in Indonesian that didn’t quite translate. How would I ever know?

As the West African region presented their thoughts, the scribe leaned back over her chair.  ‘Actually,’ she whispered, ‘we have decided and you are right. We will change it to say three interesting things about South Africa region.’

‘Oh, ya…’ I smiled.

To me, that’s a beautiful thing about language. While there are some words and expressions that are very context-specific there are others that can be applied to a gamut of situations. ‘Oh, ya…’ used with a smile is one of them in Indonesian. It can end a misunderstanding or keep the peace, at least for the moment. It can save embarrassment and time, providing conclusion without the need to retell an entire story. Used by foreign students it can simultaneously mean ‘yes, please go on’, ‘this sounds interesting’, ‘I need to go now as I’m late for my next class’ and ‘I have totally lost what you’re saying’. Plus, it is practically impossible to mispronounce. In fact if I drew up a list of things I liked about Indonesian language, I daresay ‘Oh, ya…’ with a smile would feature in my top three.


Word of the Moment: ‘Gender’
November 30, 2009, 11:19 am
Filed under: Gmana culture-nya?, Indonesia, Word of the Moment

Gotta love double meanings – say it with a hard ‘g’ as in ‘get’ (the standard ‘g’ in Bahasa Indo) and roll your rrrrrrr.

Yes, it means gender, no shocks there.   But, as a friend of mine once pointed out at an ultra-geeky dinner party (we moved on to alphabet-based word games later in the evening after a strong hit of teh hijau – green tea – and all in all it was a good night), gender is, of all things, also the name of a small gamelan percussion instrument.

Read more about these instruments on the UK Gamelan Network website, which I’ve just discovered at:

It’s been a while now, but I first had a crack at gamelan back in high school.  Our Indonesian teacher back then made eclectic use of your average public school resources.  We had xylophones, recorders, a triangle, random cymbals and to top it all off, metal cricket wickets for a gong.  Not exactly the ornate, 80 piece East Java-bequeathed set I got to play with years later in the fledgeling Murdoch gamelan group, but it did the job.  In a way.  Well we got the theory and none of us knew our genders from our gong kebyars  at the time.

We started out at Murdoch in 2002, playing out the back of the environmental science precinct and gaining a small run in the Melville Times until the Joglo Rahayu pavillion was built closer to the Asian Studies action with a temperature controlled annex to  to house the instruments.  Practices were led by an Indonesian dalang (puppet master), and inevitably noisy so late in the day for the sake of those having tutorials around us.  They usually followed a very relaxed pattern going something like this – wait for a while, say hello to each other, slowly get the instruments out, stop for a beer or cigarette, play a few tunes, rest, and so on… years later, Java put the laid-back waiting in context for me…

Here’s a really quick Gamelan excerpt (Javanese Style):

If you’re youtube surfing, try searching Wayang Kulit – gamelan orchestras play at  these epic shadow puppet performances which can be stunning if slow moving…

November 22, 2009, 12:28 pm
Filed under: Indonesia, IndoPop Stuff

My partner and I, having lived a relatively workaholic lifestyle of late, recently decided to break out our Indo skills once more and watch a DVD called Kekasih – ‘The Lovers.’

Part of the appeal with this particular DVD for me was that the story happens in Yogya.  The first 5 minutes gives glimpses of the Jalan Molioboro sign, Tugu (the local monument/roundabout) and sweeping Yogya-like main streets.  Oya, KFC makes an appearance too.

Warning:  I’m about to ruin the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen it and doesn’t like having their plots ruined and twists revealed!!

The plot is pretty straightforward – boy meets girl, boy and girl share meaningful silences and moments of laughter, girl gets sent away, girl comes back many years later and instantly runs into boy at local helmet shop (incidentally he was also standing beneath the girl’s plane watching it land)….etc etc.

Then the twist – through a series of mishaps (well, a motor accident), we find out that the girl has had heart trouble all along!  *Gasp! That (kind of) explains why she was sent away!*  The accident has put her in grave danger and without a heart transplant she will surely die!  *Double gasp!*  Here’s the thing – lover and family end up in the doctor’s office (at what looks to be Yogya international hospital – I went there once, soothing gamelan music at the entrance and you get a free membership card) … anyway they end up in the doctor’s office arguing over who is going to give up their heart for a transplant – apa sih?? I’ve yet to hear of a jurisdiction anywhere in the world that condones that kind of banter in the presence of a medical professional!

Well the outcome is that her dad, after telling a moving story about a fisherman and sacrifice on the beach, gives up his heart for his daughter’s transplant.  No mention of the fact he was a 60+ smoker, all sensibility has gone out the window by this stage. One thing’s for sure, I didn’t see it coming.

I love it, don’t let a little reality get in the way of a good, imaginative plot twist.  Commendations to the scriptwriters for coming up with the transplant scenario, and for working in so many beautiful beach scenes.

Tarian Jawa di Yogya – Javanese Dance.
September 1, 2009, 12:01 pm
Filed under: Gmana culture-nya?, Indonesia, Yogyakarta

From the INCULS Closing Ceremony last year in Yogya.  Thanks to Meg from ACICIS (study Indonesia! for cutting this together.  It probably a more realistic representation of a novice Javanese dance performance than the montage of stills I cut together set to early 90s pop-rap classics.  I might post that one for comparison at a later date.

