Language, Food, UNESCO and the HEAT: Thoughts from Jakarta

I have decided that Bahasa Indonesia is yet another language that will most likely be added to the long, long list of languages I struggle with. It’s quite a diverse list and there is an array of reasons I am awful at languages but Indonesian falls on it for a very similar reason as Spanish, or even Japanese. For me the issue boils down to multiple different ways people around the world pronounce the ‘r’ sound in all of its frustrating forms. Unfortunately, any use of the “r” sound that is not hard and abrasive to your ears, is out of my natural ability. While I was living in Japan my struggle was in finding the middle ground of an ‘l’ and an “r” that exists in that Japanese. With Spanish, my battle is closer to the one I am currently having with Indonesian. The ever-elusive rolling “r”. I have tried and tried and tried, but I just can’t get it and it seems to be everywhere.  In all of my interactions when I have gained the courage to use Indonesian that sound is there blocking me from any hope of clearly communicating. Below is a list of words I tend to try on a daily basis and are almost never understood (‘r’s added phonetically, not actually):

  • ‘Terrrima kasih’ – Thank you.
  • ‘Terrrrrong’ – Eggplant (Yes. This is a near daily part of my life here. Don’t judge.)
  • ‘Belok kirrri’ – Turn left.
  • ‘Belok kannon’ – Turn right. No ‘r’! I love turning right!
  • ‘Perrrrrrmisi’ – Excuse me. My mispronunciation of this word is especially frustrating because, for some reason, I often find myself in people’s way and I would like to be polite about it but I can’t.
Pulau Seribu: Where I gave up on learning Bahasa Indonesia

The height of my embarrassment and shame while trying to speak Bahasa Indonesia came in a recent trip to a chain of islands north of Jakarta, Pulau Seribu. For some reason a group of Indonesian people took some interest in me. It was probably because this is the first time they came across someone with such a large, pale, hairless head. We were chatting and I mentioned a few times where I was living in Indonesia. They persisted to ask and I persisted to say ‘JakaRta’, then one member of the group says ‘Jakarrrrta’ and the rest group in unison laugh and say ‘ahhhhh, Jakarrrrrrrrta’. I can’t even pronounce the capital of Indonesia. The city I live and work in. I walked away with my head down. Completely defeated.

While I have been struggling with the language, I haven’t with the food. I have enjoyed

Ibu Suci laughing about the massive amount of food I eat every day.

trying all sorts of different Indonesian dishes since my arrival. Ayam (chicken) is a staple of the diet here and it is served in all types of delicious ways. Bubur Ayam (chicken porridge, but not like the “please sir may I have some more” image the word porridge may bring to mind, Bubur Ayam is amazing), Soto Ayam (chicken soup), Ayam Goreng (fried chicken), and Ayam Sate (grilled chicken skewers), just to name a few. But my love of Indonesian food can be contributed one person. Ibu Suci.

Every day, or nearly every day because sometimes she dares to take a day off and make me scramble for lunch ideas, Ibu Suci sets up a stand full of incredibly delicious Indonesian food she has prepared at her home. For good reason, her stand is the most popular in the neighborhood. She serves ayam (in all of its glorious forms), beef, tofu, tempe (fermented soy beans), and spread of vegetables ranging from sautéed spinach to deep fried EVERYTHING (gorengan). I LOVE her food. Ibu Suci is as diligent a Bahasa Indonesian teacher as she is a chef. Every day, I ask for ‘teRong’ and without fail she corrects me with ‘terrrrrrrong’, and of course a smile. Not to blame Ibu Suci for anything, ever, but I had another, somewhat unexpected, Bahasa Indonesia lesson because of her cooking. I was speaking with a colleague about how much I had been enjoying Ibu’s lunch and completely unsolicited, as they stared at my stomach (at least in my mind that’s where their eyes were), they told me how to ask for less rice during my order. Nasi sedikit.

Trying to pay Ibu Suci before I collapse from the heat…

The heat, however, is not something I can consciously make an effort to adapt to. Life around the equator is HOT! And humid! Oh, it’s so humid. All the time. People told me when I first arrived that I would adjust to the heat, and mentally I have to a certain extent. In that I stopped crying as I walk out of the office to Ibu Suci’s stand every day. So that’s one for the win column. Physically my body just isn’t there yet. Passerby’s on the street, locals and expats alike, have a tendency to stare at me with a look of genuine concern as I schlep past them dripping buckets and looking like I will collapse from heat exhaustion at any moment.

My work has been quite diverse and not only limited to education. Most recently I’ve been helping prepare for a science event. The UNESCO Jakarta office is hosting an event for science stakeholders throughout Asia and the Pacific region in Jakarta this week called Science to Enable and Empower Asia and the Pacific for the Sustainable Development Goals (SEE-AP for SDGs). The event is massive in scale. It will bring together over 100 representatives from UNESCO field offices, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), various regional government officials, and others who are working to utilize science in the realization of the 2030 Agenda. One of UNESCO’s key competencies, in my opinion, is its ability to leverage the networks of its various sectors and bring communities, in this case science, together to share their knowledge, experience, and expertise in an effort to build synergies, fight redundancies, and efficiently work as one towards the betterment of the people they represent. Being able to be a part of, and observe, the day to day activities that are required to make such an occasion possible has been a great experience.

That is all for now! Thanks for joining me once again here on the GW UNESCO 2018 blog. Even if you meant to click on one of my cohort’s more interesting posts, your click counts! In fact, since you are here and you clearly have some extra time on your hands, I would really appreciate it if you closed your browser, cleared your history, and then came back again to get me one more view on our site. Not that it is a competition or anything…

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Matt is a Master’s candidate in International Education at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development with a concentration in Education Development in East Asia. If you would like to know more about his  summer please follow him on Instagram or find him on LinkedIn.

5 thoughts on “Language, Food, UNESCO and the HEAT: Thoughts from Jakarta

  1. Matt ~ your blogs are awesome!! I probably never leave Troy so your blogs let me believe I am right there with you!! I hope you are doing well and trying to stay cool!


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