Not long ago, The Jakarta Globe published an article about Indonesian writers who publish their works in English. It asked its readers if English-language literature can still be considered as Indonesian. In the comment section, as an Indonesian who writes his blogs in English, I obviously answered yes. I believe the nationality of literary works should also depend on the heritage and the people they are depicting, not just on the languages being utilised.
It seems like a relatively harmless statement, right? Well, me being me, I followed it with a more provocative one.
I also described the Indonesian language, describing it as a lifeless, unyielding language with overtly-simplistic grammar, skin-deep vocabulary and clinginess on loanwords whose only purpose is to express pretentiousness, vulgarity and anger, unlike English with its richness and versatility which eases people’s efforts to express themselves. That’s how much I love my mother tongue. Of course, people weren’t happy with me and typical internet squabbles ensued.
Days after the arguments ended, I realised that I made errors in my reasoning. First of all, I implied that language was inherently sterile and rigid; I was trying to represent my opinions as objective facts. I am constantly guilty of this sin.
Second, every language in the world, even ones that have endured strict purism, has loan words! As someone who spends his free time on Wikipedia reading articles about languages, I should have realised that my ‘loan words argument’ is indefensible! If I remember correctly, I think one commenter called out this ignorance of mine. But, this is where I stop with the self-criticisms.
I still stand with my hatred of the simplistic grammar. Yes, English grammar is erratic. But, it is still quite detailed with its grammatical tenses and cases, lowering the chances of unintentional ambiguity. In Indonesian, if you want to make your sentences to be more specific, you have to elongate them by adding more words… and I hate that! But, what infuriates me about the squabble is my opponents’ false assumptions about me.
They argued that my distaste of Indonesian was motivated by hatred my own heritage. Yeah, no.
The older I get, the more I actually appreciate it. I love the unique ingredient and flavour combinations of Indonesian dishes; even ones of foreign origins taste uniquely Indonesian. I love our rich history, showing the drastic human changes the archipelago has endured. I love how we still retain our Hindu heritage, despite being predominantly-Muslim. I love musicians who make actual efforts to fuse traditional Indonesian sounds with western ones. I love the ethnic and cultural diversities; growing up with them, I often feel sorry for every person who sees diversity as a disease. Heck, to make it random, I even find myself enjoying performances of traditional Indonesian dances, despite never having any inclinations to dance!
So, when someone says I am a self-hating Indonesian because I bitch on my mother tongue, I call bullshit on that. In fact, my ability to see flaws in something I love indicates how my appreciation is still within reason and not motivated by blind love.
Oh, and speaking about blind love, one of my opponents, who constantly insulted me, explicitly said that anyone who dared to bad mouth his beloved language deserve nothing but ridicule and harassment; he considered my condemnation of the language as a personal attack against him. Not only he never bothered to hide his irrationality, he was deeply proud of it! Mentally, he is not unlike those religious fundamentalists. I am glad that my love of heritage is not plagued by such mindlessness.
The second thing they assumed about me was my Indonesian comprehension, guessing that mine was poor, which explains my inability to see beauty in the language and express myself with it. Yeah, again, no.
Long before I found comfort in English, I used to have no problems writing in Indonesian. But, as I get older and actually become more fluent in my native tongue, I find myself feeling more restrained writing in it and feeling more at ease doing so in the foreign one, even though I still could barely understand its basic grammar.
In fact, to this day, my Indonesian is still better than my English! I am more likely to open up the dictionary when reading English texts than I am while reading Indonesian ones. I have written two Indonesian-language blogs and it took me only a day or two to finish each, compared that with my English-language ones which can take weeks to finish. Until last year, I didn’t know that ‘sheep’ was both singular and plural, didn’t know how to spell ‘privilege’ and I still don’t know how to spell ‘prostelize’! I use online bots to proofread my blogs!
