The monks were judging me. I could tell. They were sitting on a low wall, bags perched beside them, and they were judging me because I can’t speak Mandarin. Though the scene was new, the situation was familiar. I look Chinese but I can’t speak the language? Shameful.
It occurred to me that there was absolutely no reason why I should be able to speak Mandarin. My grandfather doesn’t speak Mandarin. My mother didn’t grow up speaking Mandarin at home. Most of my Chinese relatives don’t speak Mandarin. Of course, they all just speak a different dialect of Chinese, a dialect which I also don’t speak. I know numbers, can order food to a certain extent, and can sometimes passively follow conversations if there’s a lot of English mixed in, but my skills extend no further. The monks’ judgement, while misplaced, was still relevant.
This question of language followed me throughout my recent vacation. In Singapore, I only spoke English. I felt more secure than I had in a long time. I could communicate fully and be understood fully. Some vestiges of my Indonesian remained—I was constantly searching for a formal term of address to use with strangers—but slipping back into English was a relaxing, welcome change. It was also relaxing to wear shorts and to stare at girls who were wearing shorts even shorter than mine.
In Malaysia, it was the same. I was with my extended family, congregated for Chinese New Year and the conversation, as it always is, was conducted in a mix of English and Chinese. For my benefit, there was more English than Chinese, and if I got confused it was easy enough to weed out the Chinese altogether.
Then it was back to Indonesia, this time accompanied by my parents. I was acutely aware of the fact that, out of all of us, I was the one with the most Indonesian and therefore I was the one in charge of talking to people, in charge of bargaining, in charge of asking for directions—all tasks that I don’t particularly enjoy. I was surprised to find, though, that I could do all these things with surprising fluency.
In the past, constructing the questions was the easy bit. By now I have enough Indonesian that I regularly compose small narratives in my head. They’re generally meandering compositions, involving a good deal of circumlocution, but language production isn’t as bad as it once was. I’m still unable to express any very complex thoughts, but things are getting better.
The real problem has always been understanding the answers that I receive. I can understand my language teachers, because they’re good at talking to foreigners, because they already know what vocabulary I know, and because they talk slowly. On the street it’s always been a lot harder. Part of the problem is a lack of vocabulary and part of the problem is, I’m embarrassed to confess, the accent. As I once relayed to my mother on the phone, when people jokingly parrot something back to me in Indonesian, exaggerating my American accent, I find them much, much easier to understand.
But surprisingly, whenever I was with my parents, I was able to ask questions and understand the responses. Not perfectly, but with more fluency than I would have thought possible.
Now, don’t get too excited. I have not suddenly become fluent in Indonesian. I’ve just managed to master the basic communication skills that you need to get around, as I was reminded as soon as I arrived at Prambanan, parents in tow, for a Ramayana performance.
I ushered them to their seats and then went backstage to find out what was going on. The girls were putting on their makeup, so I greeted my dance teacher, found some food, and sat down to eat. Perhaps because I’d been away for a couple of weeks, the conversation quickly turned into a session of speaking complicated Indonesian and Javanese at the foreigner. A small group gathered, people throwing questions at me, me shaking my head, them repeating the questions as if somehow the repetition would bestow upon me all the vocabulary I needed.
I just grinned and shrugged and shook my head and said, “What? What?” This was more like the Indonesian conversations I was used to.
After the questions died down, I explained to my dance teacher that my parents were visiting.
The guy who dances Lakshmana walked by, catching the end of my explanation. “Oh really?” he said. “Oh really?” Then he switched to Indonesian with an American accent to repeat my words back at me.
I laughed. It was still easier to understand the Indonesian that way.