How To Outwit Atrophying Brain Cells

As a native English speaker I have assumptions about language. But the one that troubles me the most as I study Indonesian is the idea that everything I say should translate the way I think it. In other words, I want every word of English to have a corresponding word with an identical meaning in Indonesian. Am I naïve or just stupid?

If you’ve learned another language you know that at first you listen to what’s said, translate it into English so you know what’s being said, think of the answer in English, then translate it back into the foreign language. That’s a bulky, inefficient method and that’s where I’m at.

So the other day when I wanted to say, ‘next time,’ I fished around my brain for the Indonesian word meaning next. Whoops! Sorry. No enchilada. I asked the nearest English speaking Balinese person, “How do you say ‘next time’?” He rattled off a string of words. “Repeat that slowly, please,” I said.  When I wrapped my head around the jumble, it translated as, following the other time only. That doesn’t work for next month though. Next month is, following the month in front. Try happy birthday. It’s no fun at all: congratulations repeat year. I don’t need to be repeating any years, thank you very much!

My favorite is selfish. That one word of English takes no less than four words of Indonesian and it translates literally as, like to make important one’s self alone. Nails it to the wall, doesn’t it?

I was told that Indonesian was an easy language to learn so I plunged in all starry-eyed and eager. Easy compared to what? Arabic? Chinese? But for those of a certain age who want to exercise the brain cells to keep them from atrophying, by all means study Indonesian. It’s 90% memorization and 10% remembering what you’ve memorized. That’s a lot to ask of defunct grey matter. After that the challenge is knowing how to put all those amazing words together in a sentence. It’s tricky. Throw everything you know about English sentence structure out the window and you’re off to a good start.

P1000267This was my humble beginning about a year ago. I found the wooden ice cream sticks, 25 to a package for 40 cents, and bought two packages. I wrote an Indonesian word on one side and its English counterpart on the other and I was on my way. Ah the bliss of ignorance! It really did seem easy until one day I realized I didn’t know how to say anything in past or future tense. That’s when the prefixes and suffixes and all the delicious little extras appeared.


 Now, hundreds of words later, I am nowhere near fluent in this ‘easy’ language. These five hundred plus sticks hold the words that I’ve successfully lodged in the memory banks.


 And here are 107 more that rattle around like loose marbles, but I’m getting closer.

It’s an undertaking that is humbling and gratifying at the same time. Just knowing I CAN still memorize and retain information is a kick! But being able to communicate in the national language of my host country feels important. It’s my way of saying thank you. Thank you for your kindness, your beauty, your warmth. Thank you for your patience with my assumptions and my ignorance. But most of all, thank you for this amazing life. 


Snake for Breakfast

I’ll try just about anything once. This morning Ketut was excited. He would bring me a special Balinese breakfast, fruit and tea and…snake.  I’m sure my face registered an element of concern. I asked, “Is it a Balinese dish?” Ketut was all smiles, “Oh yes, makanan kecil, snake.” Well, I LOVE Balinese food and I also have an incredibly tolerant digestive system. “Okay,” I said, “Good! Snake for breakfast! Good!”

So while I’m waiting for this unusual treat to arrive I put on Balinese music and try not to think too hard about what might appear. When I am served fish it comes whole, head, fins, tail, and eyes. The eyes are the worst. I have yet to see a live snake in Bali. What might a breakfast snake look like?

Now, as a storyteller I’m about to do a flashback to yesterday morning. Ketut and Sudi, my neightbor, and I were pouring over the pictures in the Indonesian cookbook I had purchased. We were especially drawn to the large dessert section. They are works of art, and why wouldn’t they be? The same women who make these confections also create the amazing fruit arrangements for ceremonies and the decorations for weddings and cremations. They are a fabulously creative bunch. The photos were gorgeous, mouth-watering, and Ketut explained that all of these delights could be found at the early morning market. We chattered awhile longer then went our separate ways.

About this time (back to my story) I heard Ketut’s soft “Hallooo,” letting me know he had returned with breakfast. “Yes, masuk Ketut, come in…” I was sitting in my breakfast spot on the balcony. Ketut lowered the tray and WOW! In a flash I knew my mistake. The word Ketut had been meaning to say was SNACK! In Bali those dreamy desserts I had been drooling over the day before are called by the English word snack, not dessert, not snake! I started laughing hilariously, a thing I do a lot here. When I explained to Ketut what I had been expecting to appear for breakfast he lost it too. When he could finally talk again he said, “People eat snack, snake eat people!” Well, yes, sort of! And we laughed again.

Here’s the photo of my SNAKE BREAKFAST!

The morsel I found wrapped in the banana leaf was, oh my…delicious!  And the striped goodies were a close second. So life continues to be a series of delightful surprises and before a thought can even become a wish, it is granted.

Indonesian on a Stick!

At the Minnesota State Fair you can get almost anything on a stick: deep fried nut rolls on a stick, cheesecake on a stick, eggrolls, chocolate covered jalepeno peppers…need I say more? It is gastronomical suicide…on a stick. But on with the story…

Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world. It is preceded by China, India, and the United States in that order. As a result, Indonesian is one of the most widely spoken languages. But that’s not why I’ve decided to learn it. There’s a quote by Steven Covey, Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It just seems like the right thing to do.

I also have a unique opportunity for immersion. My house helpers, Pasek and Ketut, and my Balinese friends love it that I’m trying to learn. Most Balinese have completed ‘tourism school’ where they are taught English so they can communicate with the hoards swarming over their country. They make it too easy. So now that they know I’m serious they have become devoted task masters. I have all the help I can handle!

There is an Indonesian phrase book, dog-eared and ancient, that was left here by some former resident. I started with that but I have no need for a bus terminal or a shopping mall. The book is of limited value to me. So the other day I strolled to the Ganesha Bookstore and found a sweet Pocket Indonesian Dictionary. I say sweet because it appeals to me aesthetically as well as functionally, and I appreciate that! It is small (pocket) and has a plastic cover (durable) and it’s orange (pretty!)

The dictionary is an immediate improvement, but things aren’t happening fast enough for me. Flash cards. I need flash cards! So today I go in search of recipe cards, or something similar. I want to make my own. My first stop is the convenience store where I remember seeing tape, staples, tablets. No luck with recipe cards there. So I meander across the street to CoCo’s Supermarket. Again, no such thing as recipe cards. Okay. Think outside the box. What will work instead?

My eyes graze over cardboard gift-type boxes, stacks of brown paper cut in perfect 10″ squares, airmail envelopes, popsickle sticks…Stop…back up! What are those? I pick up a package of little flat wooden spoons, the kind that come with the round ice cream cups. Thirty to a package for 42 cents. I toss two packages into my basket along with a bottle of Kecap Manis and one of Kecap Pedas (sweet soy sauce and spicy soy sauce.) I can’t wait to get home and see if my ‘necessity is the mother of invention‘ purchase will work.

My latest invention: Flash Sticks!

Look at that…would you look at that! I had one package done in no time, Indonesian word or phrase on one side and its English meaning on the other. I’m pretty pleased with myself right now! It’s the simple things…

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