During expatriation to Doha and Abu Dhabi, a language barrier wasn’t something that featured highly on the list of priorities/ obstacles to be overcome. I never considered learning to speak Arabic. Of course there are a few Arabic words that one cannot fail to pick up on, Hamdullah meaning ‘Thank God’, Mafi meaning ‘I don’t know’ and Inshalla meaning ‘God willing’. Incidentally all three suggesting indifference and the lazy faith in a greater force more than personal accountability.
Outside of these three words, it never occurred to me to speak Arabic, on the contrary, subconsciously I made an conscious effort not to, on the grounds that most of the everyday workers, e.g. taxi drivers, shop assistants, nurses, doctors etc. were non-Arabic and along with their native Sri Lanka, Indian, Bangladeshi and Filipino dialects, they were able to speak get-by English, because they had to. Any Arabs that did work, did so in a professional capacity and spoke a little English, others didn’t seem concerned whether they communicated with expats or not and they all had an expressive and rather gruff body language that was capable of breaking through any language barrier. Equally arrogant I stood stoic in my stance not to meet them halfway, even if they had been willing. So happily going about life in the Middle East living in a tidy expat bubble, I never needed to extend my linguistic capacity beyond English.
Arriving in Jakarta, Indonesia I planned to hold tight to my belief, I had no desire to learn another language particularly after my experience of learning French, when I spent five years studying for the Leaving Cert to no avail. Luckily in the end, my cunning outdid my linguistic capacity and at the last minute I decided to take the honours French paper, cleverly deciding it would be better to fail an honours paper than to fail a pass. My plan worked, I failed honourably and today am left with just three words, ‘Bonjour, Je m’appelle Denise’, like an impaired stroke survivor, these three words are my only offering to the French Language.
The weeks passed and I greeted all of Indonesia with a gormless smile. Locals politely said, ‘Salamat Pagi’ or ‘Salamat tinggal’ I replied sweetly ‘Thank You’ to every comment. I point out at this stage that expats receive a special welcome from locals and Indonesians are more than eager to please the whims of expats. I also learned that you should never ask a supermarket assistant for dilutable orange squash, pate or cheerio’s, they will go to the ends of aisles to please despite having no idea what you’re talking about. I also learned that the electricity, water, internet and telephone bill are all written in Bahasa Indonesian so trying to determine the pay date, due date and imminent cut-off date is impossible with basic understanding of Bahasa, the language spoken in Indonesia. Finally after 10 weeks of pointing and nodding, ordering fish head instead of fillet of chicken and trying to post Christmas cards in the European Embassy, I conceded that maybe in a city of fifteen million Indonesians it would be handy to learn one or two useful Bahasa words.
The difference between being an expat in the Middle East and Indonesia being that in Jakarta you have to communicate, rely on and have to talk to Indonesians every day. So I put ‘Learning Bahasa Indonesian’ on my 2014 resolution list, near the bottom, after ‘lose 8lbs’ and ‘give up sugar in tea’.
New Year’s Day and another ‘situation’ had arisen, I punched out the generic New Year’s text only to discover I had run out of phone credit and needed to top up. Unable to read Bahasa I was unable to do so online and so the only effective method of topping up was to call the driver to take me to a Telesomething shop. Handing over my precious iPhone 4, (it had suddenly become precious again since all hints as a Christmas present of the iPhone 5 had fallen on deaf ears) I said to the girl, ‘credit please’. I didn’t know my own number, I didn’t know the name for credit and I didn’t know what network I was with. When she took a flat head screwdriver to the side of the phone it was then the urgency to learn basic Bahasa soared to the top of the New Year’s Resolution List. Note to all: If living in Indonesia, ‘LEARN BAHASA because you have to’.