Posts Tagged ‘penjor’

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More Phallic Language Pitfalls

May 5, 2013

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.

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Tradisi – Women Working Without Weeping

January 30, 2012

My young breakfast waitress comes over to the table. It’s only 9:30 am, but her face already shows more than the normal strain of  the breakfast rush. Her eyes are underlined by dark semi-circles and she looks drawn and weary. Actually, she looks exhausted.

“Big party last night?” asks yours truly, Mr. Sensitive, before remembering that she is a traditional Balinese girl. Parties, at least those of the type familiar to most of us Westerners,  are just not her scene. I’d also forgotten that the staff at that restaurant normally do an afternoon shift ending at 11pm, followed the next day with a morning shift starting at 7 am. That sort of load is gruelling under normal circumstances, but for a Balinese woman, it is even more taxing at this time of the year.

“Oh no! No party!” she says, scandalised. “After work, I have many things to get ready for Galungan.” This, of course, is one of the big ceremonial occasions of the Balinese religious and cultural calendar. She tells me that she did not finish all her Galungan duties until late and finally went to sleep at 3:30 am – only to get up two hours later to start her work day.

I am stunned. “But you have a job, and you finish so late at night …”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I am a Balinese girl; this is what I have to do, even if I have a job.”

It is no surprise that there is a great deal of preparation for the many ceremonies in Bali, but I had always been under the impression that all members of familial and community groups shared the load – men and women alike. Apparently this is not so. Balinese women, by long-standing conservative tradition, appear to undertake the bulk of the responsibility for preserving and safeguarding Balinese Hinduism, including a central role in all rituals and ceremonies.

Despite men being the visible administrators and spokesmen for Balinese religion, they play little part in the religious education of their children. This is a role reserved for women, who pass the torch of essential rituals on to the next generation. Of course, women are the home-makers too. In most cases they are responsible for provision and preparation of food and in fact, for all the home comforts expected by the members of extended family groups. Most money matters are handled by women as well, as is the children’s education, payment of school fees and hand-crafting of the daily ceremonial offerings. Tradition demands not only that women passively accept what life dishes out in Bali, but that they take pride in their contribution without questioning it. Should an outsider suggest that exploitation is taking place, he is met with expressions of shock and disbelief – from women as well as men.

What is difficult to fathom is that, as women assume more and more important roles in the Balinese economy with their participation in the workforce, their demanding traditional roles have not changed at all. The time-consuming home-making, religious and ritualistic duties have not diminished one iota. It is considered perfectly normal for women such as my exhausted waitress to work two back-to-back shifts and spend the intervening ‘rest’ period doing her ceremonial ‘duties’. Feminism has not yet made inroads into Bali life.

And what are the husbands, fathers, brothers and male cousins of these working women doing? Well, in all fairness, some are working at jobs too, but at least they get to relax after finishing work. Many get to relax during their jobs too, if the countless sleeping taxi drivers clustered around warungs and shacks in peak periods is any indication. But I see huge numbers of layabout men engaged in nothing more strenuous than smoking and gossiping  in those endless male bonding rituals on street corners and outside Bali’s ubiquitous Mini-Marts. How many of them will be assisting their female family members with their traditional ‘women’s duties’ after work? Oh wait, they can’t – it’s prevented by ‘tradition’ – and there’s probably a good cock-fight or game of pool to shoot anyway.

So I ask my waitress, “Do the men do anything to prepare for Galungan?” “Oh yes”, she says quickly, “They make the penjors, and … well, they make the penjors.” She explains that the penjor – a tall, curved bamboo pole heavily decorated with coconut leaves – needs construction skills which are only possessed by the men. “So do the men help with any other preparations for ceremonies?” I ask.

She visibly struggles with her feelings, and says with a mixture of pride and regret, “No, not really. We are women, it is what we have to do …” There is an unspoken ‘but’ at the end of her sentence. I can see she is torn between her acceptance of tradition and the questions that inevitably arise as her society wrestles with looming modernity. She is starting to think about gender roles, about imbalances, and about fairness.

She stays silent for a minute, but what I hear is the first subterranean creaking of a seismic shift in one woman’s awareness. Then, out of the blue, she says, “Do you believe in re-incarnation?” I tell her that I don’t.

“Well, I do”, she says pensively, and pauses again. “I think, next time, I want to come back as a man.”