I have traumatic memories of learning Mandarin Chinese as a child.
My parents enrolled me in Mandarin classes at a neighborhood Chinese community center during my grade school years. From the onset, my brain struggled to comprehend grammar, memorize vocabulary and master calligraphic strokes to create words.
I started in a classroom at a proficiency level below my age group, and then it was further evidence of my inabilities when I was held back—not once, but twice. I became the giant in class. I was surrounded by children—sweet, but annoyingly adept at learning Mandarin faster than I was.
20 years later, even after taking formal courses in university, I never managed to reach a level of fluency.
In hindsight, I recognize it was self-consciousness that inhibited my ability to learn Mandarin freely. I was self-conscious being the oldest in class. I was self-conscious to sound like a fool. I was self-conscious for not being fluent after all these years.
To this day, whenever I’m prompted to speak Mandarin, my heart rate increases, I feel slightly panicked and look for exits.
Aren’t those signs of a phobia?
Now I am embarking on a cross-country journey in search of Indonesian wild plants, traveling to villages that harvest them and living with families that use them. And it is a guarantee none of the people I meet will understand a word of English.
There is no better time to overcome my fear of learning languages.
I heard Bahasa Indonesia was an easy language to learn. Several friends picked it up after three to six months under complete immersion and no formal classes. Was I capable of that too? Considering my history with Mandarin, I wasn’t so sure but I would give it a try. After all these years, I knew better than to let self-consciousness get in the way again.
Bahasa Indonesia is a simple language. There is no conjugation of verbs like in Spanish or French and the grammar structure is rudimentary. A sentence like, “I went to the market yesterday,” translates as, “Saya pergi ke pasar kemarin.” In English the literal translation is, “I go to market yesterday.”
But contrary to popular belief, Bali is not an ideal place to learn Bahasa Indonesia. Because of the tourism industry, the majority of locals can speak English at a comprehensive level. To put visitors at ease, hospitality staff will always speak English first. Often, when I start a conversation in Bahasa Indonesia, the staff will switch to English once they catch on I am not a native speaker. Then it becomes a bizarre, verbal tug-of-war.
Staff: “Just speak English. I can speak English.”
Me: “Tidak! Saya harus latihan. Saya mau bicara Bahasa.”
For the past two months, I gave self-taught Bahasa Indonesia a try and succeeded to some level—introductions, numbers, colors, fruits and vegetables, directions. But for the purpose of this project, I need to progress beyond the basics. While traveling, I want to be able to ask a range of questions to gather as much information as possible.
“What’s in this dish? Where can you find that?”
“Can you take me to where you see it?”
“How do you harvest it? How does it grow?”
“Tell me what you do with it. Can you show me?”
I have less than three months before my first trip, and before I allow my Bahasa Indonesia to languish like my Mandarin Chinese, I started lessons with a private tutor this week and coerced my Indonesian friends to converse with me in Bahasa. To give this project a fighting chance to be as meaningful as it can be, I need to make learning the language my friend, not foe.
I know I will not become fluent in the next few months, even with the help of a tutor, but I should be equipped with enough skills to sustain myself at the start. And if not—well, the basic human instinct to survive on the road will be my best motivator yet.
There are many objectives I hope to accomplish with ASLI FOOD PROJECT—the research, a resource for people across multiple fields to reference, and a heightened awareness of Indonesian wild plants. But as a personal goal, speaking Bahasa Indonesia may be the highlight.
And then I’ll keep working on my Mandarin.