Reflections

 This summer, I had the opportunity to study Indonesian intensively. I studied daily and one-on-one with several different teachers. By program’s end, I came to understand a truism about language-learning that I had heard before: there are peaks and valleys, and the lots of little plateaus in between. Some days were exciting because I noticed a difference between whatever “before” I remembered and the present. I registered these shifts under the guidance of expert teachers. My ability to understand and use Indonesian seemed to move forward. Other days expanded horizontally in all directions. Those days, it was not clear what was happening, though whatever it was (or wasn’t) also occurred (or didn’t) under the guidance of expert teachers. I wish to conclude this blog by acknowledging and thanking them.

Jamu

This summer, one of my Indonesian teachers and I read an article about jamu. That day another teacher had brought in a bottle of jamu to the office, so during a break, we drank it from small cups. Its flavor was mellow-bitter, and faintly sweet.

Medical anthropologist Julie Laplante, writing in Medicine Anthropology Theory, describes jamu in this way:

Jamu elixirs are lively compositions of fresh plants, rhizomes, fruits, and spices of all sorts, which both invigorate the body and offer possibilities for unblocking anxieties and treating disease. Unlike modern pharmaceuticals, jamu’s potential efficacies are not reducible to the molecules of the plants each elixir contains. Rather, within a Javanese philosophy that understands the body to be in a fluid and emergent relationship with the surrounding world (Ferzacca 2001), it is the liveliness of plants entangled with the human liveliness of movement required to create the proper combinations of textures, juices, and powders that make the elixirs’ healing potentials very real.

According to the piece I read with my teacher, jamu can be made from a number of rhizomes, including jahe (ginger), kunyit (turmeric), and kencur (galangal).

It is no surprise that the global wellness industry has grabbed hold of jamu as something to market and sell, particularly in a place like Bali. In this post, though, I explicitly draw attention to jamu practices that circulate in their own spaces. To that end, I also share the film Jamu Stories, about jamu cultures in Java, which can be watched in full on YouTube.

School

This summer, I learned about The Lontar Anthology of Indonesian Poetry. It is a large volume, presenting the work of almost two-hundred Indonesian poets. Although I will not explore them in this post, I must acknowledge the complex language politics of Indonesia, and point out that Indonesian (“bahasa Indonesia”) is the official language of the Republic of Indonesia. Hundreds of other languages are also spoken across the archipelago.

The Lontar Anthology does not present each poem in the original Indonesian alongside its translation, but I was able to find the poem I share below in its original form, too. The openings in this poem, by the poet and journalist Sugiarta Sriwibawa, suggest something about processes of coming to understand, of moving in directions like the river evoked throughout.

“School”

School on the riverbank
Children search reflections
For origin and direction of the flow

School on the riverbank
Thoughts of boats
Dreams of the sea

School on the riverbank
The teacher helps paint the scene
The children work hard to color it in

Translated by Marjorie Suanda

*

“Sekolah”

Sekolah di tepi sungai
Anak-anak mencari banyangan
Asal dan arah yang mengalir

Sekolah di tepi sungai
Berpikir perahu
Bermimpi laut

Sekolah di tepi sungai
Guru menolong melukis tamasya
Anak-anak tekun memberi warna

From Garis Putih, Sugiarta Sriwibwa; Balai Pustaka, 1985.

We

This summer, I came to understand more clearly two Indonesian words that indicate something about social relationships and bringing others into a shared world: kami and kita. These words translate, roughly, to we. Although I could grasp a general distinction between the kami and kita, this did not mean that I could select the more appropriate word in practice. Whenever a conversation required me to refer to myself and the person I was talking with, I stumbled. Sometimes I would construct elaborate detours around kami and kita or would instead refer to myself and the other person(s) by name.

In short, kami is a “we” that includes others, but excludes the person being addressed, while kita includes the person being addressed. Using kami, though, does not merely erect a roadblock between a distant “we” and the “you” you are talking to: it can also invite that “you” to join the “we.”

These difficulties–glints of meaning–can trip us up when we are attempting to make our way in a language new to us.  Kami, kita, and we can move us toward connection. For me, they also became points of “friction” in anthropologist Anna Tsing’s terms: “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (2005, 5).

Tsing, Anna. 2005. Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pace

This summer, I started to think about pace and language learning in an expanded way. By some measure I was studying intensively: in the classroom five days per week, four hours per day, one-on-one with one of five expert teachers. Intensive language-study programs promise to propel students, often afforded certain kinds of mobility and professional telos, to new levels of proficiency via this immersive intensity.

The idea of intensive immersion is preceded by the idea of encounter: first, the language-learner encounters a language staged as not just new, but different. The different, though, is supported by structures—grammatical, affective, and more—which can seem to promise something like similarity to that which the learner already knows. Similarity, in turn, is closely linked to familiarity, which is developed through immersion. Finally, immersion is framed as inherently intense. I was often tired after lessons. Trying to use a new language, after all, means trying to create and share meanings—even if these efforts are frustrated or just peter out. I am truly grateful to have been able to study in this manner, with such expert teachers.

At the beginning, I tried to grasp everything as it flashed by. My net of choice was an unwieldy flashcard system. But nets cannot hold everything. What I was reminded as I moved through the summer is this: learning cannot, and should not, only mean taking and incorporating. Such an appropriative gesture wrongly and damagingly casts a language as a resource to acquire. Good learning, however, means learning how to be in good relation with others. It means knowing when to be quiet. And often it means taking things in as they come along, and moving in a direction while you do.