Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Language is One's Fundamental Right.

I've been interested in reading a blog post from a friend in Europe, he was asking others' opinion on the year 2008. The year 2008 has various significant meanings. I'm mostly interested in the topic of language together with the global communication and the internet. On the 21st February 2008 we were also celebrating the International Mother Language Day. On this special occasion I'd like to share my personal view on languages.

The designation of 2008 as the International Year of Languages is an acknowledgement of the importance of cultural diversity in the world. Prof. Dr. Fuad Hasan, a former Indonesian minister of education, in "Translation and Cultural Dialogue" (a book as a proceeding of the FIT 5th Asian Translators' Forum) noted: “Cultural diversity should not be seen a source of chaotic updating of human culture; it should not lead towards a confusion comparable to the Tower of Babel. Cultural diversity is indeed providing the matrix of creative diversity. A universal and monolithic culture of mankind is unthinkable.”

Translation itself is a work of cultural understanding: one must also have an understanding of the cultural background to be able to translate literary works while preserving their contextual background.

I happened to learn this through Centre Culturel Français (CCF) in Jakarta. The way we learned French was also through the presentation of French culture. As a cultural centre CCF provides the necessary communication between Indonesian culture and French culture. Perhaps all cultural centres work that way with regard to the host country, but I’m noting the one that is close to my own experience. Knowledge of the inner workings of a language facilitates textual translation in its own context.

"By respecting the right to everyone’s language, we observe one of the most fundamental rights": the expression is so true. Perhaps a view from Indonesia can reveal how the act of “erasing one’s fundamental right” can be.

I know that managing a very big country like Indonesia is difficult, with a population of more than 234 million, and a huge diversity of cultural backgrounds. Indonesia consists of about 300 ethnic groups, with 742 local languages and dialects. In addition, one cannot neglect the complex inheritance that came through migration and mixed marriages, like Indian culture, Chinese culture, Arabic culture, or European culture.

Colonialism brought its own features of feudalism to Indonesia. Prior to that, native Indonesians did have a strong hierarchical social structure from king to slave, but colonialism introduced race as a social factor. Caucasians had higher social status, and the "imported" Chinese were also given a more enviable status than the indigenous peoples from the archipelago.

It would be a long tale to tell if we were to cover the whole story. Actually, I had started off wanting to write about the effect of globalization on the internet era, in which English is developing into a global language. But the death of my former president, H.M. Soeharto, made my mind wander into another story.

The fear of communism and the supposed ties between Indonesians of Chinese origin ("Chinese Indonesians"), and the Peoples' Republic of China, prompted the "New Order" to ban all Chinese-related culture in Indonesia. Even Chinese names were changed into Indonesian names. Books in Chinese characters were banned. Cultural events, like the Chinese lion dance for the Chinese New Year, were also forbidden.

At the time, I did not really consider this treatment as unfair, because I did not feel directly concerned. My father’s parents spoke Dutch but their offspring spoke the Makasarese dialect. My mother’s parents spoke Makasarese dialect at home, although they can speak in their own Chinese dialects. Yet, they all were obliged to change their names.

For me, getting an Indonesian name was rather nice, as it preserved me from bullying due to a name. Those friends with “three-syllable-names” (made of three Chinese ideograms) were sometimes mocked at. To tell the truth, I sometimes did experience discomfort because of our new family name chosen by my father. This explains why I am reluctant to use my family name in full.

The problem had to do with different ways of viewing "Chinese Indonesians". One perspective was to assimilate, while the other was to integrate. The "New Order" chose only one way, which was assimilation. Assimilation is actually the term used for mixed marriage between native Indonesian and the Chinese migrants. The product of such marriage called Peranakan. Peranakan has their own mixed culture, combining the Chinese culture with local culture. It was easier for young “Peranakan” like me (I restrict this to the “young” as I do not know how my grandmother’s generation felt about this), but it was extremely difficult for those Totok who used Chinese as their mother tongue dialect at home. People said that the Peranakan's ancestors came to the archipelago earlier than the ancestors of those we called as Totok. (For more reading, see Chinese Indonesian). Totok are usually associated with those who are still connected to the pure Chinese culture (mostly through the usage of Chinese dialects). I am not really expert on this term, but I saw that some Totok family also had mixed marriage, but their offspring belong to the Chinese tradition.

