My phone rings at eight in the morning. I’m lying on my bed trying to convince myself to get up and start doing laundry. It’s the day after Christmas, and though I went to bed on time the night before, I had a restless night (for reasons YH, Matt C, and Amy may be able to deduce). Therefore, despite my alarm that was set for 7:00, I’m still in bed.
I grope for my phone, confused. My senior fellow is in Vietnam and Sara’s in Europe, so no one should be calling me.
My cell phone’s lit-up screen shows a friendly green phone and my dance teacher’s name.
“Selamat pagi!” she says.
“Selamat pagi,” I say, my voice cracking a little.
She asks if I have plans today.
I say no. The university is closed for Christmas, so the only thing on my calendar is laundry.
She asks if I’m sure, using a word that she frequently uses with me. Despite this fact, I always forget its meaning and have to ask what she means.
This time, I remember and am insanely proud of myself. “Yes,” I say.
She tells me that some of her dance students want to make a video documenting their dancing and asks if I want to come along.
I understand her words but, as happens so often, I don’t really understand what she means. I say yes anyway, because all it takes is the word dance and I’m there.
Forty minutes later, I’m in a car with her parents, her older sister, and two other people who are friends of someone, though I never quite figure out who. Her sister introduces them to me and goes through the half-Chinese-family-from-Malaysia explanation without any prompting. I admire her ability to move between English and Indonesian in such a way that I’m neither confused nor jarred by the transitions.
We drive for a long time. At first I try to keep track of where we’re going, but eventually we start turning down streets I’ve never been and I get confused. When we finally reach our destination, it’s described as a rich person’s house.
As I carry several plastic bags from the car to the back of the property, I discover that this is a very apt description. There’s a pavilion over a gamelan set. There are gardens. There are peacocks. There’s an unobstructed view of Merapi. Definitely a rich person.
I set the bags down and wait for further instructions. My dance teacher’s students are already here. The four older girls are working on applying their makeup, while the five younger girls have already finished.
My dance teacher’s sister says I can help with their hair, so I dutifully follow her over to a mirror. She instructs two of the girls to sit down, introduces herself, and introduces me. I shake their hands but keep quiet, falling easily into the how-long-can-I-make-them-think-I’m-Indonesian? game. (This game always ends as soon as I say anything.)
I watch as my dance teacher’s sister expertly pins a false bun onto her girl’s head and then, much more clumsily, copy her. She adds various decorations to the girl’s hair: a small crown-like hairpiece attached to the bun, three little metallic pieces on springs to one side, and a large orange flower on the other side. I do the same with my girl’s hair, pinning the flower in place.
When I’m finished, I pat her shoulders and say in Javanese, “Yes, you’re done.”
She stands up and walks away.
I smile to myself and look around for the next girl. That was the first time I ever tried Javanese, and though what I said is probably the simplest Javanese phrase possible, I’m proud of myself.
I do the other three girls’ hair, getting steadily more proficient. Despite all the years of Nutcracker, I’ve never actually done someone’s hair before, and it’s very strange being able to see what I’m doing. I like it, though.
Once I’m done with their hair and their costumes are all situated, they pose for pictures. I scrutinize them closely and step in to fix a few of their flowers. I’m getting really into this hair thing. I consider a career as a professional dance hairstylist.
When the photos are over, we videotape their dance, first inside, then outside in the garden. Moving the recording equipment and the computer to the garden takes a while, so I once again check over the girls’ hair.
They ask where I’m from. (Game over.)
I tell them.
They ask a few other questions and one of them says thank you in English.
The garden shoot completed, they go back to change costumes and the older girls do their dance. It’s the same as a dance that I’m currently learning, and I’m envious of their technique and of the fact that they can remember the whole thing.
The garden is then deemed too hot, so we move back inside. Both groups of girls tape several more dances, and it’s past one o’clock by the time everything is finished. I spend the time using my dance teacher’s camera to take (mostly) bad action photos.
After the last dance performed by two of the younger girls, I follow them back to the costume area and help to organize a few jewelry items before running out of ways to be useful. I sit.
One of the younger girls come up to me. “Minta tolong,” she says, and asks if I can help take my false eyelashes off.
I do. And then I help the next girl who asks. And then I ask them who the eyelashes belong to and they tell me. I understand everything without any problems.
At lunch afterward, as I listen to a conversation that I don’t understand at all (I predict that it’s Javanese, but it turns out that it’s actually Indonesian), I’m reminded in a big way of Nicaragua.
When I visited Nicaragua two years ago, I spent most of my time talking to kids. This was due to the fact that they were willing to talk to me, probably because they found me and my constructed Italian-Spanish language amusing. However, I also chose to spend a large portion of my time talking to kids because the adults were too hard to understand. Which says a lot about my Spanish ability.
In Indonesia, I don’t spend a lot of time interacting with children. Actually, I spend no time interacting with children, except for the daughter of the woman who dances Sita, who refuses to speak to me and often runs away when she sees me coming. Because of this lack of contact with children, it took me till now to realize that this same kids-are-just-easier-to-talk-to fact also holds true in Indonesian.
Admittedly, I’m sure some of this just has to do with confidence. I’m not concerned about looking like a fool in front of kids. That’s why I felt comfortable trying out my Javanese. Nevertheless, it was nice to be reminded that I actually can understand Indonesian outside of my language classes. Sometimes.
(Apologies for the extremely blurry photo. After taking one picture, my camera refused to do anything but flash lights at me. It’s a very angry camera.)