Also, unlike many Indonesians I have met, I know how to say words like ‘download’, ‘upload’, ‘online’, ‘offline’, ‘computer mouse’, ‘link’, ‘server’, ‘edit’ and ‘orange’ in Indonesian*. I prefer the word ‘penelitian’ over ‘riset’**. I also know how to use ‘di’ properly; as a suffix, it should never be separated from the root words while as a preposition, it should remain a separate word***! Even Indonesians with university education still get this basic grammar wrong!
So, the idea that my preference of English has anything to do my language comprehension is also bullshit. Also, unlike my opponents, I proved my fluency as I made one rather long reply in Indonesian! But, they are too blind to see it, too simple-minded to acknowledge that distaste does not always mean lack of fluency.
Let’s go back to my mistake I mentioned. Besides shamelessly presenting subjectivity as objectivity, I also forgot that I still can enjoy the beauty conveyed through my native tongue.
There are no shortages of time when I listen to Indonesian oldies and indie songs and think, ‘damn, those are beautiful lyrics!’. People like Guruh Soekarnoputra, Eros Djarot and Titiek Puspa made me realise that songwriters are also poets! As a student, I often had to analyse excerpts of literary works that, judging from the richness despite the small number of words, were clearly written by accomplished writers.
Besides foods and music, Indonesian language is one tool I utilise to get in touch with my roots. Using it makes me feel closer to them, unlike English which seems to widen the distance. This is why I refuse to let go of my native tongue…
And still, I cannot manifest my inner self through it.
No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I expand my vocabulary, my native tongue always fails to satisfy my intellectual and emotional needs; my Indonesian writings always end up rigid, sterile and skin-deep. In spite of the cultural detachment, English embodies my thoughts and feelings with greater perceptiveness by seizing their more abstract and indistinct peculiarities. It also allows me to be more playful and light-heartedly sarcastic (even though contemptuous sarcasms are more pleasing to spurt out) and minimises my likelihood of sounding pretentious.
How did this come into being? Well, I am confident it has something to do with my identity. I do have Indonesian citizenship. But, personally, I identify both as a highly westernised Indonesian and a global citizen. This weird concoction of selfhood requires a somewhat culturally inclusive language to manifest itself through letters. Between Bahasa Indonesia and English, guess who wins?
Adding to my already-unconvincing anecdote, I also happen to know Indonesians who speak English better than they speak Indonesian and yet they still find their own native tongue more pleasing to make use of. Knowing them, those people definitely don’t share my cultural identity crisis!
Someone (I forgot who) told me that a language is just a communication tool. Emphasise on the word ‘just’. Focus on what the tool can do, not on what category it belongs to. Yes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. But, what we choose to convey our deepest thoughts and feelings is none of other people’s business! Unless we are dealing with snowflakes, our trivial personal choices do not and will never harmfully impact humans with whom we share the world!
My plan is to keep writing in English and, to lesser extent, Indonesian, to learn at least one regional Indonesian language and one more foreign language. But, if I am more idealistic, I would love to learn six regional languages and six foreign ones, not including classical languages like Kawi and Latin and more obscure ones like Gaelic and Ainu which have been intriguing me for years! Oh, and I would love to write children’s books in Indonesian under a pseudonym; seriously, I would love to write calm-paced and imaginative children’s stories that contain assertive yet non-preachy messages about the importance of curiosity, reason and tolerance.
But, realistically, I will probably stay bilingual, will never be fluent in any of those classical or obscure languages and probably will never write a single book.
Oh, well. One can dream!
*’Unduh’, ‘unggah’, ‘daring (dalam jaringan)’, ‘luring (luar jaringan)’, ‘tetikus’, ‘tautan’, ‘peladen’, ‘sunting’ and ‘jingga’, respectively.
**Both words mean ‘research’.
*** ‘Di Jakarta’ and ‘di rumah’ mean ‘at Jakarta’ and ‘at home’, respectively. ‘dibuka’ and ‘dimakan’ mean ‘(being) opened’ and ‘eaten’, respectively.
Support this deadbeat, preachy blogger on Patreon.