On Belonging (part one)

I shut the door to my grandparents’ car and felt a pang of sadness. I turned back to wave, then pulled my bag a little higher on my shoulder and faced the airport. I didn’t want to leave, which surprised me.

It had taken a few days to adjust to the slower pace of life with my grandparents; getting up late, eating toast with apricot jam, reading till lunch, napping, listening to my grandfather’s stories. It took a whole week to adjust to ordering food in a language that I don’t really speak, going up to vendors and bumbling my way through Chinese numbers, counting on my fingers behind my back.

Once, after hearing my accent, a man selling baozi switched to Malay and then to English, leaving me always one step behind in the language progression, trying to speak Chinese to Malay and Malay to English. At dim sum, a woman talked and talked, words jumbling up in my head until I couldn’t even tell what language she was speaking.

In Chinese, I can count, say I want my won ton mee dry and my tea cold, and respond to the command Come here. It’s not enough to get by, but after a week I’d learned to make it work.

I stood in Jakarta’s immigration line, listening to Indonesian and a few snippets of Chinese merge together. This is the last Hokkien you’ll hear for a while, I told myself, Make the most of it. I couldn’t understand what they were saying; I didn’t know what I was making the most of—my last chance at learning a complex language that I won’t hear again until Chinese New Year?

I boarded my flight to Jogja still feeling quietly despondent. I finished the sixth or seventh novel of my vacation then tried to nap, pulling my elbow closer when a stewardess walked by.

On the ground, I bypassed baggage claim and stepped out of the airport.

“Taxi, mbak! Taxi!”

Even as I shook my head at the men clustered around the exit, pushing past them in favor of the bus stop, I started smiling. I was seeing Javanese faces, hearing Javanese accents, and—by the time I’d boarded the bus—hearing actual Javanese. It felt like coming home.

Not that Penang doesn’t feel like home too, in a way. Penang means going back to the house that I’ve visited since I was a child, the familiar sounds of Hokkien, food that I could eat forever and ever. But Jogja was different. I listened to the bus conductor yelling passenger numbers in Javanese and repeated his words in a whisper, looking out at the buildings rushing by, the motorbikes, the fruit juice stands opening for buka puasa. I couldn’t remember why I’d been scared to come back.

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3 thoughts on “On Belonging (part one)

  1. very interesting observations and mish-mash of feelings! How nice that you can get to see the grandparents – I am sure they loved it. Sounds like you will be starting back to teaching soon. Think how much better your language is than last year at this time.
    We will be seeing the rest of your family this weekend for a quickie
    Haven’t noticed any pictures of the food lately – love, a.carol

    • It’s true–my language is a lot better than it was this time last year. Hopefully in another year I’ll be able to say the same thing!

      I’ve been lazy with pictures of food lately, but I’m going to Thailand this weekend, so perhaps there will be some in a couple of weeks when I’m back…

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