It is a bit different with Peranakan culture. I remember that my big family was once had a family reunion where we was split into two big groups, one group is where the member of the group could speak Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese, while the other group used Bahasa Indonesia and Makasarese as their tools of communication. My ancestors were sailors (or traders, perhaps in both ways) who went to the archipelago. Now we are even more diverse than before. Three of my cousins married to Americans, another cousin married to a Frenchman. I think this "universal family" is not exclusively belong to Peranakan in Indonesia, but it is the trend of the more global world.

I remember times when we had guests from Singapore. My Mom who was educated in Chinese speaks Mandarin, but was hesitant: she would try out her Chinese with the guests at home, but not in public, so gradually her language ability was deteriorated.

Perhaps the strongest influence on me lies in my unconscious mind. I could not learn Mandarin nor any Chinese dialects. At the same time, the native Makasarese would not consider me as one of their tribal community. As a result, I belong only to Indonesia with the special code for "Indonesian with Chinese cultural heritage" typed on my ID Card (this used to be the case, even after the "Reformation", but I don’t really know if it is still in practice). My husband comes from a Totok family. We've been married for eleven years, but even with the long period of togetherness I've not been able to learn his (Chinese) dialect. His sister, married to an Australian, has a better luck, her husband can now understand bahasa Indonesia and Chinese dialect, and now she also speaks English. When they met, their only language of communication was love!

Until very recently, I was not aware that my inclination for foreign languages was driven by an unconscious requirement. Reflecting on my past, I see a pattern: I learned English and French, I tried German, I was fascinated by Japanese, tried to learn the old lontara scriptures from Makasarese language, but was never able to remember the simple Chinese words used in the Indonesian market like “Go ceng, Ce tiau", etc. I’ve come across the same astonished look I got from Koreans in Seoul when they thought I was Korean: “You’ve got the face of a Korean. It couldn’t be … How come you can’t speak the language?!” That was probably the same unspoken question I got here in the Chinatown in Jakarta. While in Seoul I had the benefit of immediate translation by a Korean friend, but here in Jakarta I failed to get a good deal because of my inability to speak the Chinese dialect.

I was lucky because my father had some native Indonesian friends endowed with political awareness. They introduced Indonesian history in a more objective perspective. They acknowledged my complex cultural position and helped me view all this from another angle. One of them, a Muslim educated in a Catholic school, told me: “I know your religion through your Bible at school, but that doesn’t make me a Christian. I can become a more devoted Muslim by enriching my views.” I think I found the same expression in Kartini’s letters. I am lucky to be a bookworm! Books help me ventured into cultures and languages. By being open to others' cultures, learning their languages, helps enhancing my own patriotism as an Indonesian without being torn by prejudices. Foreign languages help me to see through other points of view.

The era of reformation brought more freedom to Indonesians. The new trend now is teaching English and Chinese language in school (mostly through private institutions, providing a national or an international curriculum). Every year more and more international schools are established. Children get in touch earlier with foreign languages. I'm happy that my sons are now studying English and Chinese language, but I still think we have to enhance our own national language and be proud to use our local languages. There's much local wisdom that were inherited orally, and that should also be preserved.

