WARNING: Some of the images below contain profanities and offensive language.
English advertisements abound in Indonesia, and everyone here watches American movies and TV shows. English is a major language of Indonesian pop culture, and so, like most things made famous by pop-culture, it is cool. My students can spout out English catch-phrases like “I love you” and “Will you marry me?” because these have been so popularized by the media. But, like many Indonesians, they have little concept of what the words that they say actually mean.
T-shirts with English phrases are especially trendy. Daily I am amused by the poor grammar and nonsensical phrases for sale in department stores and worn on the streets. Sometimes it feels like an inside joke between myself and everyone around me who does not speak English. Usually I am amused, but often the things I see also make me sad. I very frequently see swastikas and phrases which would make the people wearing them feel intensely embarrassed, if only they knew the meaning.
Swastikas and English profanities are everywhere – they are scrawled all over my students’ desks, throughout their doodles, and on graffiti in the streets. These symbols, removed from the context of their language and history, are meaningless to the people using them. I cannot fault my students for doodling swastikas because they do not understand — there is little knowledge about the Holocaust in Indonesia. These are just random symbols that look or sound “cool”. But for me, as an American, those symbols connect in an entirely different way. I am beyond horrified, but I am unable to say something for every objectionable symbol that I see. To a degree, I must keep in mind that these symbols have been re-contextualized here and have taken on an entirely different meaning. A meaning, however bizarre it seems, that is cool.
However, being the absolutist that I am, I believe that re-contextualization will never take away a word’s true meaning. It is like the old adage, if a tree falls in a forest, but no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound? If a kid scrawls “F***” on a wooden desk and no one knows what it means, is it still bad? The same goes for a swastika — it was re-contextualized and reused to take on a new and distinct meaning in Nazi Germany. Yet, while the Holocaust forced that new meaning to become more important, the swastika’s previous meanings of luck and peace are not lost. An additional meaning has simply been tacked on. And so I’ve tried to teach my students at English club, and especially my co-teachers, that these words and symbols have very strong meanings and ought not to be used lightly, especially if they ever plan to study in the U.S. They have a right to know.
The other day, I saw a young girl walking around the mall in a head scarf and a T-shirt that read “I’m easy!” While the paradox was amusing, I wanted nothing more than to give her a jacket to cover her shirt and explain to her how truly dreadful it was, especially given her clear desire for modesty.
In general, this is an excellent lesson in the power of language, the meaning of words, and only wearing or using words which you understand.
Editors’ Note: The original version of this post used the word, “Engrish,” to describe the English addressed in this article. Indonesiaful strives to use inclusive language, and thus removed the word. If you have any thoughts or opinions about this decision, please feel free to share in the Comments section.
About the author: Chelsea Hochstetler is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan. She graduated from the University of Kansas in 2012 with a degree in Anthropology and International Studies. In her spare time she enjoys exploring Banjarmasin, leading English club, reading good books, cultivating yogurt, and nibbling daintily upon watermelon.