There was a lot of hairspray, make up and waddling around in batik before this big day, not to mention weeks of swinging our heads from side to side, flick scarves and avoiding the small matter of a mini cyclone in the weeks leading up to the performance.

I would point out which one of the dancers is me but as my brother said: “…no offence but which one is you?  They all look the same…”

August 16, 2009, 10:38 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I saw Balibo today at a fundraiser for the John Byrne Memorial Trust.  It was not only a chance for me to see a film I’d heard so much about and missed at the Melbourne International Film Festival, but also an opportunity to learn a bit about a remarkable man who spent time working with refugee young people in Melbourne’s West.  See:

The film, we were told by two of the young actors involved, was 6 years in the making.  For those not aware, it’s based on a true story.  Balibo looks into the fate of 5 young journalists who were in East Timor around the events of October-December 1975.  Anthony LaPaglia plays the veteran journo trying retrace their steps and find out what happened after they went missing in action.  A young Jose Ramos-Horta is also a key figure in the story.  The film was actually shot in Timor, and the brilliance of it for me was that it drew me into both the landscape and the political tension/fear.  The editing skewed time, switching between scenes of the Balibo 5 going after their iconic news footage on the Timorese/Indonesian border, and LaPaglia following their trail weeks later.  The suspense in the cinema was intense.

Indonesian Film Festival, Melbourne
August 7, 2009, 2:35 pm
Filed under: Indonesia, IndoPop Stuff

Yay banget!  The bioskop is coming to Melbourne-town CBD.

11-20 August.  The program starts with five solid screenings of Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Troops), the movie (and book said movie was based on, and soundtrack by supergroup Nidji….) that took over Indonesia in 200laskar-pelangi8.  Ask my partner, the soundtrack was on repeat in his kos for months at a time!  …And on repeat in the internet cafe, in the shops, on the radio……iya aduuuh!

The book Laskar Pelangi was released prior to the film, and is said to be based on the author’s childhood experiences.  I saw the film in Jakarta, then again back here in Melbourne around June at one of three special screenings.  I did like it –  following the story of some children who attend a small public school in the 1970s, to me the story and characters are something like the Wonder Years-meets-Freedom Writers-meets-part-of-Southeast Asia.  The setting off the coast of South Sumatera is quite different to other Indonesian films I’d seen, with the possible exception of the Banyu Biru dream sequence – I’ll save talk of that gem for another time.  Laskar Pelangi throws up lots of issues around equity and education, there is enough light relief to get you through the story and to be frank, the odd unfinished subplot didn’t really bother me.  After all, what’s an unfinished subplot between new and fictional friends?

I am hoping to see some of the other, lesser known films at the festival.  There seems to be a trend in horror films, with Macarbe and Takut (scared) featuring in the program.  I think the last time I willingly watched a horror flick was Return to Horror High (not the art world’s finest) in 1998.  Twilight does not count as a horror flick.  So I may give it a crack now that we’re 9 years and counting into the new millennium – besides, great promo shot (below).

He looks so takut!

He looks so takut!

Full program at:

Word of the Moment – (BOOM!) DAHSYAT!!
August 6, 2009, 12:39 pm
Filed under: Indonesia, Stories..., Word of the Moment


Said ‘dah-si-yat’!  Also ‘dahsat’.                                                                              The Revolutionary Muffin

Revolutionary Muffins Uprising?  Boom!  Dahsyat!  from Cookie Jar Confessions

Revolutionary Muffins Uprising? Boom! Dahsyat! from Cookie Jar Confessions

1. Awful, terrifying. And on the flip side:
2. Awe-inspiring, imposing.

If I were so inclined, I might call this word a beauty. It’s words like this, with varied connotations and a completely unfamiliar sound that make learning a language so much fun. If I see or use dahsyat in a sentence I know there’s got to be a good day ahead (so easily pleased, nice to be me:0)

I came across dahsyat in an UGM lecture on theories of revolution. I remember it was about two thirds of the way through said lecture, and let’s be honest, my focus was left wanting.  Having long ago passed politics 101 and having successfully covered off revolusi, proletar, borguis and komunisme in my vocab I pulled on one of my best interested faces and waited for stroke of 3pm – home time.  I was just zoning out to consider the long term effects of low wooden lecture theatre seats on my posture, and how nice a fresh juice would be after the day was over, when my lecturer eyeballed his audience, slammed his hands together and yelled ‘BOOM!  DAHSYAT!’

I had no idea what it meant, but I did feel the word really helped the speaker bring home his point.

The impact also made me giggle like the school girl I’d gone back to uni to be.

Dahsyat.  Sounded like some kind of shitstorm.  Indeed, my Aussie neighbour looked it up on her electronic dictionary.  Awful, it said, scrolling down to Terrible.

Aaah, good word. I nodded.  My neighbour nodded in kind.  We set out to impress our fellow foreign student friends with this new-found knowledge.  We learned a great word, we would say, it means bad – but much much worse, we would say. It means total, utter, chaotic dahsyat.

Two weeks later I went to the biggest air-conditioned mall in town and there, at the only place that sold wholemeal bread, sat a muffin.  The sign in front of the muffin described its flavour as ‘dahsyat’.  Rasanya dahsyat.  Huh.  A revolutionary muffin.

Confusion led me to check and discover the flip side of the word – awe-inspiring.  Imposing.  Nice one, Bahasa Indo.