The first several days with my homestay family were particularly difficult. I couldn’t understand anything my ibu said and very little of what my bapak said. No one spoke to me in English so I had to rely on only two days of training in bahasa Indonesia. During my first week of PST limited communication with my homestay family was only a small part of the my vast collection of fledgling Peace Corps trainee woes.
At the time I had a bicycle that was ridiculously small for me and extremely painful to ride anywhere. But I had to ride this bicycle each day to training sessions well outside my village. This was also the week that I began to fall ill (read: diarrhea), which was maybe a blessing because my frequent trips to the kamar kecil really helped me get aquatinted with the squatty potty. The mandi was still foreign to me and not something I enjoyed. There was the oppressive heat, to which I still have yet to become acclimated but since modified my behavior so that I am not as active during the warmest hours of each day. The food was delicious, but I was still reeling from the fact that breakfast is basically indistinguishable from lunch or dinner. And of course there was PST and the demanding schedule that Peace Corps had all of the trainees going through. Needless to say the first week was my hardest. During the worst moments I struggled to believe I could last for two years in Indonesia.
Four days after I moved in with my homestay family my host sister-in-law spoke to me in English. Not perfect English, but English that was more than sufficient to establish meaningful conversation. This came as a huge surprise to me, especially since the only English word she said to me for four days was “spicy” when I was eating something spicy. Not very helpful considering I already knew the word for “spicy” in Indonesian. This lingual revelation was like stumbling across an oasis in a desert. I finally knew about what was going on around the house and I could begin to understand my place within this new family.
Finding another English speaker was just the beginning of my ascent to contentment. My confidence with Indonesian began to improve and I figured out my bapak’s manner of speaking so that he and I could communicate moderately as well. Eventually I received a new bike and I came to accept that I would have diarrhea forever (not true). Everything was really looking up except for the fact that I had not yet been able to understand more than the most simple of words from my ibu.
All the other volunteers seemed to have spectacular relationships with their ibus. Not me though. We were limited to mandi, makan, tidur, and pergi ke… (bathe, eat, sleep, go to…). I was quite disheartened by this impasse and believed it my fault for not having the language skills required to communicate well.
Saturday morning, one week after I had moved in with my host family, we were eating breakfast when my ibu brought some food item to the table. I expressed my gratitude as best I could but my words clearly did not fall into ears that understood. My host brother, who works in Surabaya during the week, looked at me somewhat strangely, asked a quick question of his wife that I didn’t understand, then turned to me and said, “my mother cannot speak Indonesian.” I had no idea what this meant. We’re in Indonesia, everyone speaks Indonesian. But that’s not entirely true.
There are over 700 living languages spoken in Indonesia. Most of them are quite different from one another. While it is true that many Indonesians speak Indonesian, not everyone does. Some people, especially older Indonesians, speak only their regional language. In my ibu’s case that meant Javanese. On the island of Java there are two main regional languages spoken. Javanese, and Sundanese. Javanese is mostly spoken in East and Central Java. Sundanese is predominantly spoken in West Java, where I will be teaching. There are also pockets of Balinese (near Bali), Madurese (near Madura), and Malay (in Jakarta). All of which are also on Java.
The Indonesian language was developed from Malay and adopted as the language of Indonesia to help bind the vast archipelago together. Despite bahasa Indonesia’s great unifying effects it has yet to find its way onto the tongue of every Indonesian.
All this brings us back to ibu Jawa saya (my Javanese ibu). I asked several questions of my host sibilings to confirm that the reason I wasn’t able to talk to my host mother was because I wasn’t speaking the right language. After laughing for at least a minute about my obliviousness, this epiphany settled in and I became much more relaxed about not being able to speak to my ibu. She understands some Indonesian, but she only speaks Javanese. So now I use what little Javanese I can, keep my Indonesian pretty simple and we get along very well.