So as I painfully and slowly add to my meagre Indonesian vocabulary, I discover yet another trap for the unwary practitioner with limited knowledge of local languages.
Whenever I discover a new word, I try to sneak it in to the conversation in order to demonstrate my evolving mastery. Most of the time, I get baffled looks, because I’m either using it in the wrong context, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong situation. I still mix up harga and ongkos – to me, it’s all ‘price’.
Or I mix up words that sound similar to me, such as jempol (thumb), jemput (pick up) and jembat (bridges), resulting in such inane requests as “where is the nearest thumb across the river?” Or “What time do you want me to bridge you?”
Of course, these gaffes pale into insignificance when I accidentally use jembut instead of one of the three above. Then there is the prospect of real trouble on Facebook, where Indonesians refer to a “like” quite logically as a “thumb”, often responding to a ‘like’ with “Thanks for the thumb”. You should have seen the hysteria I caused the first time I mistakenly used jembut instead of jempol, because basically what I wrote was “Thanks for the pubic hair”. Awkward.
The soft consonants at the end of Indonesian words give my bule vocal apparatus grief too, particularly with slang. Don’t try telling someone that you are very broke (bokek), because with poor enunciation, it may well come out as bokep. What you have actually said is “I am extremely pornographic”. Even more awkward. And don’t even get me started on the confusingly similar words for ‘gecko’, ‘breast’ and ‘shit’ – these are all too hard and should probably be avoided altogether.
Never mind; it’s slowly coming together. But every so often I still drop a clanger, even if I think I have checked word meanings carefully before experimenting with them in public.
So my Balinese waitress asks me if I would like dessert after a good meal, and I reply “Tidak makasih, aku sudah ada kenyang“, intending to say “No thanks, I’m already full“. Kenyang is, of course, my new word of the day. I attribute the stifled giggle that follows to my awful pronunciation. She rushes off and returns with another waitress, who asks me the same question, and gets the same reply. They both collapse in giggles. I think I’m being set up here.
It turns out that the word ‘kenyang’, which does mean ‘full’ in Bahasa Indonesia, has a completely different meaning in Bahasa Bali, and what I have so earnestly been saying to these Balinese is “No thanks, I already have an erection.” Kill me now.
Later – too late, naturally – a friend tells me that to avoid confusion, I should say ‘kenyang Java’, or ‘kenyang Bali’. I think I’ll pass on that suggestion; I can’t think of any occasion in a restaurant where I would need the tumescent version of that word …
But it’s not just us foreigners that get challenged by unexpected meanings. My delightful assistant, not being Balinese, commented one morning on all the penjors in my street – those tall, drooping ceremonial structures made of bamboo. She didn’t know what they were called, so she said, ”Wow! Your neighbour has a … um, a really big bamboo!”
I laughed, which was a tad insensitive of me, and which disconcerted her. So I played her the classic old calypso ditty ‘Big Bamboo’ on YouTube. After she listened to the bawdy lyrics – and giggled a lot when she understood what ‘Big Bamboo’ actually meant - she said solemnly, “I will NEVER use those words again.”
I know exactly how she feels.