By Anna Aronowitz
When I first arrived at the green house, I was met by a flurry of men grinning grins I couldn’t reciprocate due to exhaustion. When my ibu finally arrived home from school, she was shy, with close-mouthed smiles and apologies – all I knew about her at the time was that she had a teenage son and that she spoke almost no English. When she felt comfortable enough to mutter a few English words to me on day three, I realized that I had known nothing about her that first day. Due to a common mistranslation because of the lack of gendered pronouns in Indonesian, my ibu’s son was actually a daughter and her “low-level English skills” miraculously flowered into a rich and vibrant vocabulary within a matter of days. Despite this, our mutual misunderstandings of helping verbs and linking words in Bahasa Indonesia and English stymied our ability to do much more than smile widely at one another whenever we brushed past.
On day four I woke up to a shriek and the sound of something being electrocuted outside my door. I tripped out of my bed and stumbled out of my bedroom to find my ibu giggling gleefully and swinging what appeared to be a pink badminton racket. Nyamuk! She shouted at me and grinned. Only after electrocuting myself with this “badminton racket” later the same day and losing feeling in my three middle fingers for several hours did I realize the sole purpose of this apparatus- it was a weapon designed to wipe out the whole mosquito race. NOW ibu was getting on my level.
When ibu asked me what my favorite Indonesian food was later that night, I replied “nyamuk goreng” (fried mosquito) and gave her a little wink. She dissolved into a fit of shaking, polite Javanese laughter. Within a week, this racket became the emblem of our budding friendship with one another. We would stand back-to-back in the foyer taking turns obliterating any mosquito that flew past, not entirely unlike a real-life incarnation of Frodo and Sam.
It’s my unwavering belief that every time a person laughs with someone else – like, rib-splitting, genuine, cheek-aching laughter – that another wall between them comes down. In this way, that pink racket facilitated a growing appreciation for one another and, as a result, an uncontrollably growing desire to overcome the less-permeable language barrier that separated us.
Every night since then, we’ve sat at the dinner table with a dictionary between us, scribbling down every second word said that we don’t understand. Because of this, my vocabulary has expanded from being able to talk about food, my father and mother and how to instruct a taxi to stop (a probable sum total of ~20 words) to being able to talk about popular opinion on Indonesia’s new president, the mafia, and how to negotiate the purchase of a motorbike. Two months into this grant, much of the conversation that happens between my ibu and myself is still nonverbal, but our ability to better supplement smiles and hand motions with guttural, often-mispronounced Indonesian and English words has transformed our relationship from one of guest and host to one of friendship.
Living with a family that doesn’t speak the same language has been exhausting, isolating, transformative, and immensely gratifying, all at once. After two months here the early-morning unwillingness to leave my room to be a part of an immersive Indonesian experience has morphed into gratitude and love for my ibu and this vibrant mountaintop community for accepting the bumbling foreigner into their homes, schools and families.
About the author: Anna is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant placed in Wonosari, a district of the Yogyakarta region on the island of Java. She is a graduate of Oberlin College, Ohio, where she studied Neuroscience. She is a San Francisco Bay Area native.