Perilous Language

8 October

I’m writing this in the air above western Java, on my flight from Jakarta to Ambon. I was a bit skeptical about dragging this little laptop halfway around the world, but it has already proven its usefulness in all sorts of ways, such as allowing me to type blog posts up in unusual places. As a “toughened” laptop it weighs about five pounds, and so would also double as an effective weapon.

I was talking in the last post about language, and how I’d lost my facility in Indonesian, and I want to return to that because it’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I got to this part of the world where English isn’t everywhere. The difference in how one must behave and think while speaking imperfectly hit me especially hard because on the second long-distance flight I was reading The Golden Bowl by Henry James, intermittently, while also chatting in my only adequate Indonesian with my fellow passengers.

The difference between the two kinds of discourse struck me as so vast that I couldn’t get my mind off it, and despaired of ever being able to speak in another language the same way as James’s characters do. He has a reputation for writing stories in which nothing happens, but I found that wasn’t entirely true. The characters are always repositioning themselves in relation to each other, in very subtle and culturally specific ways, and that must count as something happening, if only something in the abstract. They maneuver in this way through speech that is staggeringly oblique to begin with, when quoted directly, yet often it is filtered in addition through James’s own obliquity, which is impressive as well. One stalks what is actually happening through these multiple layers of terrific indirectness, which makes for a stimulating read if one has the attention span and patience for it.

The verbal subtlety of a delicate and indirect culture can be breathtaking; at least I have always found it so, and aspired to it, although I don’t travel in the right circles to make use of it very often. At least I know it is there, and I can break it out on occasions when it might be useful. It’s an arrogant assumption that I prove myself a better person by speaking in riddles, but we all have those. This one seems pretty harmless, as they go. If nothing else, when I feel adrift, at least I can say to myself, “I can sort of understand what’s happening in The Golden Bowl, so I’m one of the better type, and to the devil with everything else!” I’m sure that many other magistri artium have had exactly the same thought. Whether it’s gotten them anywhere remains to be seen. I suspect not.

How painful it is to know that I can’t depend on that subtlety in another language; not yet, anyway. I know for a fact that there are many delicate and indirect cultures in Indonesia, and that a kind of Jamesian obliqueness is valued highly throughout the whole country. But for now I have to content myself with barging through the language like an excited toddler. I find interesting things happening to my behavior as a result. I pay a lot more attention to my own body language, and try to project the politesse I’m missing in words through actions. I become more deferential, and find myself using different tones of voice, copying the speech patterns I hear in others when it seems like a sure thing. I think I have half-consciously adopted the mannerisms of a classic character, the bumbling and oblivious bule, in many situations, in order to appear less of a threat to people, or perhaps less of a target. This is especially true in encounters with government officials: if you don’t have a thorough command of the conversation, plead ignorance. Works like a charm.

I do worry that putting that act on too much will actually cause me to become that person; perhaps I have already. My experience getting onto this flight had troubling signs. First I asked to be dropped off at the wrong terminal, though I can blame that on some very fine print at the bottom of my ticket. One unnecessary trip through security later, with my extra bags (“yes, these originated in Indonesia, no they’re not worth any money, they’re just rocks and potsherds, yes I’m leaving them in Ambon…”) I was directed to the correct terminal, where I endured a much longer but friendly grilling by more security guards who must have been bored. Having brightened their day with my barely coherent stories about how old the artifacts were, I checked the bags (far less painful than I had imagined, perhaps due to a sympathetic baggage checker). A woman who was waiting in line with me gave me exact change necessary for the extra baggage, and refused to accept anything in return (playing bumbling bule has little advantages like this, themselves rather embarrassing). Somewhere along in this process my ticket drifted out of my bag, returned by a security guard whose straight face made him an exemplar of tact for all the world to admire. I then went upstairs to the terminal, and in the stores there, looked for a wallet in which to keep a ready stash of rupiah, at present scattered throughout my luggage in hidden envelopes. I misread the price tag on a very nice little wallet that said Pierre Cardin (I assumed it was a knockoff). I took it up to the register, only to learn that it was an order of magnitude more expensive than I’d thought; thus there is a slight chance it may have been genuine. This is what happens when prices are in thousands and millions of rupiah; a long string of zeroes looks much like a shorter one. The prospect of finding something almost as fine for a tenth of the price in Ambon’s Pasar Mardika tomorrow forced me to back away apologetically from the register, around which four uniformed cashiers clustered and tittered. On the whole, it was a mortifying experience, yet I must have succeeded in something, because everyone seems to have thought I was the kind of person worth helping out, when they could, with some justification, have left me to any number of tragic or at least really inconvenient fates.

Three lessons arise, apart from the one already stated about how it’s beneficial to act like an idiot when you don’t know the language very well. First, airports in this country are inherently, perhaps uniquely chaotic, and if something really inconvenient happens to you, I’d bet on favorable odds (shall we say 100000 rupiah to 1000000 rupiah?) that it will happen in an airport. Second, even in Jakarta people will usually look out for you, provided you are reasonably polite and apologetic about acting like an idiot (rarely has a qualifying statement been so important). Third, the knowledge that you cut a ridiculous figure at times shouldn’t cripple you. You have to live with it and move on. It’s a different state of being to travel through an unfamiliar culture speaking an unfamiliar language, and the only way to survive at it is to accept a certain degree of impairment, embarrassment attending as it inevitably will. If you can do that graciously, people are likely to cut you some slack.

The other side of this problem can be found in any nineteenth century novel of manners, written for a time and a class (perhaps imaginary, it is true) in which the social and verbal parameters were so well known to everyone that there was no room for error. Whole plots turn on oblique phrases that glanced off at just the wrong angle: marriages dissolve, people commit suicide, duels are fought, families are bankrupted, and so on, because a word was misplaced. Seeing the characters in these novels make such maneuvers with their words reminds me of watching craftsmen or athletes—they are so practiced at it that it’s beautiful to watch, especially if you’ve tried anything like it before, and know where the skill lies. Maybe a better comparison would be aircraft flying in close formation, with the slightest error capable of producing a disaster. The one thing that strikes me as off about The Golden Bowl so far is James’s tendency to compare people to buildings—stationary objects, fixed to the ground—when the whole drama and delight of the novel depends on how they rearrange themselves over and over again. It is a perilous business, and its peril ultimately derives from fluency in a common language, and a common set of social desires.

So, as my aircraft (fortunately not flying in close formation) begins to descend into Ambon, perhaps I should be grateful that I’ve escaped the world of the too-eloquent, if it still exists. I think I’m about to have another Indonesian-English conversation with my Ambonese friend Marlon, and return the mysterious suitcases of artifacts to their home at the Balai Arkeologi Maluku. I’ll also meet my colleagues Emilie and Ross, English speakers and scientists both, and thus at last will come together our little international expedition.

From the airplane’s window I can see the moon, mostly eclipsed. What a strange thing I’m about to embark upon.

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