The way Indonesian approach the International Year of Languages is also very different. I can't find any information on activities concerning this event (probably because the year 2008 has just begun), but I can already see how important it is for the Centre Culturel Français (CCF). In their three-monthly publication "Voilà" they've mentioned the UN resolution to attract more students to their language classes. They tried to make people aware of the beauty of a language, to provide access to other cultures, all of which makes contributes to the enrichment of the individual. A language is not preserved only for those who inherit the corresponding culture, but is now a global asset. Celebrating the International year of languages is a way of rejoicing in the variety of colours we do have and to enhance our being in the global world, without losing our own fundamental rights.


JJS said...

Dear Retty,

this is indeed a very interesting article:

- it was prompted by a global event (2008 declared "International Year of Languages" by the UN), but you provide insight into the complex case of Indonesia, which is so representative of the worldwide challenge of cultural and linguistic variety;

- it is also based on your personal experience of the recent history of your country (to me, this is perhaps the most valuable aspect of an article by a "citizen journalist");

- one feature of your article is of special value: the recent awareness that your interest in languages may go back to your early childhood, when to cope having to cope with several competing idioms and customs. Indeed, language and culture are an important part of one's identity and personality.

I'm sure readers will find, in your testimony, a reminder of their own experience.

Thank you for this fine page.


m lim said...

Very interesting point(s) and interesting story you shared too.

I do think to understand and respect other cultures (more than recognize or just know) one needs to develop intercultural competence which not only requires the acquisition of attitudes but also skill and knowledge, including linguistic knowledge. Mastering the language (more languages) indeed open up many possible paths to the learning processes in understanding other cultures (or even religions).

You're indeed lucky to be exposed to many languages!!

As for your story about 'chinese indonesian' and/or peranakan Cina.... I had no experience being exposed to Chinese at all. And as I'd ever written somewhere in my blog, in essence I am not really Chinese Indonesian -- I am mixed of the many but was born in Indonesia so I am Indonesian. My parents didn't speak the language (only one out of four my grandparents spoke Chinese). Sundanese and Indonesian are my mother tongue. I had no experience being exposed to any foreign language, except for 2 hours/week lame English classes in high school like most Indonesians experienced. So, my exposure to English is still recent.

But still, my being bilingual, fully fluent (I speak/write decent Sundanese) in two mother tongues helped me in learning other language.

Retty N. Hakim said...

Jean-Jacques, thank you for giving me the idea about the year 2008, and for all your kind assistance! J'adore votre blog bilingue...

Mer, thank you for your comment. The fact that you are not Chinese but bearing the Chinese name made me curious in how you were dealing with it. I had a friend, Javanese by her father's blood, a devoted Moslem too, but got bullied as Chinese because of her Japanese face inherited from her mom.

My mother tongue are Indonesian and Makasarese but as I moved in my early elementary years and grew up here in Jakarta I did not get the chance to explore into "lontara" writing. And my accent became so Betawi (the Jakartanese dialect) that I sometimes doubted my own fluency in speaking the language...he...he...he...

My parents, even when they are speaking in Bahasa Indonesia, can be traced back as Makasarese because of their accent.

mer said...

it was tough to be different -- I'd tell the story someday. i do have some Chinese blood, but I also have some other blood. my great grandpa who inherited the last name Lim was orang Sunda asli (adopted by Chinese), but he married peranakan. so, it was weird to be WNI keturunan with that kind of traces! but anyway, now I enjoy my different look (mixed look) and my easy last name!

hey, you should teach me Makasarese... or write one blog posting in Makasarese... I am curious on how fluent you are... haha (kidding)...

Retty N. Hakim said...

He..he...he...pakabajiki Mer...tena tongji nuisengngi apa kukana...

I lack the writing skill Mer, my grandma can write in that "lontara" script writing (like the ancient Javanese or Sanskrit scriptures).

I used to tell story that my Chinese ancestors were seven generations before me..he...he...he...It's actually depending on the paternalistic hierarchy. Some of my family belong to the "Indigenous Indonesian" because their father are native Indonesian (he..he..he...but destiny gave me a spouse that is totally different from the prince charming in my dream, yet he was too nice to be neglected).